The Light of the Encyclical

Author: Cardinal C. Journet


Cardinal C. Journet

It is nonsense for a Catholic to set up, in opposition to the authority of the Encyclical, the infallibility of his own personal conscience.

The great interest created by the Encyclical "Humanae Vitae" is no doubt due to the immediate nature of its subject: the burning question of the transmission of life. More profoundly, it is due to the fact that the Encyclical intends to make a pronouncement in this matter in the name of a light coming from a higher source, namely from God Himself, the Creator of all life. The light of the Encyclical projects, then, beyond the theme of the Encyclical.

Without it, this theme remains misunderstood, perhaps even irritating. With it, this theme opens up a vision of fidelity to God the Creator and to His whole Gospel, and consequently of a vast programme of restoration of human dignity at all levels - family, social, political; in short, a future of confidence in life. "When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world" (John 16, 21).

What does the Gospel bring us? A revelation concerning the depths of God: " No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (John 1, 18). "Before Abraham was, I am" (8, 58). A revelation concerning the sacramental obligations of God: " Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God " (3, 5). " For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed" (6, 55). A revelation concerning God's moral obligations: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her" (Mark 10, 11). These great revelations may be refused: "After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him " (John 6, 66). They may be accepted in love: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life " (John 6, 68).

He who should strengthen his brethren

This power to enlighten the world, to declare with authority the things to be believed and the things to be done in His Kingdom, Christ leaves deeply imprinted in His disciples, before He returns to His glory: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matt, 28, 19-20).

The apostles will speak in His name and not in the name of the multitude. They are equal among themselves to give us the Holy Scriptures, to found the Church in the way in which workmen erect a building which survives them; these are their transmissible powers. They are unequal in the transmissible powers which they bequeath to their successors to preserve the Church and to found her, this time as a rock and with foundations on which she will rest.

One of them is the rock here, on which stand both the foundations and the rest of the building (Matt. 16, 18); it is he who is to strengthen his brethren (Luke 22, 32); he is the shepherd to whom Jesus entrusts his sheep and his lambs (John 21, 15-17).

The bishops have power when they are united; in the order of things to be believed and to be done for the Kingdom, they lose all authority when they are divided. "The perfect circle of the universal Church needs one centre not in order to be perfect, but in order to be" (Soloviev).

Supreme authority over the universal Church rests wholly in the Sovereign Pontiff alone, and its exercise is therefore personal. And it still rests wholly in the Sovereign Pontiff when he is acting together with the College of Bishops, and his exercise of this authority is then collegial. There is not more authority in the college of bishops together with its head than in its head alone, but there are more participants in the authority and this is for them a great privilege and a great responsibility. "It belongs to the Sovereign Pontiff, to whom the care of the whole of Christ's flock has been entrusted, to determine, according to the changing needs of the Church during the passage of time, the way in which it is fitting for this care to be exercised, either personally, modo personali, or collegially, modo collegiali.

In structuring, promoting and endorsing the exercise of collegiality, the Sovereign Pontiff proceeds according to his own discretion, in view of the welfare of the Church (Explan. Note No. 3). The Pope is the Vicar of Christ to govern Christ's Church, he is not vicar of the Church, he is the pastor of the flock. In the college, he preserves intact his office of Vicar of Christ and pastor of the universal Church. This office is not shared with the flock. It is the college then which participates in a vital way in his authority: in the same way as a light which, without losing its intensity, illuminates the things it touches, and as the life of the heart keeps the body alive.

The Ordinary exercise of authority

The personal exercise of supreme authority by the Pope alone is solemn when by an irrevocable judgment the Pope defines, as contained in revelation, a point of doctrine concerning faith or morals. This exercise of supreme authority is ordinary, when the Pope carries out his mission to transmit and call to mind unceasingly, and at all times, the great teachings, the great obligations, the great invitations to sanctity in the Gospel revelation. He may do it through the intermediary of delegated bodies. He does it directly in his encyclicals.

When, in the Encyclical "Humanae Vitae", faithful to the constant teaching of his Predecessors, he turns once again to the same grave problem; when, in the light of the Gospel, he intends to clarify a point in the first article of the Creed, concerning God the Creator of life and the laws on its transmission, the authority oil which he bases himself, and the mandate which he is carrying out, conic to him from Jesus Himself: " Go therefore and make disciples of all nations... " (Matt. 28, 19); the help promised to him is the very help of Jesus: " Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (28, 20); the obedience which he expects is - that which is due to the Son of God and to him from whom he proceeds: " He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me " (Luke 10, 16).

The reasons and arguments put forward in the Encyclical may certainly be discussed, weighed, debated. They have no other purpose than to prepare the way for the conclusion; it is not based on them. This conclusion is grave; it concerns a point of fundamental morality. The Pope's obvious intention is to decide a controversy which casts doubt on traditional teaching which has for centuries been approved by the magisterium. This conclusion is founded, in the eyes of all the Church's children, on a certainty of a spiritual and evangelical order.

The Encyclical reminds priests: "Be the first to give, in the exercise of your ministry, the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church. That obedience, as you know well, obliges not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular Way to the Pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth".

