VERITATIS SPLENDOR CONFERENCE (Part 6)
by Fr. Peter Pilsner
Sorry again to be so late with this post. It has been a very active past
couple of weeks.
Let me begin by passing on to you some things that were said at the
Workshop for Priests at Gannon University.
One point made again and again is that VS is a landmark document. Russell
Hittenger called it the most important encyclical of John Paul II's
pontificate, if not the most important encyclical of the century. Why?
One reason would be that in this document, the Holy Father, instead of
limiting himself to the problem at hand (described in Chapter 3), has
undertaken to explain the whole scope of moral theology from top to
bottom. The great benefit of this approach is that a person reading the
encyclical would learn for himself what moral theology is all about and
why some kinds of human actions are wrong in themselves, and he would be
thus equipped to draw the right conclusions and see for himself the
shortcomings of certain theories. The last time, according to Hittenger,
that such a comprehensive explanation of natural law was attempted by a
Pontiff was when Leo XIII wrote Pastor Aeternis.
Another interesting point that was made was that this encyclical is
surprisingly unlike past ones by John Paul II, with reference to style and
philosophy. Past encyclicals have relied heavily on the approach of
phenomenology, which a number of theologians (even ones faithful to the
Magisterium) have criticized as difficult to read and understand. But
upon reading VS, one would think that the Holy Father put aside his love
for phenomenology and went back to straight St. Thomas Aquinas. Why?
Perhaps because, when all is said and done with regards to the usefulness
of modern philosophical approaches for explaining theology, St. Thomas
still can't be beat!
Let me also mention a point made by Janet Smith. Commenting on section 7,
she observed that the young man in the gospel must have been a deeply
humble person. In essence, he is saying to Jesus, "I don't have all the
answers. I need to be taught. Please help me." I agree with Dr. Smith,
and I think that perhaps she has come across a reason why the Holy Father
begins his encyclical with this account from the Gospels. In holding up
the rich young man as a sort of "everyman," and as a representative seeker
of moral truth, the Holy Father is communicating to his readers the
*attitude* they should have in approaching the encyclical and its
teaching. They should read it in an attitude of humility and with a
willingness to be guided by the teaching of Christ, as it is communicated
by the Church.
No doubt a call for an attitude if humility is necessary in the Church
today. I think a terrible sense of pride has crept into the way people
pray and talk in public. There is, for example, a distaste for referring
to the Christian faithful as God's *children.* Remember the controversy
over communion in the hand? I used to hear the following argument in
favor of it: "I am not a child who needs to be fed. I am an adult. I
feed myself." Or again, notice how in later printings of songs in hymnals,
phrases such as "Lord, we are your children" have become "we are your
PEOPLE." Why the aversion to the word "children?" I think it is because
when we refer to ourselves as children, it implies that we should be
humble, that we should respect God's authority and the authority of the
Church, and that we should accept that God and the Church possess a higher
wisdom than we. And many people, it seems, do not wish to see themselves
in this way. They have been taught to think that "maturity" and
"adulthood" mean deciding for ourselves what we should believe and what is
right and wrong "for us." I remember having gone to a workshop in which a
speaker, relying on Kohlberg's psychology, insisted that people who obey
authority operate on the level of children, while people who make
decisions "for themselves" act as adults. Perhaps we need to remember the
words of our Lord, "Unless you become as little children..." If we do, we
will approach VS in the right spirit -- not standing above it, ready to
critique it, but kneeling before Christ and his Church, ready to listen.
Next week I hope to return to section 12. As always, I welcome your
comments. Fr. Peter