[Truth's] first appearance to our eyes, bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom, is more unsightly and unplausible than many errors... — John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
Veritatis splendor, the Splendor of Truth, is an open encyclical letter sent in August 1993 by the supreme pontiff, Pope John Paul II, to all the bishops of the Catholic Church, regarding certain fundamental issues of the Church's moral teaching. It is well written, closely reasoned, and often beautiful. But I have a few problems with it, and as they say, the devil is in the details.
Now I trust I can be forgiven for reading mail intended primarily for someone else — I'm neither Catholic nor a bishop — but as a Christian, I wanted to examine the line drawn by the man whose job is being the successor of Peter. Beyond that line, according to John Paul II, are acts that are intrinsece malum, intrinsically evil, at all times, under all circumstances, for all people. That is, in the Biblical commandments as interpreted faithfully by the Church, and especially in the prohibition of certain acts, we find an Absolute Morality based on Absolute Truth.
His Holiness begins by elaborating upon the idea in John's Gospel that Christ is the light that enlightens every one who comes into the world. He even treads close to the edge of Universalism by quoting the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) to the effect that non-believers who have not heard the Gospel, yet who strive to lead an upright life, may receive God's Grace.
John Paul II then notes that certain teachings in the secular world, as well as in the Church and her seminaries, seek to dissolve the "intrinsic and unbreakable bond" between faith and morality. That is, they undermine the meaning of morality itself and its place in the relationship between people and God. Such teachings include situation ethics and other forms of moral relativism.
To set things straight, His Holiness takes as his text the dialogue of Jesus with the rich young man, reported in Matthew 19. This is the dialogue in which Jesus said that to obtain eternal life the man must first keep the commandments, and then sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and become one of Jesus' followers. The man, rich in goods, but poor in spirit, rejected Jesus' offer, and "went away sorrowing." The apostles, realizing that they couldn't make such a sacrifice either, wondered aloud whether anyone could obtain eternal life. Jesus then answered them, "With God all things are possible."
Most of the papal exegesis of this passage is straightforward, and should be something upon which all Christians can agree. The Pope states that there can be no freedom, no authentic life apart from a commitment to truth, that Absolute Truth exists and makes itself known to humankind, and that the moral life is a loving response to the experience of that Truth.
However, His Holiness then stoops to lift up before his audience a strange, but customary, misreading of the Gospel. He claims that Christ rejects the right to divorce. Now Jesus did state that, despite its permission in Mosaic law, divorce is in most cases equivalent to adultery, but that is by no means a prohibition of divorce. He merely identified what you are doing when you get one. His statement is to be taken in context with Jesus's other pronouncements against the self-righteousness of those who believe themselves good because they think they keep the letter of the commandments while ignoring their spirit (such as, "Let one among you who is without sin cast the first stone," spoken about the woman taken in adultery, or "Whoever looks upon a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart"). That is, Jesus was using irony to communicate the idea that we condemn adulterers while at the same time thinking and doing what is nearly adulterous, thus convicting us of two sins — adultery and hypocrisy. The Mosaic law itself, as Jesus said, remains unchanged until the end of human history, which means that divorce is an allowed, if gravely disapproved, option.
Specifically, Jesus said that not one point of the Law would be changed "until all is fulfilled," which many Christians take to mean, "until after the Crucifixion." That's what Bonhoeffer termed "cheap grace," an absolution one confers upon oneself without reference (or deference) to God. Clearly all is not fulfilled because we are still here. Our lives are the fulfillment of God's intention for us, which intention is not fulfilled until we are finished living. Christians tend to willfully misinterpret that phrase because they wish to excuse themselves from keeping the 613 statements of Law in the Hebrew Bible. They are not excused. They may be forgiven, as when Peter forgave adult male Gentile converts to Christianity their obligation to become circumcised, but they are not excused.
Peter forgave them this obligation in order to enrich people's lives and liveliness by welcoming them just as they are into the family of God. If he had insisted on circumcision, he would have committed the evil of abusing the Law to diminish their lives by setting up impediments to their faith. When the choice was forced upon him, he chose to follow the Law's spirit rather than its letter. It would improve the practice of Christianity if all Christians, especially those in leadership roles, would do likewise. Otherwise, they are excusing themselves from following the laws they break, while condemning those who break the laws they follow. Such hypocrisy is equivalent to beating someone because their style of sin is different from your own. As Jesus said, "First take the log from your own eye, so that you can see clearly enough to take the speck of dust from your brother's eye."
