The Papal Letter to the Church in China One Year From Its Publication

Author: Wojciech Giertych, O.P.

The Papal Letter to the Church in China One Year From Its Publication

Wojciech Giertych, O.P.
Theologian of the Papal Household

Pardon, rather than condemn

On Monday, 30 June [2008], marked the first anniversary of the publication of Pope Benedict XV1's, "Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China". The following two articles (pages 10 and 11) written in English, are a comment on the Papal Document. [See also Some Reflections on Benedict XVI's Letter to the Church in China.]

In his Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of the Catholic Church in the People's Republic of China, taking into account the difficult internal situation within the Church that is the result of external pressures coming from the political authorities, the Holy Father Benedict XVI wrote: "It must be kept in mind, especially where there is little room for freedom, that in order to evaluate the morality of an act it is necessary to devote particular care to establishing the real intentions of the person concerned, in addition to the objective shortcoming. Every case, then, will have to be pondered individually, taking account of the circumstances" (n. 7).

Benedict XVI is fully aware that longstanding direct persecutions and less dramatic, but nevertheless continuous painful restrictions imposed upon the Church in China have divided that Church from within. This, as the Pope mentions in the same Letter, "has seriously conditioned her progress, giving rise also to suspicions, mutual accusations and recriminations, and it continues to be a weakness in the Church that causes concern" (ibid.).

The defending of the autonomy of the Church and her liberty of preaching the full, not disfigured message of the Gospel is always coupled with the necessity of finding a modus vivendi in a given social and political situation.

The Church is not in an angelic eschatological state, but is incarnated in the world and so in every country and within every political system the representatives of the hierarchy and the clergy have some type of relationship with the temporal authorities, even though they have to take great care to ensure that they do not compromise their fidelity to Christ and that in the minds of the faithful the message of the Gospel does not become identified with the programs and activities of politicians. This is particularly important when the doings of politicians raise serious moral anxieties.

The thin line, however, between the cowardly backing out of a courageous prophetic stance and a prudent carefulness in the face of oppression to maintain what can be saved and to even extend the field of pastoral activity of the Church is difficult to assess from without. What may be possible to attain in one moment of history may be impossible in another. What may be possible in one country, or even one part of a country, may not be possible in another. Decisions however have to be made and these decisions are expressions of the political and pastoral prudence of those who carry the weight of responsibility and assess the given social and political context.

In his message to the Chinese Church, the Holy Father attempted to reach out both to those who in a heroic manner have stood up to the persecutions and continued a clandestine existence with absolutely no contacts with the Chinese civil authorities and to those who, maybe compromising too much, have tried to profit from the carefully dosed breathing space that was offered them by the political authorities.

The Holy Father invited both groups within the Church, without condemning anybody, to overcome their lack of mutual trust and to build the unity of the Body of Christ on the basis of pardon and reconciliation, and unity with the universal Church. The Pope's injunction carefully avoided the throwing of facile accusations and refrained from passing condemning moral judgment (even on those who are not in a canonically regular relationship with the Holy See), insisting that in moral assessments the true intentions of a person making difficult prudential decisions need always to be taken into account.

This reminder of a basic ethical principle that respects the internal intention of an agent may be viewed in union with another comment made by John Paul II in his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, where we read: "The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the 'object' rationally chosen by the deliberate will, as is borne out by the insightful analysis, still valid today, made by Saint Thomas. In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person" (n. 78).

John Paul II's remark, which is fully in accord with the vision of St. Thomas Aquinas, has raised some eyebrows and stimulated theological debates. This is primarily because it contradicts a generally diffused casuist mentality that expects all imaginable moral acts to have a clear, unquestionable and easily recognizable moral qualification that can only be either good or evil.

The personalist approach of John Paul II respects the vision and understanding of the acting agent, a vision that is conditioned by unique circumstances, that may be superficial or have depth, may be optimistic or pessimistic, may perceive a hidden potentiality in a given situation, may be open in faith to inner inspirations of the Holy Spirit, and may also of course be erroneous.

Good intentions not enough

The two quoted citations refer to the fundamental principle of morals that in the assessment of a moral act, three sources of morality have to be taken into account: the intention, the moral object of the act, and the particular circumstances. All three elements need to be good for the moral act to be good. If one of these three elements is evil, the final moral act will be evil.

Catholic moral teaching staunchly rejects proportionalist thinking that ties the moral qualification of acts uniquely with the intention of the agent, suggesting that it is morally licit to accept an objectively evil act when it is motivated by a proportionately higher good intention. Good intentions do not justify evil means. Certain acts are intrinsically evil and no good intention may justify them.

The greatest difficulty in the understanding of this principle lies in the apprehension of the nature of the moral object. It may refer to a physical object (a sum of money offered as a gift, or stolen) or an emotion that is sustained (a feeling of desire or anger), or an action that is undertaken (a medical operation or a political move).

The moral object however is something more than the mere physical event that is taking place. The moral object that specifies the ultimate moral qualification of the act includes also the input of reason that assesses the future act in its unique circumstantial setting and in the light of objective moral principles.

The deliberate will chooses the object together with its rational assessment. This assessment, while respecting the objective standards of moral principles that are formulated in the moral law attempts to arrive at the truth of the matter, "as it is seen by the agent".

