the purpose of Veritatis Splendor

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.


a moral theologian says to himself, “hmm… I think we could do without this particular understanding of natural law…”

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.

Father Cantalamessa on Pentecost and the love of God

Back in January of 2008, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, preacher to the papal household, gave two talks in Los Angeles at a gathering of the SCRC about Pentecost and loving the Church.

I’ve posted the first of the two talks as an audio podcast. Here’s an excerpt:

Last year, in England, there was a consultation of all the charismatic renewal in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, to make a balance of the first forty years of the charismatic renewal, and in preparation for this consultation, a survey was distributed with many questions. One of the questions was: “What do you think has been the greatest blessing the charismatic renewal has brought to your life?” Well, the answer, almost unanimous, was the love of God. “For the first time, I discovered what it means to be son of God / daughter of God.” And any time I myself have an occasion to meet people who have received the baptism in the Spirit, I ask them, “What remains to you after years of this experience?” Usually the most common answer is the love of God. The love of God.

This is the miracle of miracles. Usually we are looking for miracles, but this is the greatest miracle: God loving us. When we know, at least a little, who God is and who we are, this is the greatest miracle. And it’s difficult to believe. Apparently, this is the most easy thing to believe. But on the contrary, very few people reach this position of really believing that God loves them… personally, eternally, in such a way that we have no idea. So Pentecost, my dear brothers and sisters, should be this: a rediscovery of the love of God for us. We are more preoccupied with how we love God, but this comes later.

One of the most important contributions of the charismatic renewal to the whole theology of the Church is precisely to restoring this order. Before the commandments, before the duties, comes grace — the gift. This shows the essential difference between Christianity and any other religion or religious philosophy. Any religion starts telling people what they must do to reach the final goal (nirvana, and so on.) Christianity doesn’t begin by telling people what they must do. It begins by telling what God has done for them. Grace!

Somebody could say, “Yes, but isn’t the first and most important commandment this: ‘You must love your God with all your soul and all your strength?'” Yes, this is the highest commandment. But the order of commandments is not the first order, it’s the second one. Before the order of commandments, there is the level or the order of gift: grace. And we have contributed to this rediscovery which is the secret of making evangelization effective nowadays. The power of Christianity is grace.

The whole talk is worth a listen. You can download the talk directly to your browser here, or subscribe to my feed using iTunes, or simply look up the episode on Podcast Alley.

via crucis

I remember seeing Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ for the first time at the Arclight Hollywood on Ash Wednesday of 2004. Father Willy Raymond, CSC, had offered to take the staff of Family Theater Productions after the celebration of Mass. So we all processed into the theater with ashes on our foreheads, to the bewildered stares of some. (You could see them working it out in their minds: oh, those must be the Passion groupies. People dress up like Frodo Baggins before a Lord of the Rings premiere, so this must be what the Christians do before seeing their movie…)

(c) 2003 Icon Distribution

At any rate, the film made such an impression on me that I decided to use it as my Lenten meditation: I went and saw the film every Friday of Lent that year, just as I would ordinarily pray the stations of the cross.

I had already planned to host a stations of the cross hike for young adults in the Verdugo Mountains on Palm Sunday. The day before the hike, I realized that I had no text to share with others as we prayed along the way. However, the images from Gibson’s film were etched clearly in my mind and suggested many points of meditation, so I decided to compose my own via crucis based upon the film.

I supplemented my meditations with some of my favorite quotes from various spiritual writers: Dietrich von Hildebrand, St. Josemaria Escriva, St. Ambrose of Milan, (then) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, St. Leo the Great, Karol Wojytla, St. John of the Cross, Pope John Paul II, an ancient homily on Holy Saturday, and a closing prayer from (then venerable, now blessed) John Henry Cardinal Newman.

I’ve made the resulting text available on my website in multiple formats:

PS – Another multimedia stations of the cross — much more brief (around 4 minutes long, in Flash format) — is still available on my site here. I used some music from Schindler’s List for this one, which somehow seemed appropriate. I am reminded of a quote from Hildegard Brem which the Pope includes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: “The Jews themselves are a living homily to which the Church must draw attention, since they call to mind the Lord’s suffering.”

virtual Triduum retreat

Cross_iconEaster Triduum, Holy Triduum, or Paschal Triduum is the period of three days from Holy Thursday (seen as beginning with the service of the preceding evening) to Easter Sunday. It begins with the Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends with evening prayer on Sunday. (source)

If you want to take a virtual retreat over the next few days, I’ve posted all of the audio recordings from the RCIA Hollywood program’s 2008 Triduum retreat:

The Triduum – Dr. Eric Hansen

The Stations of the Cross in Art – Dr. Eric Hansen

Good Friday at 3 PM: Miserere Mei Deus – Fr. Don Woznicki

Suffering – Barbara Nicolosi

Mary, the Bread of Life, and the Mystery of Holy Saturday – Clayton Emmer

The Last Things – Clayton Emmer

Some of the audio is not very high-quality. My apologies. It wasn’t my intention to make listening a penitential experience. I was still learning how to use my new recording equipment, and wasn’t aware of all the strategies for getting a good quality recording from a small file.

Archbishop Dolan and Father Groeschel on the HHS mandate

During the most recent episode of Fr. Groeschel’s Sunday Night Prime television show on EWTN, Archbishop (Cardinal Designate) Timothy Dolan spoke about the January 20 HHS mandate for universal coverage of contraceptive service in health insurance plans, with a very narrow religious exemption.

