Leading Article: Virtues obscured by authoritarian zeal

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The Independent Online
VERITATIS SPLENDOR, the Pope's encyclical on moral theology, had become a little tarnished by the time it was published yesterday. Previewed as a diatribe against sexual freedom, it had been written off by many as the irrelevant musings of an overpowerful, elderly celibate. This image was a destructive parody that now threatens to obscure the document's real content.

In fact, this encyclical is virtually sex-free. Its focus is on asserting objective moral standards. Pope John Paul is saying there are norms everyone can agree on: we cannot each simply follow personal whim. Far from being an atavistic cleric, the Pope has responded to a real need in the West for a definition of fundamental human values. His views will resonate with Roman Catholics and non-believers who see society drifting without a moral anchor.

The encyclical pulls no punches on the political implications of its message: sinfulness extends to abusing legal rights, fraud, theft, providing bad housing and exploiting employees. Here is a pope who, having spent a lifetime attacking Marxism, is also prepared to bear down upon the wrongs of capitalism. Equally, he is alert to the potential tyranny of the majority. Few liberals could disagree that 'a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism'.

It is possible, however, that the Pope overestimates the dangers of democracy. He goes so far as to highlight 'the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life'. His scepticism about supermarket values is understandable, but he seems to believe that the only alternative is a command economy in morality.

Where the encyclical really disappoints is in its authoritarian attitude to dissent. The tone seems to presage yet another clampdown on moral theologians who consider themselves members of the loyal opposition. It may also anticipate a forthcoming encyclical likely to confirm the ban on artificial contraception: this, above all, else threatens the Pope's credibility.

These attempts to defy Roman Catholic feeling in the later years of his papacy may produce theological civil war. The Roman Catholic intelligentsias in Germany and the United States are loath to accept the Pope's every demand. Cardinal Hume, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, wisely played the consummate peacemaker yesterday in tempering the papal message. Not for him the witchhunts that some Vatican hardliners desire. He will not be the one 'to break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick'. Others would be wise to follow the Cardinal's lead. Otherwise, the virtues of the encyclical may be obscured by excessive emphasis on its authoritarian zeal.