VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 20)
by 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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