VATICAN CITY -- In one of the most important documents of his reign, Pope John Paul II issued a bulky encyclical yesterday that asserts the absolute moral authority of church teachings over the world's 900 million Roman Catholics and commands the "loyal assent" of all bishops, priests and theologians.
The 40,000-word papal letter is a get-with-the-program call to Catholics likely to alarm what Vatican insiders disparagingly term "supermarket Catholics" -- those who buy what they like of church teaching and leave what they don't. You must take it all, the pope says.
Written in longhand by Pope John Paul in Polish over six years, the dense, closely reasoned papal teaching, "Veritatis Splendor" (The Splendor of Truth), is a stunning intellectual tour de force by a deep-thinking moral theologian rooted in mainline Catholic dogma. His tenth encyclical, it is a stern, uncompromising reaffirmation of authority.
But it will certainly raise the hackles of millions of Catholics whose concepts of right and wrong are more flexible than their pontiff's.
The Most Rev. William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, said the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops "welcome this teaching as a real help in calling all church members to live an authentic life in Christ."
The archbishop, president of the conference, said the pope "has affirmed many truths of value not only to Catholics but to all people of good will."
"As the concern grows about the values we live by in our American society and how we educate our young people in values," he said, "I invite our neighbors of other Christian churches and of other faiths to study this latest document of Pope John Paul. Common concerns, leading to common efforts, can only be of benefit to our nation."
Pope John Paul says morality cannot exist independent of faith. As defined in fundamental church teachings, good and evil are immutable, he insists. They do not admit relativism or individual interpretation.
Moral theologians, the pope writes, have a "grave duty to train the faithful to make this moral discernment." Moreover, moral teaching is above the normal yea-and-nay, give-and-take of democratic societies, Pope John Paul says.
"Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God. Opposition to the teaching of the church's pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts," the pope says.
In "areas of both dogma and morality," Pope John Paul orders his fellow moral theologians to give "the example of loyal assent, both internal and external." The pope instructs bishops "to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught," and tells them they may withdraw the title "Catholic" from church-related schools and other institutions that fail to teach "sound doctrine of faith and morals."
Widely leaked weeks before its official release yesterday, the encyclical almost off-handedly restates long-standing church teaching on social and sexual issues that preoccupy U.S. Catholics: It vetoes abortion, euthanasia, sex outside marriage and artificial birth control. The various drafts were widely discussed within the church and drew fire from a variety of theologians, Vatican sources say.
The encyclical was prompted, the pope says, by a "genuine crisis" in the church's moral teaching.
"An opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, as if membership in the church and her internal unity were to be decided on the basis of faith alone, while in the sphere of morality a pluralism of opinions and of kinds of behavior could be tolerated."
It cannot be tolerated, the pope says, quoting Revelation, because "the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man but to God alone."
The church is the only authentic interpreter of the word of God, the pope asserts, "whether in its written form or in that of tradition."