In one of the most important documents of his reign, Pope John Paul II issued a bulky encyclical Tuesday that asserts the absolute moral authority of church teachings over the world's 900 million Roman Catholics and commands the "loyal assent" of all bishops, priests and theologians in proclaiming it.
Written longhand by John Paul in Polish over six years, the dense, closely reasoned papal teaching, titled "Veritatis Splendor" (The Splendor of Truth), is a stunning intellectual tour de force by a deep-thinking moral theologian rooted in mainline Catholic dogma. It is pure Pope: a stern, uncompromising reaffirmation of authority.
But it will certainly raise the hackles of millions of Catholics whose concepts of right and wrong are more flexible than their pontiff's.
John Paul teaches that morality cannot exist independent of faith. As defined in fundamental church teachings, good and evil are immutable, he insists. They do not admit relativism or individual interpretation.
Moral theologians, the Pope writes, have a "grave duty to train the faithful to make this moral discernment." Moreover, moral teaching is above the normal yea-and-nay, give-and-take of democratic societies, John Paul says.
"Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the people of God. Opposition to the teaching of the church's pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts," the Pope says.
In "areas of both dogma and morality," John Paul orders his fellow moral theologians to give "the example of loyal assent, both internal and external." The Pope instructs bishops "to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught" and tells them that they may withdraw the title "Catholic" from church-related schools and other institutions that fail to teach "sound doctrine."
The 40,000-word encyclical--a papal letter that takes its title, in Latin, from its opening words--is bulwarked by 184 footnotes citing the Bible and theologians across 2,000 years.
Widely leaked weeks before its official release Tuesday, the encyclical almost offhandedly restates longstanding church teaching on social and bedroom issues that preoccupy U.S. Catholics: It vetoes abortion, euthanasia, sex outside marriage and artificial birth control.
Yet the papal letter goes far deeper than that. It is a get-with-the-program call to Catholics from their leader that will alarm what Vatican insiders disparagingly term "supermarket Catholics"--those who buy what they like of church teaching and leave what they don't. You must take it all, the Pope says.
One U.S. professor of theology suggested Tuesday that a strict interpretation of the encyclical would mean that a parish priest could no longer tell a parishioner to consult her conscience on whether to use birth-control pills. In the Pope's view, artificial birth control is wrong.
In a long disquisition on the source of morality, John Paul examines in his encyclical the nature of good and evil, concluding that "if acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain 'irremediably' evil acts."
The encyclical was widely discussed within the church, and various drafts drew fire from a variety of theologians, Vatican sources say.
The encyclical was prompted, the Pope says, by a "genuine crisis" in the church's moral teaching. "Certain fundamental truths" of Catholic doctrine "risk being distorted or denied," the Pope laments, as a result not of "limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine."
Challenges to church teachings are found even within seminaries and faculties of theology, the Pope complains, noting that questions are raised about even the most basic doctrinal precepts.
"Also an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behavior could be tolerated."
It cannot be tolerated, the Pope says, quoting Revelation, because "the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man but to God alone."
The church is the only authentic interpreter of the word of God, the Pope asserts, "whether in its written form or in that of tradition."