It is in the light of the Gospel, and helped by the Spirit which Jesus promised to him, that the Pope has recalled the basic laws of human sexuality as collaborator in the divine work of creation. "He has only", said a theologian of the Orthodox Church, "called things by their proper name. He has said what is the Church's teaching on sex, marriage, contraception, childbirth. Nothing is new. Sin is sin just as night is dark. It is sin which is hateful. And those who are against the Encyclical love sin. They love sin so much that they clamour for it to be legalised, to be declared virtue. The Church hears sins in confession. Christ and the Church have loved sinners and have heaped tenderness on them in order to help them. " (Virgil Gheorghiu).

Let us return to these considerations. It is for the Sovereign Pontiff a question of discerning the profound laws of life and its transmission; of pronouncing on the normality of human acts which depend on human nature, in so far as it transmits, in accordance with essential inclinations, the ordination of divine creative Reason. It is a question of making a pronouncement, consequently, on a point of morality concerning the first article of the Creed in which we profess our belief in the infinite Wisdom and Goodness of the Creator. It is a question of pronouncing this judgment in the light of the Gospel and of the invitation to sanctity which comes through the Gospel to all the children of the Heavenly Father,

The Pope does this after evaluating "a tradition which is not only centuries old, but recent, that of his three immediate Predecessors"; ready "to accept, as far as he could, the conclusions, even though of a consultative nature, of the Commission instituted by John XXIII and by himself ", and "trembling before the alternatives of an easy condescension to current opinions, or of a decision that modern society would find difficult to accept"; with " the feeling of a very grave responsibility ", after " being led into and sustained in the very heart of the problem during the four years which he devoted to the study and preparation of this Encyclical ".

Finally, having "pondered over the consequences of one or other decision ", he declares: "We had no doubt about Our duty to give Our decision in the terms expressed in the present Encyclical". In the seriousness " of his Apostolic duty ", he gives, on this burning question, an answer " to the Church and to the entire human race " (Address of 31 July 1968).

A teaching establishing certainty

One thing is certain: the ordinary magisterium of the Sovereign Pontiff is here fully exercised. The theologian who will reflect on the gravity of the matter, on the light in which it has been clarified, on the precision and certitude with which the response is given, will even be able to conclude that he is—this is our personal opinion—in the presence of a point of moral doctrine which could be later defined and accepted in the future with an assent of divine faith.

Whatever about this last point, the teaching of the Encyclical, in its principal conclusions, is the bearer of certainty. It is nonsense for a Catholic to set up in opposition to the authority of the Encyclical the infallibility of his own individual conscience. The conscience of no one among us is infallible. Conscience requires to be formed; each one is responsible before God for the very formation of his own conscience.

"If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Matt. 6, 23). St. Paul, so sure of the Gospel which he announced to the world, refused to be judge of himself: " I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me " (I Cor. 4, 4).

"Conscience! Conscience! Divine instinct! Infallible judge of good and evil! ... ... But was it not Diderot who replied to Rousseau that one knew that whatever he did, he would always have his conscience for him?

The Sovereign Pontiff asks bishops, priests, and Christian families involved in pastoral organisations, to present the Encyclical in its true light, and to show its positive and beneficial aspect. "What the Church wishes above all, is to help Christian couples to achieve mutual perfection, to purify their love, to taste the happiness of a conjugal life led in the sight of God". She wishes to convince them "that it is possible with God's grace— which never exposes man to trials beyond his strength—to go forward in chastity, as in the other virtues, and that possible falls, even repeated, should not discourage them but rather stimulate them to a methodical and voluntary effort in the mastery of self and in a more regular and confident recourse to the Sacraments". The Church desires that "through the confessional and through preaching, all necessary pastoral effort be made so that no ambiguity remains among the faithful or in public opinion on her position in this grave matter" (Letter from Cardinal Cicognani, 19 July 1968).

Alluding to the difficulties which the faithful may encounter, Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, wrote: "Those who are already accustomed to using unlawful methods will perhaps not be able, immediately, to resist temptation. They must not abstain from the Sacraments. However frequently they fall, they must ask God's grace to find strength to obey His law. May God grant us the prudence and humility to accept the directives of the Head of the Church on earth " (4 August 1968).

This "world" which Jesus ran counter to

The Pope well knew that in writing his Encyclical he would run counter to that "world" to which Jesus himself ran counter. He did not take his decision in order to please the multitudes, but before God, with his eyes on the eyes of Jesus. Alone as in the Garden of Olives. But he also knew that he would have with him not only the fidelity of his children, but also all that is magnanimous and noble in the human soul. "I feel it is necessary", wrote Dr. Kunig, Central President of Swiss Doctors, recently, "in an age in which faith in technological progress set up as a philosophical doctrine is widespread, for someone to raise his voice in defense of those higher values which transcend all individual and collective aspirations of self-interest or convenience.

"Where will this end, when in Sweden education on sexuality is obligatory in the schools for adolescents of 13 and 14 years, under the heading, 'Playing Together', and the use of the pill is preached to girls of this age? Beyond the circle of the Roman Catholic Christian community the Encyclical remains like a finger in raised warning to all men of

all denominations, that they should not treat of problems which transcend purely animal biology without deep respect. And it warns its doctors, also, that we should strive in this field to consider man in his twofold nature endowed with corporal and spiritual existence."

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 October 1968, page

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