One of the major mile markers in the field of late 20th century moral theology was Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, issued August 6, 1993. The pope cuts to the core of the apple rather quickly. In his introduction, he explains to the official recipients of the encyclical, the bishops, the need for his document in uncharacteristically sharp analysis:
[Para. 4] “In fact, a new situation has come about within the Christian community itself, which has experienced the spread of numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature, with regard to the Church's moral teachings. It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions. At the root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth. Thus, the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected; certain of the Church's moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to "exhort consciences" and to "propose values", in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices.
In particular, note should be taken of the lack of harmony between the traditional response of the Church and certain theological positions, encountered even in Seminaries and in Faculties of Theology, with regard to questions of the greatest importance for the Church and for the life of faith of Christians, as well as for the life of society itself….”
The timing of the document is explained in para. 5: If this Encyclical, so long awaited, is being published only now, one of the reasons is that it seemed fitting for it to be preceded by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains a complete and systematic exposition of Christian moral teaching.” Wikipedia provides a decent summary of the encyclical itself. The chronology of the release of the 1993 Catechism preceding Veritatis Splendor is instructive. John Paul’s intention was not to reiterate or clarify the content of Catholic morality—which the Catechism had already done—but to defend the official role of the pope and bishops as the final arbiters of moral teaching in the hierarchy of the Church. Specifically, as quoted on para. 4, there is concern that various trends and theories in the field of Catholic morality, including seminary curriculums, were undermining the eternal essence of truth. It was no longer a matter of individual teachings, as with contraception and Humanae Vitae, but an “overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine….” John Paul understood the Church’s teaching mission to include the ultimate defense of human life and freedom, and he believed that a breakdown in this Magisterial role would result in loss of comprehension of truth itself.
John Keenan writes that Veritatis Splendor is the best example of “neo-moralist theology,” (p. 128) given its adherence to the ahistorical scholastic or propositional method of moral presentation and an absence of consideration of the roles of the lives and experiences of the faithful or the goodwill contributions of moral thinkers. By contrast, Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia devotes considerable treatment to the existential challenges faced by families in the present day and a willingness to incorporate them into the Church’s mission.
The response to Veritatis Splendor was mixed, as one might imagine. There was a sizeable number of bishops and Catholics in general who welcomed a strong push of the reset button after thirty years of upheaval after the Council. In my own recollection of 1993, I seem to recall that much more attention was paid to the release and implementation of the Catechism, which many expected would bring a clarity and calm to admittedly diverse styles and theories of catechetics.
Catholic moralists themselves—who, with the bishops, were the targeted audience—responded strongly. Papal documents in the modern era do not generally single out offending individuals in any area of Catholic life. (The disciplining of errant Catholic teachers and writers is managed by the Sacred Congregation of the Faith, which does make names public if a particular writing is involved.) Thus, though in the normal language of an encyclical, the “certain theological positions” and faculties mentioned without reference by the pope in para. 4 cast a pall upon many career Catholic moralists. A common objection was the pope’s misunderstanding of what Catholic moralists were actually saying in their work. A few years before the encyclical I had the opportunity to meet the controversial Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung at Stetson University here in Central Florida. During the Q and A session, someone asked Kung his impressions of Pope John Paul II. Kung, who can be snarky, replied that the pope spent too much time in audiences with “boxers and starlets.” “I wish he would talk to his theologians once in a while.”
I think what Kung was trying to say, albeit harshly, is that the interaction of cathedral and university is not what it once was. In the middle ages the great European universities—notably the University of Paris—advised bishops, councils, and popes on the great issues of the day. Regrettably, the Vatican through much of my lifetime has taken a more adversarial stance toward the moral academic trends, and it seems to miss the truth that moral theologians are self-policing in the way that all reputable disciples are through peer review, revision, updating, etc. John Paul’s critique of “fundamental option” as a replacement for attention to the morality of individual acts is a continuation of an old debate in Catholic theology whether virtue causes good behavior or results from good behavior.
The immediate outcome of the two documents--Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism has been something of a divide in Catholic life between moral “hardliners” and “visionaries.” This is a caricature, I hasten to add. But in practice it is true that one sees in pastoral life the strict constructionists who follow the Catechism to the letter and those who hold to the old maxim in civil law, that it is impossible to legislate for every conceivable instance. There is also the issue of “loyalty to the Church” and the meaning of orthodoxy. Can one be “critically loyal,” as in the case of St. Paul who challenged St. Peter on the baptism of Gentiles?
That Pope Francis has adopted the more revisionist style of moral teaching has been a cause of considerable stress for those used to the style of Pope John Paul, but in truth what we have is a continuation of a dynamic dating back centuries: the Jesuit casuists versus the Redemptorist Probablists in the 1700’s—legal vs. pastoral approach to moral teaching—being one example. I will pick up on the particulars, including feminist and liberation influences in moral theology, the next time around, which will be in two weeks.
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