Lesson 4a: Moral Magisterium (Scope and Outline)

Our text and basic guide has been the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (1993) together with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). These are two major and important components of the moral magisterium of Pope John Paul II. Subsequently, we will examine the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (3/25/95) on the life-death ethic and the life issues in general and in some detail.

However, it is not simply these two major encyclicals and the universal Catechism that give shape and content to the moral magisterium of John Paul II.

A rich and very extensive series of post-Synodal documents -- called Apostolic Exhortations -- are, in part or in whole, major contributions to Catholic life and practice.

Thus, the papal exhortation, Catechesi Tradendae (10/16/79) is on catechetics; the Pope's personal and comprehensive vade mecum on marriage and family life, Familiaris Consortio (11/22/81); the sacrament of Penance, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (12/2/84); and a complete exhortation on the three states-in-life in the Church: Christifideles Laici (12/30/88) on the laity; Pastores Dabo Vobis (3/25/92) on the priesthood; and Vita Consecrata (3/25/96) on religious life.

Three social encyclicals contribute to the Church's moral-doctrinal patrimony: Laborem Exercens (9/15/81), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (12/30/87) and the magisterial summary of 100 years of Catholic social teaching in Centesimus Annus (5/1/91). It is significant that such titles as "The Person and Society" (CCC ##1877-1896), "Participation in Social Life" (##1897-1923) and "Social Justice" (##1928-1948) are included in the fundamental section of the moral part (III) of the Catechism. Thus, these are not extras, add-ons or advanced placement considerations; they are, rather, part of the fundamental Moral Theology of the Catholic Church.

Three Apostolic Letters of great importance because they deal with critical issues touching the fault lines of contemporary moral confusion and societal stress: Salvifici Doloris (2/11/84) on the Christian understanding of suffering which if understood correctly could help arrest the advance of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Mulieris Dignitatem (8/15/88) a key document that details the dignity and vocation of women, along with the Pope's highly personal Letter to Families (2/2/94) that summarizes central themes of his whole priestly and papal apostolate.

The Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (8/15/90) not only recapitulates the relevant universal law of the Church but offers as well ways and means to provide a juridic link with Catholic higher education.

During the same pontificate, the sixteen year effort at the re-codification of the universal law of the Western Church was promulgated by John Paul II in the Codex Iuris Canonici (1983). Also, for the first time, a complete codification of the canon laws of the Eastern Church was promulgated, Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium (1990). This double legal renewal fulfilled a request and requirement of the Fathers of Vatican Council II.

Although John Paul II gives generous credit to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), the Holy Father views the Catechism as indispensable "in order that all the richness of the teaching of the Church following the Second Vatican Council could be preserved in a new synthesis and be given a new direction" (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 1994, p.164). While not explicitly called for by the Council, the Catechism is the Catechism of Vatican Council II and completes the teaching and implementation of the Council.

Under the same Pope's approval and direction, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has promulgated instructions, declarations and letters in detail on the most contemporary problems: the Declaration on Euthanasia (5/5/80); the Instruction on Infant Baptism (10/20/80); and the Letter on The Minister of the Eucharist (8/6/83).

A two-part teaching was promulgated in 1984 beginning with a concise critique of Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation (Liberatis Nuntius, 8/6/84) along with the fuller Catholic perspective in the instruction On Christian Freedom and Liberation (Libertatis Conscientia, 3/22/86).

The CDF Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (10/1/86) remains to this day the most concise and complete treatment of that question and its implications in Catholic history.

The CDF instruction, Donum Vitae (2/22/87), on bioethics and bioethical issues, presents clearly the moral status of the human embryo and all the needed distinctions and moral guidance necessary for resolving pressing and future questions.

In 1989, the same CDF issued a letter On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation that is both a useful warning and needed guide for neither fusing nor confusing Christian and non-Christian prayers and prayer forms.

Lastly, a CDF letter gave a definitive response to the question of Reception of Communion: Divorced and Re-Married Catholics (9/14/94), while a formal reply of the same Congregation stated that the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was infallible (10/28/95).

Surely, at least two other encyclicals provide teaching and guidance that directly affects Catholic life and moral practice: Redemptoris Missio (12/7/90) on the missionary nature and activity of the Church, and, Ut Unum Sint (5/25/95) on ecumenism.

These many mentions stand more as a bibliography of scope and outline of the moral magisterium of John Paul II, no pretense is offered here of explaining the content of all of them.

One reason for reviewing these documents (their contents and sources) is to appreciate their profound conformity with the Second Vatican Council. There are some tendentious faddists who, either ignorant of, or antagonistic to, the Council's true teaching, popularize the deceit that the Pope (John Paul II) and the current Prefect of the CDF (Cardinal Ratzinger) are trying, somehow, to reverse the Council. Some even accuse the Pope of trying today to restore 'minority' positions set aside at the Council and replace the 'majority' position actually taught by the Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. John Paul II, I would argue, is the most faithful expositor, even champion, of the true teaching of Vatican Council II.

In his Apostolic Letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (11/10/94), John Paul II teaches that the best preparation for the new millennium can "only be expressed in a renewed commitment to apply, as faithfully as possible, the teaching of Vatican II to the life of every individual and of the whole Church" (n.20).

Indeed, as a first phase of individual and ecclesial preparation for the new millennium, John Paul suggests a serious examination of conscience. A conscientious exam that considers the actual reception of the Council: To what extent has the Word of God become the 'soul of theology' and Christian living as Dei Verbum taught? Is the Sacred Liturgy the 'origin and summit' of Church life as Sacrosanctum Concilium taught? Is the ecclesiology of 'communio' lived as Lumen Gentium taught? Are careful discernment and courageous witness to the truth lived as Gaudium et Spes taught? (TMA, n.36)

Again, all these mentions are more bibliographical than descriptive, but they do outline, in part, the scope of the moral magisterium of John Paul II which we continue to examine in part.


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