CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH
Some comments on the NOTIFICATION of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
regarding certain writings of
FR. MARCIANO VIDAL, C.Ss.R.
1. In recent decades, moral theology has been the subject of an interest not seen for some time in the life of the Church. Many elements explain this phenomenon: the attention given by the Second Vatican Council to the human person and to the problems which afflict the human heart; the increased awareness of the proper autonomy of the secular world; the new perception of the dignity of conscience and the respect which it deserves; the need for a renewal of moral theology according to a model closer to God’s covenant with his people and centred on the person of Christ; the emergence of a more personalist anthropology; the rediscovery of the vocation of Christian marriage; the significant challenges posed by science and culture as a result of advances in biotechnology. These are some of the factors which have mobilized the attention of theologians on moral questions.
2. When we consider the results obtained in this area, it becomes evident that there has been great progress. Without speaking of the most recent responses to problems both ancient and new – responses which are not on that account any less in conformity with the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) – one cannot ignore the many concrete indications of this renewal. Among these, there is the rediscovery, by countless members of the Christian faithful, of the greatness of the Christian vocation, and of the profound and lasting joy which comes from full and definitive commitment to it. There is the missionary proclamation of the Gospel which does not shrink from proclaiming aloud the high standard of the “Beatitudes” as the normal path of Christian life in service of the Father’s glory and of one’s brothers and sisters, whom the Father draws to himself (cf. Jn 6:44). There is also the courage of countless believers in affirming their Christian identity when the moment comes for them to enter into dialogue with those who do not share their convictions, a courage which does not hesitate, if necessary, even to embrace martyrdom, as the fulfilment of Christian moral life. Finally, there is the enthusiasm shown by a new generation of theologians in their training for and exercise of their vocation as moral theologians.
Pope John Paul II has noted this flowering and its fruits in his Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor": “The work of many theologians who found support in the Council’s encouragement has already borne fruit in interesting and helpful reflections about the truths of faith to be believed and applied in life, reflections offered in a form better suited to the sensitivities and questions of our contemporaries”.(1)
3. Another aspect needs to be considered as well. In a climate of intense intellectual activity, like that experienced by moral theology in the recent past and present, additional effort is required of theologians personally dedicated to this work: the effort not to lose either a sense of balance or the standard proper to their vocation. This second element has two inseparable poles: a respect for the right of the People of God to the entire truth, and a solid connection with the Church’s Magisterium, which has the weighty responsibility, through the Spirit of the Risen Christ (cf. Jn 16:13), of preserving the People of God in living faithfulness to the truth through changing times and circumstances.
With regard to the vocation of the moral theologian, it is appropriate to pause for a moment to trace its parameters a bit more precisely. The task of the moral theologian is indispensable to the living reality of the Church. It is he who investigates whatever may make living “according to the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) more clear, more transparent, and more accessible to the Christian faithful. It is he who guides the discernment of true and false problems, and identifies their value and significance. It is he who scrutinizes “the word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living tradition of the Church”(2) to draw from it the light necessary for solving the questions which arise.
These general ideas could be complemented by the more specific observations made in the Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor".(3) Without going into detail, it is helpful to recall that the work of understanding faith and morals, entrusted to moral theologians, should not be viewed as a monolithic block closed in on itself. It is essentially a service which should promote the growth in goodness of the People of God and collaboration with the Magisterium in exercising its task as final arbiter of truth in the Church.
4. In the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium, tensions can at times arise. These should not always be interpreted necessarily as expressions of irreconcilable positions or hidden rifts, but rather as the result of different approaches to the same truth, which is always difficult to grasp in all its complexity and richness.
In the recent history of the Church, one can point to the tensions which existed between certain theologians and the Magisterium in the 1950’s. These tensions later revealed their fruitfulness in becoming a point of departure for the Second Vatican Council, as the Magisterium has recognized. Admitting in this case that tensions exist does not imply carelessness or indifference. It is rather a matter of the “patience which permits maturation to occur”,(4) the fertile ground which allows seeds to germinate and new plants to grow. Metaphors aside, it is the recognition of the need to give new ideas the chance to align themselves gradually with the Church’s doctrinal inheritance in order to open up its unsuspected riches. The Magisterium prudently takes this approach because it knows that in this way the Church may arrive at deeper understandings of the truth for the greater good of the Christian faithful. This corresponds to what is expressed by Pope John Paul II in "Veritatis Splendor", where he writes that the Magisterium does not intend “to impose upon the faithful any particular theological system”.(5) The time for pruning or for discernment may certainly arrive, but never before the shoots sprout or the buds open.(6)
5. Besides tension, there can also unfortunately be opposition. This happens when the search for truth is undertaken without regard for the Church’s doctrinal inheritance and becomes hardened into ambiguous or patently erroneous positions. The vigilance exercised in this case by the Church’s pastors falls within the role conferred on them by the Lord, that of keeping intact the “deposit of the faith” for the good of the entire Church.(7)
Indeed, when one considers the question more closely, it becomes clear that this attitude of opposition harms everyone; above all, the theologian himself, who, once he has denied certain truths, exposes himself to further errors which may even lead him to close himself against Truth itself. It harms the People of God, whose access to the fullness of Christian truth, which is their inalienable right, is threatened. Lastly, in the absence of sound theology, the Church’s pastors are deprived of an important aid in undertaking the task which the Lord has entrusted to them. Watching over the revealed “deposit” (cf. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12), the Magisterium does not seek to tear down, but rather to straighten and thus to build up. Saint Paul said as much to Timothy (cf. 2 Tim 4:2), and John Paul II reaffirms it when he calls the attention of moral theologians to certain truths that belong to the “moral inheritance” of the Church.(8)
6. The beneficial result of the vigilance exercised by the Church’s pastors extends therefore to the community of theologians, to which Father Marciano Vidal belongs. The publication of the present Notification gives the other members of this community the opportunity to review their own contributions in the light of what the Magisterium, in this case, recognizes as belonging or not belonging to the “deposit” entrusted to the Church. In this regard, the Notification is rich in valuable indications, some of which are highly sig-nificant.
