The primary importance of the Pope's most recent Encyclical lies naturally in its contents: namely his reassertion of one of the primordial Catholic beliefs that there exists a set of fundamental moral truths which are binding on the conscience of Catholics, which the personal conscience may not override. Its secondary, but strategic, significance lies in the fact that it is a call to arms, addressed particularly to the bishops to defend those basic moral truths which are inherent in the Catholic Faith; and to ensure that those whom the bishops appoint to teaching positions, will be men and women who can be trusted to proclaim and defend them.
As Bishop J.P. O'Connell, Administrator of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, in the absence of Archbishop Little, expressed it in the press statement which he issued to accompany the publication of the Encyclical: "He (the Pope) calls upon the Bishops, to whom the Encyclical is addressed, to see that its moral teaching is faithfully taught in Catholic institutions and that Catholics are guarded from every doctrine and theory contrary to that teaching."
It is, therefore, all the more regrettable that representative Jesuits, including the Australian Provincial, Fr W. Uren, have chosen publicly to cast doubt on the binding authority of the Encyclical and, therefore, of its author, Pope John Paul II.
It affords this journal no pleasure publicly to criticise the leader of the most influential religious order in this country, as it is throughout the world. But if a Provincial believes that he has the right publicly to contradict the Pope, he can hardly complain if his own statements are brought under equally public scrutiny.
The ABC's session, Four Corners, (October 11), which was clearly set up to demonstrate the divisions in Catholic ranks, provided first-class documentation as to where the land actually lay. Bishop Pell did not shirk the task of explaining, defending, and insisting on the binding force of the Encyclical. Unfortunately, his prime antagonist was a Jesuit in open conflict both with the Bishop and the Pope.
In a following interview in The Australian (13 October), Fr Uren stated that the Encyclical was the product of an "authoritarian" coterie surrounding the Pope, and that the Papacy should open itself up to other intellectual positions. The statement was both patronising and ill-informed.
At the Second Vatican Council, the present Cardinal Ratzinger (then Fr Ratzinger) was personal theologian to Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and closely associated throughout with Fr Karl Rahner and the group of German theological periti regarded as the liberal and progressive wing of the Council. The suggestion that he would need to be familiarised with Fr Uren's argument for the right of the individual conscience is merely silly.
As for the present Pope himself, anyone who doubts either his intelligence, the width of both his philosophical and theological knowledge, or his independence of thought, has only to refer to the role he played at the Council itself: particularly in the formulation of Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, the Declaration on Religious Liberty and in the development of the Council's theology of the Lay Apostolate. One thus needs a good deal of self-assurance to sit in judgment on the intellectual capacity of the two main architects of the Encyclical.
The central point at issue was the central point of the Encyclical. The position of Fr Uren S.J. and Fr Michael Kelly S.J. is that while the solemn teachings of the Pope are to be respected and given serious attention by all the faithful, in the last analysis it is the conscience of the individual which has the right to decide on that individual's course of action.
That position could hardly be more completely in conflict with the Encyclical.
"What is unacceptable," it states, "is the attitude of one who makes his own weaknesses the criterion of truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy.
"An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific human acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values" (par 104).
An even more practical issue arises from the publication of a new Catholic illustrated journal Australian Catholics by Fr Michael Kelly S.J., in the light of his reaction to the Encyclical - which was identical with that of Fr Uren and repeated on several occasions.
In the Jesuit Bulletin (Spring 1993) Fr Kelly announced that:
- "the Jesuits are combining with a range of Catholic organisations to produce a new national magazine of Catholic life and spirituality";
- that magazine is Australian Catholics which will appear quarterly;
- the publishing figure is 250,000 per issue;
- the cost of each copy to the publisher is 50 cents;
- it will be distributed free.
Hence, in the course of a year, a million copies are to be published. If the item cost provided by Fr Kelly is correct, the total cost is $500,000.
Who then is to pay for it?
Fr Kelly states that "all expenses will be met by resources from the participating groups": St Vincent de Paul Society, Pontifical Mission Societies, Australian Catholic Health Care Associations, the Catholic Church Property Insurance Co, and the Jesuits.
One perhaps may disregard the simple question of the propriety of the St Vincent de Paul Society's diverting money collected for the poor, and of the Pontifical Mission Societies that collected for the missions, to any extraneous purpose. It is significant, with the exception of the little which general advertising may contribute, that $500,000 a year is the extent of the subsidy given by the Catholic Church to a publication issued by an Order which, through its representatives, has led the Catholic attack on the Encyclical and its authority.
It is almost certain that this decision is simply the result of the habitual administrative weakness of the Catholic system which permits such a scandalous result to eventuate.
It requires a major act of faith, however, to believe that a Church which so generously finances those who so publicly criticise the Pope, is likely to give more than notional assent to the Encyclical.