Veritatis Splendor Conference

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner


Again, apologies if my posts are too long and cover too little of our text. My only excuse is that I am trying to write for an audience that might include newcomers to theology, and I do not want to leave a stone unturned. I hope in the end it will be worth it. If the length gets unbearable, let me know. Here is the first sentence of number 36: VS>> 36. The modern concern for the claims of autonomy has not failed to exercise an influence also in the sphere of Catholic moral theology. FP>> I want to explain first, in general, how "modern concerns" can "exercise an influence" on "the sphere of Catholic moral theology." I'll begin with a story, which, though fictitious, is possible and perhaps common. Let us suppose that a congressman in a state legislature has introduced an "equal pay for women" bill, which requires that a woman be paid the same wage as a man, if she is doing the same work, has the same seniority, etc. The congressman is not doing this out of any religious conviction. He may not practice any particular religion. He is simply introducing this measure because it seems to promote fairness in the workplace. (And yes, he hopes it will get him votes.) After the bill is introduced, the bishop of the diocese of Lapland City (within the same state) is contacted by a representative of an organization called the "Rights for Women Committee," who asks him if he can help promote it. He thinks the matter over, and decides that since the issue concerns basic justice, and the Church is interested in promoting justice, he will make some efforts to influence the bill's passage. (Yes, I know that there are a lot of other issues involved here, but please bear with me. It's the best example I can think of at present.) Further, in order to keep informed of the issue and coordinate efforts on behalf of this bill, the bishop appoints a nun who works in the Chancery Office to be the diocesan liaison with the Rights for Women Committee. The nun contacts the RWC and agrees to go to their office once a week to discuss plans on lobbying and raising public awareness of the issue of justice for women, vis-a-vis equal pay for equal work. At the outset of their relationship, the good sister and the members of the RWC share a common goal: the passage of the bill. However, the ideas underlying that common goal are very different for each. As for the sister, she believes that the reasons for giving men and women equal pay for equal work, are that they are both made in God's image and likeness, that they have an equal dignity in the eyes of God, and that as such, they have an equal right to receive what is due to them in justice. The members of the RWC, however, approach the issue of women's rights in the workplace from a much different perspective -- what Church documents might describe as a "modern" point of view. In this context the word "modern" has a more specific meaning than simply "up-to-date." It describes a whole point of view, namely that the "great ideas" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- e.g. evolution, atheism, relativism, class struggle, Freudian psychology, radical feminism -- have surpassed previously held ideas and religious beliefs, and made them obsolete. According to the "modern" ideas of the members of the RWC, men and women should be treated the same in the workplace because fundamentally they ARE the same. In this view, all supposed differences between men and women, apart from the purely physiological, are the result of outdated ideas and social customs, put in place throughout history by men for the purpose of oppressing women. These members of the RWC are not interested in the intentions of God the creator, His making of man in His image and likeness, His making them male and female, or His preparing for them an eternal destiny. Their ideas come from philosophers who have little or no faith in God -- perhaps from the feminist and atheist Simone de Beauvoir. As a result, they would like to see changes in society that are far more radical than giving equal pay to women. Most of them insist that abortion must remain legal and unrestricted, so that women may have the maximum amount of control over their lives. Others may want the government to recognize homosexual marriages, so that lesbians can enjoy the advantages of sexual pleasure and parenting, but without the unwanted involvement of men. And still others, if not most of them, pin the blame for the oppression of women in Western Culture on the Catholic Church. As the sister from the Chancery works together with the members of the RWC on equal pay for equal work, she and they often discuss things and exchange ideas. She defends the merits of religion, and especially Christianity, and may actually get some of them to change their views. However, at the same time, they exercise an influence on her thinking, so that she comes to accept certain ideas that are not compatible with the Catholic faith. That is not to say that she becomes an atheist, or a radical feminist. Nor does she become a crusader for abortion on demand. However, while she still holds her faith and her identity as a woman religious as dear, she now comes to regard certain non-negotiable teachings of the Catholic Church (e.g. on women's ordination, birth control, and possibly abortion) as untrue, and indeed, as inherently oppressive to women. She may even begin to view the Church itself as a hostile institution, and actually resent any effort of the pope or the bishops to exercise their teaching authority on issues she dissents from. It is also possible that she will bring her new ideas home to other members of her community, and influence the way many of them think as well. Now, what I have tried to describe is how the "modern ideas" of the RWC influenced the theological thinking of a nun in a fictitious story. Let me now try to describe in broad outlines what the Holy Father means when he says that, "The modern concern for the claims of autonomy has not failed to exercise an influence also in the sphere of Catholic moral theology." By "the modern concern for the claims of autonomy," he is referring to that kind of moral thinking (as we have described at length in past posts) by which a person claims the right to decide for himself what is right and wrong. The word "autonomy" means "self-ruling." "The claims of autonomy" refer to the refusal by "modern" man to be ruled by religious authority, by God, or anyone other than himself. How has this "modern concern for the claims of autonomy" exercised "an influence also in the sphere of Catholic moral theology"? Just as the nun in our example above interacted with the members of the RWC, and after a while took on some of their ideas, so do Catholic theologians interact with their counterparts in the secular academic world, and take on their ideas. Catholic theologians meet scholars from Yale, Harvard, Penn State, etc., at conferences. They listen to their lectures, read their articles, and study their books. In itself, this is not a bad thing. Indeed, a Catholic theologian should be well informed about his field of study, and find out what is being said by other scholars, either by fellow Catholics or non-believers. However, what has been happening throughout the present century (and in particular since the Second Vatican Council), is that Catholic theologians, in order to gain the respect of their non-Catholic colleagues, have abandoned the guiding principle of an authentic Catholic identity. The principle is