First among these is the centrality of the person of Christ in Catholic moral theology. The value of recta ratio in arriving at a knowledge of the human person is certainly recognized. At the same time, however, it is Christ who is the indispensable and definitive reference point for a complete knowledge of the human person; this is the basis for integrated moral acting, in which there is no dichotomy between that which depends on the humanum and that which comes from faith.
Following the indications offered by the Second Vatican Council, the Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor" is explicit on this point. Christ is the one to whom the “rich young man” draws near to learn about himself more clearly and to know what he must do to correspond to his own identity and to discover his true good, in other words, to realize himself according to the plan of God (cf. Mt 19:16–21).(9)
A second important element follows directly from the first: the inviolable dignity of human sexuality. In an environment of distorted sexuality, so prevalent in today’s world, the authentic meaning of human sexuality can easily become attenuated. As a result, moral theologians may tend to respond to old and new problems with answers that are more in agreement with the sensibilities and desires of the world than with the “mind of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor 2:16). As is frequently the case with controversial doctrinal questions, the proper solution here is the lectio difficilior. As has been reiterated by the Magisterium on various occasions and in different contexts, no compromise can be accepted in this area. The Christian vocation, lived out in different states of life, is only possible on the basis of a sound human sexuality.
In the light of these observations, the reason why the Church considers masturbation and homosexual acts to be objectively grave can be understood.(10) In this same perspective, the Church invites Christian spouses to responsible parenthood in keeping with the “indissoluble connection”, willed by the Creator and Redeemer of mankind, between the unitive and procreative dimensions of the conjugal act.(11)
The same reasoning is at work in the teaching of the Magisterium on homologous artificial fertilization. The only worthy context for human procreation is that constituted by the actions proper to a husband and wife, and every form of manipulation of the human embryo must be avoided.(12) With regard to the unconditional respect owed to the human embryo, it is not sufficient to affirm the overall immorality of abortion only to attenuate this principle later on in a confused way when applying it to concrete cases of particular complexity. On this point, the Church has always claimed absolute consistency and continues to do so with increasing insistence.(13) In holding firm to the principles of the integrity of human sexuality and respect for human life, the Church is not oppressing anyone. Rather, she values the human person, all the more since her conviction is based on the vision of the human person taught by Jesus Christ and the apostolic tradition, notwithstanding the cultural context of their time.
7. A Notification like the present one is always an important event in the life of the Church, in the first place, for the theologian immediately concerned, but also for the entire body of the Church, of which he remains a member. In similar cases, terms like “tearing down” can be used, but also “constructing” and “building up” (cf. 2 Cor 10:8; 13:10). Initially, the first verb may seem the more appropriate, but with time and in the light of the Lord’s invincible love, the verb “build up” will prevail and give rise to the lasting joy of remaining finally in the truth (cf. 2 Jn 2). It is here that the hope of the Church resides: “we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rm 8:28).
(May 15, 2001)
* * *
(1) John Paul II, Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor" (August 6, 1993), 29: AAS 85 (1993), 1157.
(2) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Instruction Donum Veritatis" (May 24, 1990), 6: AAS 82 (1990), 1552.
(3) Cf. Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor", 111-113 : AAS 85 (1993), 1220-1222.
(4) This expression is found in the "Instruction Donum Veritatis", 11 [AAS 82 (1990), 1555], where it describes the proper attitude of the theologian who desires that his daring research into the truth of the Church’s faith may truly bear fruit and “edify”.
(5) Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor", 29: AAS 85 (1993), 1157.
(6) The recent Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus (August 6, 2000), describes this process very well and applies it to the important question of inter-religious dialogue: “In the practice of dialogue between the Christian faith and other religious traditions, as well as in seeking to understand its theoretical basis more deeply, new questions arise that need to be addressed through pursuing new paths of research, advancing proposals, and suggesting ways of acting that call for attentive discernment” [3: AAS 92 (2000), 744].
(7) Cf. "Instruction Donum Veritatis",14: AAS 82 (1990), 1556.
(8) Cf. Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor", 4: AAS 85 (1993), 1135-1137.
(9) Cf. Encyclical Letter "Veritatis Splendor", 2, 6-7: AAS 85 (1993), 1134-1135, 1138-1139; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris hominis (March 4, 1979),10: AAS 71 (1979), 274.
(10) Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Persona humana (December 29, 1975), 8-9: AAS 68 (1976), 84-87; Letter Homosexualitatis problema (October 1, 1986); 3-8: AAS 79 (1987), 544-548; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2352, 2357-2359, 2396.
(11) Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae (July 25, 1968), 11-14: AAS 60 (1968), 488-491; John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (November 22, 1981), 32: AAS 74 (1982), 118-120; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370, 2399.
(12) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum vitae (February 22, 1987), II, B, 5: AAS 80 (1988), 92-94.(13) John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae (March 25, 1995), 58–62: AAS 87 (1995), 466-472.