An encyclical made for whom?: Contraception is not the real issue in 'Veritatis Splendor', says Andrew Brown

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IT'S NOT about sex. The papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor will be officially published tomorrow after a barrage of publicity based on leaked advance copies. Half the newspaper-reading public believes it already knows what the encyclical says: that contraception is intrinsically evil.

But this interpretation could hardly be more wrong. It is wrong in detail: the encyclical nowhere states baldly, 'contraception is intrinsically evil'. And it is wrong in general: the encyclical is not about sexual morality at all. It is much more reactionary than that.

Press conferences will be held in Rome and London to launch the encyclical. In Rome, the presiding figure will be Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), who was until now the bogey figure for all liberal Catholics. It surely says something about this document that he is widely credited with toning down some earlier drafts, which attempted to extend papal infallibility from dogmatic questions to moral ones. Beside him will sit one of the men widely believed to have given the earlier drafts their flavour: Fr Andrzej Szostek, professor of ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, a post once held by the present Pope.

The press conference in London will not have any Polish intellectuals present. This should make it rather more entertaining, since they are the only people who seem able to make sense of the encyclical.

The general confusion that surrounds this document will not prevent a fine old row developing between those who oppose the encyclical because it condemns contraception, and those who support it, maintaining that it upholds objective moral standards against a tide of relativism. In fact, the encyclical does both, but that is not where its controversial force lies.

There is no doubt that the Pope condemns artificial contraception, but he has been doing that for years, at every opportunity. In 1982 he called it 'atheism', which is rather more serious, in Catholic terms, than 'intrinsically evil'. The purpose of this encyclical is not to restate the ban on contraception decreed in Humanae Vitae.

The only fresh bite at that apple of discord is a nibble on page 123, where it quotes Humanae Vitae's own condemnation of contraception: 'Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it - in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order.' This quotation is introduced by the weasel phrase 'with regard to intrinsically evil acts and in reference to contraceptive practices', the point being that Humanae Vitae used the phrase 'intrinsically dishonest' rather than 'intrinsically evil', and this distinction mattered a great deal at the time.

Nor is it remarkable to find a papal encyclical upholding the existence of objective moral standards. A belief in the existence of objective moral standards, authoritatively explained, is after all the heritage of all Christians: indeed of all Jews and Muslims, too. It helps to explain why they have been able to wage war on each other with good consciences.

There is even widespread agreement about what these standards are. The encyclical starts from the Ten Commandments, which are common to all three of those religions. On the matter of objective moral standards, you could probably find about three billion people who would agree with the Pope.

So what is there about Veritatis Splendor that is genuinely controversial? And why is it that the Catholic bishops of the West will squirm when they try to explain it? For they will be squirming at their press conferences tomorrow, and not just from anger because the document has been leaked.

The answer lies in the use the Pope makes of objective moral standards. It brings irresistibly to mind A N Whitehead's joke that every man thinks his own beliefs are the culmination of two and a half thousand years of Western philosophy. The Pope would not find that funny. He knows that what he has to say supersedes all previous understandings, and was meant to do so.

This comes out most clearly in his discussion of conscience and natural law. Both concepts are crucial to the great Catholic rebellion over Humanae Vitae. Conscience is especially important here, for it has become a code word for disobedience. The simple and overwhelming truth about lay Catholic attitudes to contraception is that the Catholics who use it do not believe that they are thereby bad Catholics. Their consciences discern nothing wrong in what they do.

In this, they are expressing the implicit belief that on this one question they are better theologians than the Pope. They agree with him that there are objective moral standards; they may well agree with him that these rule out abortion or homosexuality. But they believe that a blanket condemnation of artificial contraception is simply, objectively wrong. Their reason tells them the doctrine is absurd, and their consciences can find nothing wrong when they flout it.

When bishops or theologians then describe Humanae Vitae as a document that appeals to conscience, they know, and their flocks know they know, that this appeal will fall on deaf ears. This is because it is perfectly possible for sincere, devout and loving Catholics, all brought up in the same intellectual tradition and all believing in the same objective moral order, to disagree profoundly about how this order should be reflected in human lives. Such disagreement has, after all, been a feature of all Christian history.

It is this quite natural divergence of views that the encyclical aims to stamp out. Though it claims that it is not trying to impose any particular theological or philosophical method on the Church's moral theologians, it is clearly trying to impose on the Catholic Church as a whole both a particular philosophical method and a particular philosophical style - which come naturally to professors of ethics at Lublin, but not necessarily to all Catholics.

The only possible practical outcome is a series of purges throughout the seminaries and Catholic universities of the West. In 1907, Pope (now Saint) Pius X issued an encyclical attacking a series of theological attitudes that he lumped together as 'Modernism'. The ensuing round of sackings and silencings of theologians are now known as 'The Modernist Terror' - and most of the attitudes condemned by Pius X are now commonplace.

The two questions this encyclical really raises are whether Pope John Paul II plans a post-modernist terror, and whether, if he does, he will find the bishops to carry it out.

(Photograph omitted)