Sting of encyclical drawn by Hume: Cardinal shows Pope's letter to bishops is not a restatement of hard line on artificial birth control

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CARDINAL Basil Hume yesterday presented Veritatis Splendor, the Pope's controversial encyclical on moral theology, with its sting removed.

The encyclical, addressed to all the bishops of the Catholic Church, emphasises the existence of absolute moral standards. It quotes the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in denouncing economic sins, such as 'Private use of corporate property; work badly done, tax fraud, forgery of cheques and invoices, and excessive expenses'.

It also quotes St Paul: 'Neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor sexual perverts, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor thieves, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God.'

'I think St Paul needs a lot of explaining,' the Cardinal said, 'Doesn't he?'

'To my way of thinking, 'intrinsically evil' is a technical term,' the Cardinal explained. 'There are acts that are in themselves always seriously wrong . . . for instance, if I steal pounds 5 from somebody else, that is intrinsically evil.

'Genocide is intrinsically evil. But there is a vast difference between them.'

Much of the advance publicity for the encyclical had been based on wildly misleading readings of a leaked version obtained by another newspaper. It is in fact a rather technical and in parts tedious attempt to show how a Catholic moral theology should derive from the question posed to Jesus by the rich young man, who asked: 'What good must I do to have eternal life?'

In a performance of commanding wit, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales demonstrated that the encyclical was not a restatement of the Church's hard line on sexual morality, even if it did nothing to weaken it. It does attack theologians who have attempted to argue away the papacy's condemnation of artificial birth control, but this, too, was played down by the Cardinal.

'All I can say for this country is that there will be no witch hunt. We have good relations with our moral theologians. The encyclical is calling us bishops to dialogue with moral theologians, and to hear what they have to say.'

The Cardinal also took the opportunity to reiterate his interpretation of the Vatican's ban on artificial birth control, set out in the earlier encyclical, Humanae Vitae. He said it was a prophetic document. It would be seen to be right in 500 years' time. In the meantime, it caused 'a very grave problem for a great number of people'.

What he said to couples in difficulty was that they should not deny the wrongness of artificial contraception; nor should they lose sight of the ideal. 'But if they failed to follow the Church's teaching, circumstances might be such that their blameworthiness could even be minimal. On a scale of 0 to 10, it could be anywhere.'

He quoted with approval a passage in the encyclical where the Pope writes that the Church 'must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick'. This, he said, proved the importance of pastoral care.

Leading article, page 23

(Photograph omitted)