Alexander Μ. Stavropoulos|
Professor of the University οf Athens
«VERITATIS SPLENDOR»: an Orthodox reaction
This article is translated from the French, Language Service, WCC. Published in “The Ecumenical Review” Vol. 48, No 2, 1996, p. 155-157.
Besides the traditions which it shares with other churches, each church has its own tradition and its own way of linking the gospel message to the application of God's commandments in everyday life. It also has different means of making its teaching known. The Roman Catholic Church's preferred way of doing this is by encyclical letters from its supreme pontiff to the bishops or to the clergy and the people of God as a whole.
There are occasions when the conduct of Christians is falling short of what God commands. The church then declares its intention to set forth the truths of the gospel so that those truths are not lost. The Greek word for "truth" (aletheia) consists of a privative prefix "a" followed by a derivation from the word for "forget" (lethe): truth is thus something that we do not allow to be forgotten. It is a basic duty of bishops to remind people of truth.
Each church judges for itself when it is appropriate for it to issue such a reminder. It then acts according to its traditional procedures for evaluating situations, individuals and their actions. Bearing in mind the particular way in which the Roman Catholic Church habitually expresses itself, other churches should not expect from it an Orthodox, Anglican or Protestant document. Difficulties are no doubt to be expected if one church takes up a position different from that of other churches on a moral issue such as the morality of the family, for example -- all the more so if a particular document in which it takes such a position also includes criticism implicitly condemning the position of other churches which do not follow the same line.
In any case it would be desirable if, in questions of morality, which usually generate tension, preliminary consultation could take place so as to reduce the possibility of opposing positions. This would avoid giving the impression to the world that there is deep disagreement between us as churches, despite the fact that we all have the gospel as our common starting point. I make this suggestion of preliminary discussions before the publication of a document such as an encyclical out of the concern that there should be a common witness irrespective of our divisions as separate churches.
Existing divisions due to doctrinal differences may also be affected, because of the close link between doctrine and ethics. Human ethics are based on the doctrinal truths of the faith. It is thus in a way natural that churches which differ on doctrinal issues should differ in their approach to moral and ethical issues as well. But differences which are not inevitable should be avoided or eliminated.
We should note further that differences and opposing positions can exist within one and the same church. We must not forget that the encyclical Veritatis Splendor was published in order to give concrete guidance in confronting dissensions and differing opinions on moral issues, and particularly on issues of family and sexual morality. Of course, the positions of the Roman Catholic Church are not criticized only by Roman Catholic theologians: they are also criticized by theologians of other confessions. However, it does not seem to me that the encyclical is aimed at them. Veritatis Splendor is addressed to an internal, Roman Catholic readership, although its message is for the whole world.
The encyclical is concerned to base human conduct on "natural law" and on "conscience", and it does this by referring to the close relationship between "freedom and law", "conscience and truth", by distinguishing between "mortal sin" and venial sin", and by distancing itself from a position which gives priority to "fundamental choice" regarding "specific kinds of behaviour". By doing this it emphasizes the concepts of "intrinsic evil" and "universal and unchanging moral norms". All these are key concepts in the traditional moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
A consistent approach to moral issues does not and cannot change from one moment to another. It seems that concepts such as "natural law" and "conscience" can find positive acceptance in wider human societies and groups who live without revelation and can in a certain way broach moral issues through logical thought and intellectual reasoning. That is why the Roman Catholic Church is careful to maintain arguments of this kind in its approach.
In any case, such a way of thinking does not narrow the foundations of morality. Moral conduct is strengthened by an appeal to revelation and can in a certain way broach moral issues through logical thought and intellectual reasoning. That is why the Roman Catholic Church is careful to maintain arguments of this kind in its approach.
In any case, such a way of thinking does not narrow the foundations of morality. Moral conduct is strengthened by an appeal to revelation and by stressing the Christocentric nature of all morality.
It is helpful to note at this point that the church as a whole has a sure conception and also a deep conviction of what is right and true in doctrinal and moral issues. Arguments may be different or may change from one age to another, but that does not mean that a change in argument may diminish or change doctrine or be regarded as a retreat to earlier positions. Following on from that, after using logical and other forms of argument, the church puts forward motives, incentives and support to help people to conduct their lives aright. It suggests resources from where the faithful may draw strength which will subsequently reinforce decisions and their implementation.
We find this tactic in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. On the one hand, it presents logical, rational arguments giving a foundation for moral conduct and refuting the arguments of moral theologians who take up a contrary position. On the other hand, we see an attempt to edify and reinforce moral behaviour by its Christocentric perspective, by its reference to martyrdom and by its insistence on the need for morality in the renewal of social and political life and in responding to the demands of the “new evangelization”.
The encyclical as a whole is a presentation of basic Christian truths, and it is satisfying to find in it the gospel message addressed to an age which has largely abandoned gospel ideals. Its contents offer an opportunity for detailed study of the biblical texts and of the opinions quoted from the great fathers of the church who are universally accepted, such as St Augustine, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Cyril of Alexandria, St Ambrose of Milan, St Andrew of Crete and others.
Despite these positive elements, one does have the impression that in the
encyclical all moral problems seem to have been given once-and-for-all solutions. Such an all-encompassing approach does not leave sufficient room for different ways of tackling these issues.
However, the pastoral sections, with their edifying exhortations, do leave room for hope, although the pastoral approach finally yields to the all-too-evident inflexible logic. All this does not mean that the decisions of the church should be labelled as unduly lax or unduly rigorous. Law is not opposed to gospel, to grace: it is expressed in the spirit of the gospel, of grace, just as the human mind (nous, logos) does not act independently but within the human heart (kardia) itself.
The truth of the gospel finds bodily expression in each human being according to the gifts and talents which have been given to each of us. The church, through oikonornia, that “extraordinary weapon of salvation”, acts “economically” (kat’oikonomian) in a benevolent way to reconcile and settle differences. In such cases the church does not leave the faithful alone to solve these problems by themselves. It refers them to their spiritual fathers and confessors, who, with the discernment which is distinctively theirs, carry out their pastoral work with knowledge and intuition, an intuition as to what is possible, improbable or impossible.
As a basic principle there remains the saying of our Lord that “the sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). For Jesus, the law is to be at the service of human life. We are fallen human beings from the beginning and we continue to fall. But by the grace of God it is also possible for us to rise again after each fall. We may claim that human beings are rational, reasonable animals, and also animals on the way to becoming divine (zoon theoumenon), created in the image of God and consequently to be like God (Gen. 1:26).
These last remarks are an attempt to outline an Orthodox approach to moral issues and a way of thinking that reflects the thoughts of the fathers on morality. However, the aim of this brief survey has not been to give a detailed description of this way of thinking, but rather to offer some comments from an Orthodox point of view on a first reading of Veritatis Splendor, which sheds light, the light of Christ, on some decisive points concerning family and sexual morality. My concern has been to read and react to it in a spirit of truth and love (Eph. 4:15).