Just obey

John Paul 2 wrote (or his boys wrote and he put his name to) this encyclical because of his shock-horror at the fact that human beings, even Catholic human beings, were having the gall and foolhardiness to think about morality in human terms using human reasons. That would never do.

In particular, the question is asked: do the commandments of God, which are written on the human heart and are part of the Covenant, really have the capacity to clarify the daily decisions of individuals and entire societies? Is it possible to obey God and thus love God and neighbour, without respecting these commandments in all circumstances? Also, 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 behaviour could be tolerated, these being left to the judgment of the individual subjective conscience or to the diversity of social and cultural contexts.

5. Given these circumstances, which still exist, I came to the decision — as I announced in my Apostolic Letter Spiritus Domini, issued on 1 August 1987 on the second centenary of the death of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori — to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating “more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology”,9foundations which are being undermined by certain present day tendencies.

A pointless exercise from the start, because morality is not about theology, and theology does harm to morality.

We can be pretty sure we know where this is going, though. The point is to remind everyone, and to insist with a stamp of the red silk foot, that the church is the boss of morality, and what it says is absolute, and not accepting that is heresy and blasphemy and worse than murder (though not worse than abortion). Morality is absolute; we know what it is because of that book we can quote from; that’s all there is to be said.

32. Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one’s conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one’s moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself”, so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

Whereas what everyone should be doing is just whatever the church tells them.


  1. says

    The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil.

    No, that would be you lot. While there may be some foolish atheists who think their personal conscience is infallible, I don’t think mine is. Make an argument that I’m doing harm, or that I could do more good, and I’ll listen.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    If God etched His Commandments on my heart (ouch), why do I need anyone else telling me what to do?

  3. latsot says

    It’s all such clumsy begging of the question. For an organisation that does nothing but pretend, it’s not very good at pretending.

  4. Iain Walker says

    Setting aside for a moment the fact that his characterisation of secular morality is barely substantial enough to qualify as a strawman, this does yield some insight into the workings of the authoritarian mind. Note that he can’t seem to think of a source of morality as being anything other than final and absolute. Note that he can’t seem to grasp the notion of a moral agent being a creative participant in the moral process. The idea of morality as a reciprocal, egalitarian, communal and ongoing endeavour rooted in our common existence as self-aware social agents is entirely alien to him. It either has to be handed down from on high by an unaccountable authority, or it’s a subjective free-for-all.

    Every time I hear a religious leader fulminating against moral “subjectivism”, I hear the same tired false dilemma, and my faith in the human imagination dies a little.

  5. sailor1031 says

    That ‘covenant’ he mentions was with the jews not with the christians. The popes’ problem is they think someone died and left them in charge. But reading that special book one does not find the pope or the bishop of rome (which is what the pope claims makes him pope) mentioned*. Religion (and its bastard handmaiden theology), as we often comment, is just about making shit up! Having had a couple thousand years they’ve had time to make up a LOT of shit.

    * that Shimon bar Jona went to Rome and founded a church there is not scripture but tradition, for which there is no evidence. “Tradition” is, in this context, just another word for “making shit up”.

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