At the end of the introduction to his encyclical letter on moral theology, Pope John Paul II lays out clearly the purpose of the document he is presenting.
4. At all times, but particularly in the last two centuries, the Popes, whether individually or together with the College of Bishops, have developed and proposed a moral teaching regarding the many different spheres of human life. In Christ’s name and with his authority they have exhorted, passed judgment and explained. In their efforts on behalf of humanity, in fidelity to their mission, they have confirmed, supported and consoled. With the guarantee of assistance from the Spirit of truth they have contributed to a better understanding of moral demands in the areas of human sexuality, the family, and social, economic and political life. In the tradition of the Church and in the history of humanity, their teaching represents a constant deepening of knowledge with regard to morality.8
Today, however, it seems necessary to reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching, with the precise goal of recalling certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine which, in the present circumstances, risk being distorted or denied. 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. In particular, the question is asked: do the commandments of God, which are written on the human heart and are part of the Covenant, really have the capacity to clarify the daily decisions of individuals and entire societies? Is it possible to obey God and thus love God and neighbour, without respecting these commandments in all circumstances? Also, an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the Church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behaviour could be tolerated, these being left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts.
The key thing to notice here is that the letter is not intended as a consideration of one or more “hot button” moral issues that need to be addressed at the present time. Instead, the letter takes a bird’s-eye view of overarching principles of morality that are being ignored, distorted or denied, even within Christianity, as a result of “numerous doubts and objections of a human and psychological, social and cultural, religious and even properly theological nature.”
Twenty-five years after the release of Humanae Vitae, the Pope recognizes a pattern of dissent which is “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions.” In other words, although it might seem, on the surface of things, that just one or more of the Church’s teachings about the moral life are being questioned, the stakes are actually much higher: some of the very building blocks of the Church’s moral teachings are being removed. Wittingly or unwittingly, some ethicists, theologians, and even teachers in seminaries have been playing Jenga with the structure of the Church’s moral teaching. Rather than waiting for the whole structure to collapse due to a weakened foundation, the Pope is proactively analyzing, clarifying and reasserting certain foundational principles in order to preserve the building’s integrity.
He identifies the core issue as “currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth.” Then he lists particular manifestations of this malaise: rejection of the doctrine of natural law, wholesale rejection of certain moral teachings, and a redefinition of the Church’s role as it relates to moral decisions made by individuals. He also notices a tendency among some to consider shared teaching on matters of faith as sufficient to the Church’s unity… as if differing views on moral teaching would not impact communion in the Church.
5. Given these circumstances, which still exist, I came to the decision — as I announced in my Apostolic Letter Spiritus Domini, issued on 1 August 1987 on the second centenary of the death of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori — to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating “more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology,”9 foundations which are being undermined by certain present day tendencies.
I address myself to you, Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, who share with me the responsibility of safeguarding “sound teaching” (2 Tim 4:3), with the intention of clearly setting forth certain aspects of doctrine which are of crucial importance in facing what is certainly a genuine crisis, since the difficulties which it engenders have most serious implications for the moral life of the faithful and for communion in the Church, as well as for a just and fraternal social life.
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. The Catechism presents the moral life of believers in its fundamental elements and in its many aspects as the life of the “children of God”: “Recognizing in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life ‘worthy of the Gospel of Christ’ (Phil 1:27). Through the sacraments and prayer they receive the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit which make them capable of such a life.”10 Consequently, while referring back to the Catechism “as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine,”11 the Encyclical will limit itself to dealing with certain fundamental questions regarding the Church’s moral teaching, taking the form of a necessary discernment about issues being debated by ethicists and moral theologians. The specific purpose of the present Encyclical is this: to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition,12 and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met.
The Pope reveals that this encyclical has been in the works for at least six years, since he already referred to it in his 1987 apostolic letter. Why the wait? One reason is because he wanted to present it after the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which would provide authoritative, systematic teaching on the moral life and address many particular questions.
(NOTE: I gave an overview of the Church’s vision of the moral life, as presented in the Catechism, during an RCIA Hollywood class in the spring of 2008. If you listen to the audio podcast from this class, the discussion about the moral life begins about 17 minutes into the audio.)
In my next post, I’ll begin examining the Pope’s beautiful scriptural meditation on the dialogue of the rich young man with Jesus in Matthew 19.