After carefully reading the pope's latest encyclical, venerable German theologian Bernard Haring said he "looked forward hopefully to leaving the church on Earth for the church in heaven." While the document doesn't produce a death-wish in everyone who reads it, many Catholic social justice activists have responded to Veritatis Splendor ("The Splendor of Truth"), the 179-page papal pronouncement on moral theology released in October, by wishing it would go away.
Catholic commentator and Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, for example, dismissed the document as a six-year effort at irrelevance, a distraction from the pressing issues of "justice, peace, and reconciliation."
But theology does matter. Christian social justice advocates do not spend enough time doing the theological reflection that is necessary to guide and sustain our action. And yet bad theology hurts people; think of the really bad theology that has propped up apartheid in South Africa or that justified slavery for so many years.
Veritatis Splendor is the first papal encyclical to address the foundations of morality. Admittedly it makes for a very slow and difficult read, and portions of it dealing with current trends in moral theology are too complex for anyone outside of the academy to fully comprehend. (The letter is written, in fact, to the "hierarchical magisterium," the bishops.) The encyclical does not focus on specific moral issues, though erroneous and premature press reports announced that it was all about the tired issue of contraception.
Nonetheless, this latest church teaching should matter to those concerned about justice. More particularly, the document needs to be examined very carefully through the lens of feminist and other liberation theologies.
In Empowering Authority, theologian Anne E. Patrick defines feminism in part as "a commitment to reform society, including...the thought systems that legitimate the present unjust social order." Veritatis Splendor deals with the conversation and controversy in the Catholic Church surrounding "thought systems." The hot debates we activists are sure to get involved in - whether on abortion or NAFTA or gays in the military - all reflect the varying moral frameworks of the participants. One person emphasizes individual rights, another responsibility to the community. Someone focuses on the pastoral issues involved, another on what is written in the Bible.
A central debate taking place within Christian ethics at the moment concerns moral decision making. Before Vatican II, Catholic moral theology meant establishing the rightness or wrongness of acts, with not much attention paid to the intentions and circumstances of the people committing the acts. With the advent of psychology and the social sciences, theologies have developed that more fully take into account the moral actor, focusing on the kind of person one is becoming in the exercise of moral decision making. 'Will this action deepen or impede my relationship with God?' is a more essential question than 'Is this action a mortal or venial sin?'
SOCIETY'S FAIRLY recent historical consciousness has contributed to this shift in emphasis. Liberation theologies have developed that take more seriously the experience of individuals and peoples than does the classical philosophical mindset. The latter, which has shaped most of the Christian tradition, is concerned primarily with uncovering the objective, immutable, eternal, and universal truth and preserving the "deposit of faith" from generation to generation. This intellectual framework can seriously conflict with theologies that would stress the importance of the inculturation of the Christian message into diverse societies and times.
Feminists in particular have countered the classical thought system by pointing out that all "truth" is historically and culturally conditioned, despite claims of objectivity. Feminist theologians, and especially scripture scholars, have expended much effort trying to separate the wheat from the chaff - the liberating message of Christianity from the bias of the male-dominated majority culture within which the Christian tradition has developed. Research has demonstrated that women tend to make moral decisions differently than men, emphasizing contextual and relational issues more than abstract laws and universal principles.
The main purpose of Veritatis Splendor is to reassert "the universal and permanent character" of "the precepts of the moral law" and the "immutability of the moral norm." This, of course, is where contraception and other issues of sexual morality figure in. There exist "moral norms which prohibit without exception actions which are intrinsically evil." While the Vatican allows for proportionate moral reasoning in some matters (the Catholic just war tradition is one example), the pope and his advisers will not budge on matters of sexuality. "The truth" (perhaps the most recurrent phrase of the encyclical) must not be compromised by moral theologies that accent the actor and circumstance rather than the act. "Whose truth" is not at issue here - but it should be.
John Paul II warns his bishops to be on the lookout for signs of relativism, subjectivism, individualism, and utilitarianism. Rightly so. The pope seems to be at his best when passionately decrying the moral wasteland of Western culture, which might support any of the above "isms" as acceptable moral theories. One imagines that the language of the pro-choice movement in this country particularly makes him weep.
The encyclical is also on target and deeply moving in its spiritual call to holiness and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. The pope's passionate reminder about the costs of discipleship and the radical nature of the Christian message should be especially well heeded by the First World church.
But on other fronts, John Paul doesn't seem to get it. The degrading use of non-inclusive language throughout the encyclical is one glaring example of his insensitivity to feminist concerns. In addition, the document reduces serious theologies founded upon a more historical, existential framework - and troubling to the Vatican - into extreme caricatures.
Belying a pre-Vatican II mindset, the pope urges his bishops to withdraw the name "Catholic" from any institution that harbors or tolerates dissenting theologies. In matters of morality, loyal dissent is simply not permitted. And that could become for the church the most serious issue of all.
POLLY DUNCAN COLLUM, a former Sojourners peace ministry staff member, works for a Catholic social action organization in the Washington, D.C. area.