Foundations of Morality

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.

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Sojourners Magazine January 1994
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