This point about Law and Gospel brings us to the list that His Holiness quotes from Vatican II. This is the list of things which are intrinsically evil in their object (or aim), of things which in no way can be ordered to give due honor to God. Such acts include
Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free and responsible persons....
And, of course, His Holiness adds contraception to the list.
Might I point out a contradiction here? Let us accept that contraception is indeed a denial of the honor due to God because it allows us to abuse the gift of sexuality by separating it from the joyful submission to God's will regarding our possible subsequent parenthood. Nevertheless, given that whole populations cannot be expected to be abstinent, the proscription of birth control condemns millions of people to subhuman living conditions brought on by overpopulation. In other words, consistency demands that we consider the banning of contraception itself to be intrinsically evil according to the Vatican II list.
This is not to say that his Holiness is wrong to continue the ban on contraception. I simply point out that since contraception and banning contraception are both evil, the ban on contraception should not be absolute. Since it is evil, absolute prohibition of contraception cannot be an example of Absolute Morality based on Absolute Truth.
Now to choose the lesser of two evils, such as between banning and permitting contraception (or abortion), one needs a sense of their proportion, which is exactly what the Vatican II list lacks. For example, abortion is vastly different from the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Let us agree that an abortion kills at least a potential human being, that it is normally undertaken soley for that purpose, and that it is indeed incapable of being ordered to honor the Creator. However, quickly killing less-than-fully-sentient fetuses is far less cruel than slowly and systematically starving, overworking, overcrowding, and tormenting captive people until they are reduced from loving, sensitive, intelligent human beings into filthy, diseased, miserable creatures struggling like animals to survive one more day, so that when you finally torture them to death, it seems to you no worse than exterminating rats or other vermin. The Nazi genocide was a war against the soul, of both the victims and the perpetrators. Those who fail to see that it was vastly more monstrous than abortion are themselves capable of letting such a crime happen again.
This brings us to the real objection I have to Veritatis splendor — the point about faithful interpretation of Absolute Morality by the Church. Absolute Morality is too large to be contained in a set of proscriptions, because its basis, Absolute Truth, is too large to be encoded in mere language. (Otherwise we would have had a long speech instead of the Incarnation, which was a whole life.) The interpretation of Absolute Morality must be in deeds as well as words. And during the Holocaust, the Church did poorly.
To be blunt, it shames Christianity that a single Christian cleric anywhere in Europe escaped the concentration camps. With isolated exceptions like Bonhoeffer, the bulk of them laid low, choosing not to annoy the Regime. That is, when the Church was called to follow her Lord to the Cross, the Church shrank from her calling (like Peter denying his Lord three times before the cock crowed twice) and chose to be quiet, to outlast the Nazis, to survive, as did the current Pope.
As would I, left to my own devices. I'm no braver than the next man, but just because I would do a thing myself, does not make that thing right. In other words, when I criticize the Church on this point, I am only accusing my brethren of sharing our common humanity. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to say that the Church and her Magesterium catastrophically failed to speak and do the Truth in this century, and thereby contributed materially to the torture and massacre of millions. That is, the Church had the power to stop the Nazis early on through self-sacrifice, had she tried, and she did not try.
I therefore accept the notion of Absolute Morality based on Absolute Truth, but reject the Church, despite her Magesterium (divinely ordained doctrinal and moral teaching authority) as its sole or even its best interpreter, because she has disqualified herself from that role. Rather than a lover of Absolute Truth, she historically has been too often its fair-weather friend, speaking sternly when secure, staying silent when threatened. In other words, if I can't trust the Church for the Truth when the chips are down, how can I trust in other times that the Church is not speaking from a myopic and insensitive authoritarianism? How can I be sure the Church is not just bullying people in order to assert some power over their behavior?
Rather than trust the Church for Absolute Morality, I, Protestant that I am, trust God alone. Based on that trust, I call on the Church and its leaders to confess and to repent their contributory culpability for the Holocaust. Then they can overcome the hubris brought on by denial of their collective survivor guilt. Only then can they interpret the Biblical commandments with the humility that is necessary to approach anything like fidelity.
And while we can and indeed must forgive the Church her sin, both we and the Church must always remember. Let the Church speak more carefully then, like St. Peter, and be gentle with the Law that she may not herself oppress the people.