Pope John Paul II's new encyclical was expected to be especially welcomed by U.S. Catholics seeking a clearer moral compass but troubling for those who say that moral choices depend on circumstances.
That was the preliminary consensus Tuesday among Roman Catholic theologians as the Vatican made public a sweeping new papal encyclical, "Veritatis Splendor" (The Splendor of Truth).
Six years in the making, the final draft released Tuesday mentions only in passing the sexual issues that have preoccupied the U.S. church. But the document has an underlying assumption that if Catholics stand on the fundamental moral foundations outlined in it, specific actions the church has deemed immoral or even evil--among them artificial birth control, abortion, euthanasia and sex outside of marriage--will be avoided.
"I think it's a remarkable document. It just sweeps away over a quarter-century of confusion about Catholic moral teaching," said Ralph McInerny, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and publisher of the conservative Catholic journal Crisis.
Others, including Catholics for a Free Choice--who oppose numerous church teachings, including the prohibitions on artificial birth control and abortion--accused the Vatican of a "siege mentality."
The question is whether the theological insights directed by the Pope at his bishops will trickle down to rank-and-file Catholics or remain confined to discussions among theologians.
"The professional conservatives will be elated. The professional liberals will hunker down, and probably the ordinary person won't give a damn," said Father Charles E. Curran, a theologian who was banned by the Vatican from teaching Catholic theology in 1988, largely because of his dissenting views on sexuality.
In exhorting bishops to affirm traditional Catholic moral doctrine and hold Catholic theologians and universities accountable, the Pope gave no quarter to "reformers" in the United States and may have further sharpened the moral divide that separates many U.S. Catholics from the church hierarchy.
Overall, however, the initial reaction in the United States to the encyclical was far different from the uproar that accompanied the birth-control encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," issued 25 years ago by Pope Paul VI.
"I think people will read this. They will take it in stride," said Father James L. Connor, director of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said the Pope recognized "the complexities and difficulties of moral discernment today" but clearly restated the church's long-held teaching that there are moral absolutes.
In Chicago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called on Catholics to examine the encyclical "with a sense of tranquillity and a willingness to study it with openness."
Theologians said that the Pope was clearly trying to address the underlying confusion that leads many Catholics to make choices that stray from traditional church teaching. Among the errors, the Pope said, is a misreading that correct moral choices can be made alone through human reason and apart from truths the church believes to be unchangeable and overriding.
The purpose of the encyclical is not principally to warn against specific moral errors as much as to "proclaim anew" the moral tenets of the church, the U.S. Catholic Conference said in a background paper for U.S. bishops.
"Freedom is not a matter of being able to choose whatever you like about morality," said Alasdair MacIntyre, a widely acclaimed moral philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. "It is a matter of recognizing that our life has to be structured one way rather than another."
The encyclical is expected to be the subject of discussion and soul-searching for years to come, theologians said.