Pope’s 10th encyclical reaffirms moral teaching
The popular notion is that the pro-life movement is predominantly Catholic and Canadian Catholics are solidly pro-life. But as experienced pro-lifers will say, both these generalities can be misleading. Many of the most active pro-lifers in the country come from other denominations or from no church at all. And if this federal election showed anything, it is that many in the Catholic Church are confused about the relevance of pro-life values in the way they vote and think about the world.
Intending to “dispel the crippling confusion” which people feel about “fundamental questions of good and evil, right and wrong,” Pope John Paul II has clearly reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s traditional moral teaching with the release of his tenth encyclical, Veritatis Splendor.
The theme of the document, which is addressed to the Catholic Bishops throughout the world, comes as no surprise as detail had been leaking out months before its official release on October 5. Speculation that it would reaffirm the Church’s traditional moral theology proved correct as the Pope laid out the truth in the face of a hostile world, and to critics both inside and outside the Catholic Church.
“People today need to turn to Christ once again in order to receive from Him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil,” the Pope states in the document.
The encyclical, literally the Splendour of Truth, is timed to complement the recently released Catechism of the Catholic Church and is an explanation of the moral theology taught there. It is a deeply biblical text which says there is an objective reality which is found in the light of Christ and revealed fully in His Church. The Pope meditates on natural law, the innate knowledge of what is good and evil, which he says is written in every human heart. The Church, he says, reveals what is already “inscribed in our hearts” and as such isn’t imposing something from the outside. To promote real morality is to promote being fully human and this is true freedom.
The Pope, himself a moral theologian, says that in the current age the Church’s moral teaching is under attack in an unprecedented way. He considers it necessary for all people to reflect on the Catholic moral teaching “which, in the present circumstances risk being distorted or denied.”
The distortion and denial of Catholic moral teaching date back to the release of the last encyclical dealing with moral theology, Humanae Vitae. This document reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching about the family and human life. At the time, Pope Paul VI predicted, correctly it turns out, that families and society would suffer as a result of widespread use of contraceptives and a change in the understanding of marriage and the family. Theologians from around the world immediately dissented from the Pope’s 1968 encyclical. The public dissent, combined with the secularization of the culture and the reluctance of many in the Church to teach Humanae Vitae, caused the majority of Catholics to turn away from the moral teachings of their religion.
“It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent,” the Pope states, “but an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions.”
The root of these presuppositions is the “influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth.” The encyclical seeks to set forth “the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living apostolic tradition and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met.”
In presenting the encyclical, he says “it is my intention to state the principles necessary for discerning what is contrary to ‘sound doctrine,’ drawing attention to those elements of the Church’s moral teaching which today appear particularly exposed to error, ambiguity or neglect.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says Veritatis Splendor confronts the “abyss of relativism” which today’s world is mired in. “The moral question has become, more clearly than ever before, the question of mankind’s survival,” the Cardinal said at a news conference after its release.
The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the encyclical “reaffirms the teaching of the Church. It does not break new ground,” said Bishop Jean-Guy Hamelin.
Archbishop Adam Exner, the most active and consistent defender of human life among his fellow Canadian bishops, gave a strong public defence of the encyclical. He told the Toronto Star that the encyclical says “there are moral absolutes which are universally valid and unchangeable, and there are some intrinsically evil acts.”
These intrinsically evil acts, outlined again by Veritatis Splendor, include homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and voluntary suicide. They include “whatever violates the integrity of the human person” and “whatever is offensive to human dignity.” The Pope reaffirms the teaching of Pope Paul VI who said of contraceptive practices that even if they are used with a good intention, such as the welfare of a family or society, if they contradict the moral order they “must therefore be judged unworthy of man.”
He told some American bishops visiting him in Rome recently that the encyclical is a defence of human dignity.
“By ensuring that the basic truths of the church’s moral teaching are clearly taught, we are offering a reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person, a correct understanding of conscience, which is the only solid basis for the right exercise of human freedom, and a foundation for living together in solidarity and civic harmony.”
Fr. Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight and a national pro-life leader, considers the document an important bulwark for pro-life activities in this country. He says the encyclical “confirms the basic principle on which Canadian pro-lifers have been acting since 1968; there is no freedom without truth.”
He adds the Catholic Church has always has always argued “that truth exists, that it is knowable, and that is it expressed in objective moral standards to be adhered to by everybody.
“Freedom cannot survive without truth,” de Valk says. “Pro-lifers should never allow themselves to be discouraged proclaiming this from the rooftops.”
The encyclical also receives praise from non-Catholics in the pro-life movement. They say it represents the Christian leadership which is essential to mobilize the churches in Canada.
Jack Baribeau, a Christian not affiliated with a particular church, and the head of Campaign Life Coalition London, calls the Pope’s statement “timely.” He says it could be a trend among Canadian Christians.
“A lot of churches are beginning to wake up and see the overall effect on society by their inactivity in the past,” he said.
Betty Green, a former Lutheran, and head of Vancouver Right to Life, says without the support of Catholics the pro-life movement will get nowhere. She says the fact that there is no law respecting life in Canada does not mean the pro-life movement failed.
“We did the best we could to keep the issue alive,” she says. “The churches failed to convince the people that killing is wrong.” She adds it is encouraging to see “the Pope is very strongly adamantly pro-life.”