This last remark is the point on which John Paul II insisted in his Encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Ultimately the final criterion for the acting agent, is his own reason, which including the light of the moral law, searches for the true good in a given situation. In different circumstances or in a moment of greater experience the reason of the agent may view an analogous situation differently. This is quite normal, but in the moment of decision making the agent has to act on the basis of the perception that he has at that very moment. This of course does not deny the fact that the agent needs to form his reason in the light of objective principles.

A surgeon working in a well equipped European hospital will decide to treat a patient with the help of drugs and intensive care. That same surgeon dealing with the same patient suffering from the same ailment in a refugee camp in the Congo may decide to amputate a limb. Even though objectively the sickness is the same in both cases, the chosen solution that expresses the aiming at the true good as it is perceived by the acting agent differs because of changed external circumstances and possibilities.

The respect for the rational perspective of the acting agent on which John Paul II insisted by no means is an acceptance of moral relativism and the arbitrary creation of one's own moral norms. It is however a respect for the dignity of the agent who with his own reason needs to arrive at the true good in a situation that always in some ways is unique.

There is no creativity in the face of moral norms, which unchangeably point to the moral values and exclude intrinsically evil actions, but there has to be creativity in the face of moral acts. Sometimes several options are possible, all of which are good, even though they differ, and a decision about action has to be made.

The essence of virtuous activity lies in the capacity to find in a creative and responsible way a solution which will be truly good and in which, as the Christian in his faith will aspire, charity infused by God will be expressed. The fact that moral acts are subject to a personal reading means that they cannot all be viewed with the cold stance of an uninvolved observer. Moral acts do not have the same objective and unchanging quality that physical facts observed by the precise empirical sciences have. They are contingent human acts, and therefore they are subject to the personal input of the reason of the acting agent, as it focuses on the true good of the predicted situation.

This personalist characteristic of the moral object of an act means therefore that prudential decisions made by those responsible for the finding of political, pastoral or personal solutions should not be easily condemned by those who stand without and who do not carry that responsibility.

The above quoted citation of John Paul's Encyclical refers to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the footnote, q. 18, art. 6 of the of the Summa Theologiae is mentioned. In this article Aquinas points out that there is a mutually complementary relationship between the internal and external act of the agent. While the reason of the acting agent, illuminated by the moral law tries to focus on the true good of the external act, that same reason conditions also the internal act provoking a reflection on the hidden intention. Is that intention in accord with the deepest orientation of the human will as it focuses towards supreme happiness in God?

Two dimensions of morality

Both dimensions, the internal and external, together contribute towards the ultimate moral qualification of an act. The casuist mentality being the fruit of a vision of morals that expelled the reflection on the interiority of the person to another discipline, understood to be separate and optional that was called the theology of the interior life led to a conviction that the moral assessment of acts refers primarily or even uniquely to the exterior life. In fact, both dimensions function together, and what is happening on the level of the human interiority is also of decisive importance.

Is the drug addict who steals, more a thief, or more a drug addict? Viewed from the unique perspective of the exterior act, he may be judged a thief. But viewed from a total perspective that takes into account his humanity, his quest for happiness, and his tragedy, he is more a drug addict. His main drama is not that he has stolen, but that he locates his ultimate hope in the addiction, which makes him steal.

A comprehensive vision of Christian morality that John Paul II had in mind in his Encyclical is primarily concerned that the Cross of Christ be not emptied of its power (1 Cor 1:17), that the power of divine charity given by Christ be included through faith into the interior dispositions of moral agents.

In the examination of one's conscience, not only the external acts need to be viewed, but also the internal dispositions and intentions. Have they been pure? Have they been for the love of God, or have they been tarnished by other motivations such as egoism or excessive fear?

The reminder of the basic principle that in all moral acts, apart from the objective light supplied by the moral law, the personal consideration undertaken by the reason of the agent and the agent's interior intention moving the will have a decisive significance hopefully will serve in the reading of recent history and in the overcoming of the climate of suspicion and mistrust that life under totalitarian regimes often generates.

The assessment of thorny decisions made in the context of external oppression requires above all respect, sympathy and a sense of pity towards those who were forced to act in the face of impossible dilemmas. It is only in such a climate of respect and understanding that the spiritual wounds inflicted by persecution, fear and suspicion will be healed.

The clarifying words of Benedict XVI to the Church in China are words of caution, lest grave injustices be committed by those who living in a different social context apply simplistic criteria in their facile condemnations. They echo a similar teaching given by the Holy Father to the priests of Poland in May 2006: "On the occasion of the Great Jubilee, Pope John Paul II frequently exhorted Christians to do penance for infidelities of the past. We believe that the Church is holy, but that there are sinners among her members.

"We need to reject the desire to identify only with those who are sinless. How could the Church have excluded sinners from her ranks? It is for their salvation that Jesus became incarnate, died and rose again. We must therefore learn to live Christian penance with sincerity. By practicing it, we confess individual sins in union with others, before them and before God.

"Yet we must guard against the arrogant claim of setting ourselves up to judge earlier generations, who lived in different times and different circumstances. Humble sincerity is needed in order not to deny the sins of the past, and at the same time not to indulge in facile accusations in the absence of real evidence or without regard for the different conditions of the time.

"Moreover, the 'confessio peccati', to use an expression of St. Augustine, must always be accompanied by the 'confessio laudis' — the confession of praise. As we ask pardon for the wrong that was done in the past, we must also remember the good accomplished with the help of divine grace which, even if contained in earthenware vessels, has borne blessed fruit" (Address to Priests in Warsaw Cathedral, 25 May 2006).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
27 August 2008, page 10

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