this: when a theologian's ideas contradict what is taught by the Catholic Church, the Church is right, and the theologian is wrong. When a scholar is humble enough to follow this principle, his work will be of great service to the Church. However, many Catholic scholars refuse to do this very thing in the name of "academic freedom," and as a result have embraced ideas of modern thinkers that are not compatible with Catholic teaching. This is not to say that such theologians abandon the Catholic faith entirely. But they wind up constructing a theology which tries to give a Catholic "spin" to ideas that come from "modern" thinking, and which cannot be reconciled with the Catholic faith itself. VS>>While the latter [Catholic moral theology] has certainly never attempted to set human freedom against the divine law or to question the existence of an ultimate religious foundation for moral norms, it has, nonetheless, been led to undertake a profound rethinking about the role of reason and of faith in identifying moral norms with reference to specific "innerworldly" kinds of behavior involving oneself, others and the material world. FP>> Here the Holy Father is getting more specific about this "influence." Note again, the Catholic theologians he is writing about have not left their faith entirely behind in favor of "modern" thinking. Whereas a "modern" philosopher might say that the ten commandments have little or no authoritative value in moral decision-making, a Catholic theologian (of the type John Paul II is referring to) would say that they have "great value for moral guidance." Whereas the modern philosopher might "set human freedom against the divine law," protesting that God's commandments stifle human freedom, the Catholic theologian would insist that freedom and biblical moral teaching can be reconciled. Also, while the philosopher might "question the existence of an ultimate religious foundation for moral norms," that is, claim that God has no say in determining the rules of moral behavior, the Catholic theologian would maintain that God cannot be cut out of the picture. However, even if the Catholic theologian does not accept the modern thinker's point of view entirely, he has, as a result of listening to him, done "a profound rethinking about the role of reason and of faith in identifying moral norms with reference to specific 'innerworldly' kinds of behavior involving oneself, others and the material world." In other words, even if the Catholic theologian would say that we must "obey God's laws," he is going to be at odds with the Church about WHAT those laws are, how they are know, and when they bind the conscience of the individual. One might say that these moral theologians do not want to abandon the Catholic faith. But they do seem to want to make some critical adjustments. VS>>It must be acknowledged that underlying this work of rethinking there are certain positive concerns which to a great extent belong to the best tradition of Catholic thought. In response to the encouragement of the Second Vatican Council, (60) there has been a desire to foster dialog with modern culture, emphasizing the rational-and thus universally understandable and communicable-character of moral norms belonging to the sphere of the natural moral law.(61) There has also been an attempt to reaffirm the interior character of the ethical requirements deriving from that law, requirements which create an obligation for the will only because such an obligation was previously acknowledged by human reason and, concretely, by personal conscience. FP>> Here the Holy Father is going to begin his critique of moral theology today. He first makes mention of the positive things that he sees. ("There are certain positive concerns which to a great extent belong to the best tradition of Catholic thought.") Later, he will point out the problems. What are the "positive concerns"? The first is, "a desire to emphasizing the rational-and thus universally understandable and communicable-character of moral norms belonging to the sphere of the natural moral law." Let me put it another way. If I want to convince a person that adultery is morally wrong, and I have faith in God and in His Church, and the person I am speaking to does not, what do I say? I can't say, "Adultery is forbidden by the ten commandments." For if the person does not believe in God, God's commandments mean nothing to him. However, my efforts are not doomed to failure. I still have two things working in my favor. The first is that even if this person does not share my faith, I can still communicate with him, and hopefully persuade him, on the level of REASON. It may be that I believe in the God of the Bible, and he does not. But if we both accept the validity of reason, then we have a common ground for discussion. Reason acts like a universal language. The second thing I have in my favor is that every moral norm taught by the Church does have a "rational...character... belonging to the sphere of the natural moral law." In other words, every moral norm does have a rational explanation. It has reasons behind it. So, if I want to convince this person that adultery is immoral, all I have to do is give him the good reasons which support my claim. I can speak (without opening the Bible) about the evil of breaking one's solemn word, the pain of love betrayed, or the violation of the order God set in place. (Yes, one can speak of God on the level of reason alone.) If the person speaks the language of reason, and is open-minded, he will accept the reasons and agree with the conclusion. Please note that dialoguing with him in this way, I am not DENYING that God gave Moses the law: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Rather, I am making my case to a man who will at least listen to reason, on the basis of REASON ALONE. Now, as I have done with the man in the example above, so has the Church, in the Second Vatican Council, done with the modern world. By means of the Council, the Church has tried "to foster dialog with modern culture," that is, to speak to people who no longer accept the basic teachings of Christianity. The method of this dialogue, the way that the Church as tried to convince modern thinkers of the validity of her teaching was, to emphasize "the rational-and thus universally understandable and communicable-character of moral norms belonging to the sphere of the natural moral law." That is, the Church has tried to show how reasonable her teaching is, so that all reasonable men will have to consider her claim that her teaching is true. It's as if the Church is saying to the world, "Forget for a moment about the inquisition, the reformation, or Galileo. Just take a look at WHAT WE SAY, and see for yourselves, HOW MUCH SENSE IT MAKES." The Holy Father considers this effort on the part of Vatican II to have been very positive. And many theologians (including himself) following the lead of the Council, have continued to present to modern thinkers the best reasons they can find to convince them that what the Church says is true. He also mentions a second positive development: "an attempt to reaffirm the interior character of the ethical requirements deriving from that [moral] law." It seems to me that here he is referring to the documents of the Council such as Dignitatis humanae which speak of the respect that governments and individuals must have for a person's conscience. I hope to deal with this topic in detail when we get to the section on conscience. Thanks as always for your participation, your interest, and your encouragement. Fr. Peter