Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

'Veritatis Splendor' and Today's Ecumenical Conversation

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

'Veritatis Splendor' and Today's Ecumenical Conversation

Article excerpt

What is the significance of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor for ecumenical dialogue and witness today? Depending on our purposes, this question can be made to point in several different directions. We can ask what impact this encyclical is having on the overall role of the Roman Catholic Church as an ecumenical dialogue partner. We can ask whether this document will encourage or diminish the contribution of Catholic scholars to ecumenical debate. We can ask whether the pope's document as such is coming to have standing in the ecumenical conversation, or whether it so implicitly criticizes that conversation that it stands by its own intention outside the ecumenical circle.

But perhaps these questions are formulated in a way that still fails to get to the heart of things. Surely the deeper concern is how far the type of moral argument found in this encyclical can illuminate the challenges now faced by humankind -- issues of the dignity of the human being in civil society and therefore of justice, peace, the integrity of creation -- which are what the ecumenical conversation is about. Whatever its church-political implications, is this a constructive contribution to the debate about human life on this planet?

Reaffirming the tradition

The press (including certain liberal Catholic journals) has tended to see Veritatis Splendor as one more example of Pope John Paul II's determination to reassert sheer ecclesiastical authority, this time by way of draconian instructions to the episcopate which threaten the freedom, integrity and livelihood of ethicists now teaching in Catholic seminaries and universities. The journalists have taken this as further evidence that the pope and his advisors are out of touch with contemporary reality. The Catholic writer Peter Hebblethwaite called Veritatis Splendor "a document so timeless as to be almost out of this world".(1)

Yet even if serious questions remain about this document, many of the pope's critics are missing a great deal. I want to suggest a different reading. I will bracket my own antipathy to the encyclical's often authoritarian tone and try cautiously to receive this statement as I would the rearticulation of any rich moral source in a global dialogue badly in need of such spiritual and intellectual provisioning.(2) This document means to remind us of the rich resources of traditional Catholic moral thinking and calls Catholics to bear witness to this perspective with their lives. It is an attempt to reassert a great and remarkably coherent tradition of theological reflection and moral argument in a world in which we no longer make moral sense to one another, so omnipresent is the assumption that values are purely individual and probably mainly emotive in origin.

The pope, indeed, is addressing the question whether there is any moral truth to be argued about. Has our modem age so separated freedom from concern for truth that we are content to say that all personal and social life is merely the assertion of preference or power? Is all morality the mere artifact of this or that culture? It surely looks that way to many contemporary observers. So devastated is our modem moral world that, as Richard John Neuhaus has said, the Catholic Church could emerge out of the wreckage as "the premier institutional champion of humanism and reason in contemporary culture".(3) The pope's argument implies that we could -- if only we would -- make sense to one another because our reasoning powers, aided by revelation, are capable of articulating a divine law written in our hearts and in the hearts of all human beings. This is a claim worth listening to.

We are thus wrestling with the questions raised by Alasdair MacIntyre, who argues that the issue today comes down to a choice between Nietzsche and Aristotle: between deconstructive anarchy and the classical moral tradition underlying Catholic thought.(4) But if we grant the pope's work this sort of relevance, how well does it fulfil MacIntyre's notion of what a religious tradition should be: namely an extended argument or dialogue, a living process within which passionate differences may appear whose net effect is to clarify the tradition, enrich and extend it? …

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