NOTE: The show was recorded before the February 10 announcement finalizing the mandate with modifications to place the burden of coverage on the insurance companies rather than directly on the employers.

Here are a few excerpts:

Twice [President Obama] has invited me to the Oval Office, not because of who I am as Timothy Dolan, but the first time because I was the new archbishop of New York and, just at the beginning of November, because I am now president of the [US] bishop’s conference. And he started off both of those meetings by saying, “You need to hear me say I have the highest regard for the work of the faith-based communities, particularly the Catholic Church in the United States.” In November, he said to me, “I have high regard for your work in education, healthcare, and charity. Number two, I don’t want my administration to impede that work in any way whatsoever. And number three, I consider the protection of conscience and religious liberty as one of my highest duties.”

Now when he called me on January 20th to tell me that he was not going to mitigate these strangling restrictions from HHS (Health and Human Services), I said, “Sir, can I remind you of  our — of what you told me in the Oval Office — didn’t you?” And he said, “Yes, I did.” And I said, “Can you tell me how what you’ve just told me gels with those three assurances you gave me? This is not… something’s gotta give here.”

* * *

I was asked this morning on a news program: “The White House seems to be hinting at a compromise. Are you open to a compromise?” I said, “I’m not open to a compromise. This is a huge mistake. You don’t compromise with a mistake. There’s no 50-yard line here, and you don’t compromise on principles.

I’m certainly open to an invitation towards a conciliatory approach where we would start afresh and where the President would say, “I want to make this work; how can we do it?” And I said, Father Benedict, “Darn it. He’s already got a graceful exit here.”

In the mandates themselves — which we find terribly choking and restrictive and I think are basically unconstitutional — in those mandates, guess what? The mandates themselves allow for a religious exemption. So they’ve already said, “We will grant a religious exemption.” Our problem is the exemption is so restrictive that nobody can meet up to it. You know what they’ve said? “We’ll exempt you from what we consider these immoral policies if you only hire Catholics, you only serve Catholics, and one of your major purposes is to convert people to the Catholic faith… not just Catholic, but any religion.”

We’re saying, “Wait a minute. We don’t serve people, teach people, feed people , heal people because they’re Catholic; we do it because we are. Alright? We don’t ask for baptismal certificates at the soup line down at St. Francis. Your friars don’t ask, do they?”

* * *

…They’ve already admitted that a religious exemption is called for. It’s just so strict that who can obey it? Sister Carol Keehan herself — as you know, she’s terribly disappointed because she had been cooperative with the President earlier on the healthcare stuff — she said, “Maybe a Catholic  housekeeper would fit into this.” This might apply to housekeepers in a Catholic parish. Other than that nobody’s going to comply. And Father Larry Snyder, the president of Catholic Charities USA said, “Even Jesus wouldn’t meet those requirements.” He didn’t ask for religious identification when he fed the 5,000.

But my point, Father, is that if he’s looking for a… graceful exit, he’s already admitted that an exemption is called for. Just give it latitude. And the federal government shouldn’t try to define the exemption. The federal government should simply say, “We would respect the right of religions to absent themselves from these requirements because they find them unconscionable.” Doesn’t that make sense to you?

* * *

When the President — on January 20th, when he was kind enough to call me with the disturbing news that he’s going to leave these mandates in — he says, “But Archbishop, don’t worry. We’re going to give you a year to decide how you can obey these.” And I said, “Sir, wait a minute. Be precise now. What’s the nature of this year before these mandates take effect? Does that mean we as a church can approach you for exemptions?” Now, I’d have trouble with that, because it’s not like… I mean, what have we come to: some grand government now that we have to go to them for permission to practice our faith? We’ve been through that, alright, in history, and that doesn’t work. That’s why this country was founded, to avoid that kind of stuff. I thought, “Does he mean that?” I said, “But sir, you’re saying that we’ve got a year now where there might be some opening to a wider exemption?” He said, “Oh, no no no. The mandates are going to go into effect; you’ve just got a year to figure out how you can abide by them. ” I said, “Sir, you’re telling me you’re giving me a year to figure out how to violate my conscience. Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t need a year; I need 10 seconds. We can’t do it.”

Now if this happens, and we disobey, there are fines. Father Larry Snyder of Catholic Charities USA has said that as far as he can figure out, if Catholics Charities said “We can’t obey this. We can’t supply this type of insurance to our employees and our people, that we feel would violate our conscience,” the fines for Catholic Charities alone would be $140 million dollars a year. Money that could go you know where.

Arcbishop Dolan’s account of how the President described the purpose of the one year delay doesn’t really square with how President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius described it on February 10.

President Obama:

“And that’s why, from the very beginning of this process, I spoke directly to various Catholic officials, and I promised that before finalizing the rule as it applied to them, we would spend the next year working with institutions like Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities to find an equitable solution that protects religious liberty and ensures that every woman has access to the care that she needs.”

Kathleen Sebelius:

I think what people missed is that the announcement that I made two weeks ago suggested that we were moving ahead with the exemption that had been originally drafted, but, also, we would spend time reaching out to stakeholders, to religious employers who objected to offering this coverage, and we would spend a year finding arrangements that both respected their religious liberty, but made sure at the end of the day that women employees of these institutions, whether she was a university professor or a nurse or a janitor, could make their own determination about very important preventive health care.

The full interview between Archbishop Dolan and Father Groeschel is worth a listen.

Full podcast available here.