AS A JOURNALIST, I am usually irritated by the charge that the press distorts everything, but, in the case of this encyclical, it is justified to an almost incredible degree.
In 180 pages there are only two references to contraception, both of them more or less en passant, yet the coverage has been of nothing else. There is hardly any discussion of sexual morality in the encyclical. This document seems to me an Anglican and a theological ignoramus to be a discussion of morality in general and its relation to faith and to the authority of the Church.
I find the form attractive. This encyclical is a letter to bishops, and so it has both a theoretical basis and a practical purpose. It has a logical structure.
The first part is a meditation on the passage in Matthew in which the young man comes to Jesus and says, "Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal lifer The most arresting point is the Pope's assertion that "Jesus shows that the young man's question is really a religious question, and that the goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has a source in God, and indeed is God himself". From this it follows that morality is the way in which God is served in this life, and it also follows that it cannot be made or altered by man, for man cannot make or alter God.
'None of this denies the importance of conscience, for each of us can tintact at all in the light of our conscience and all of us are in the position of the young man who asked the question of Jesus. But what it does entail is that conscience is not a law unto itself.
Conscience is the means man has of acting upon the law that has been given to him.
The meditation is perhaps the best written part of the encyclical. It is moving in its concern for what the Pope calls. "the singular dignity of the human person", and impressive in the care and clarity of its exposition. I have often wondered about the apparent harshness of Christ's teaching to the young man. Now the sense of harshness remains, but I feel I understand more of why Jesus said it. Moral rules are explained as absolute, but not arbitrary. They are just as much the condition of freedom in Christ as grammatical rules are the condition of freedom in language.
The second section develops the point about conscience in the course of discussing current tenden cies in moral teaching. Again, the tone of the writing is more attractive than I had been led to expect. Although firm in his views (what else could or should he be?), the Pope does not traduce his opponents.
He represents their positions carefully and with apparent understanding. He displays intellectual good manners. The reader never feels, contrary to what one often reads, that the author is a fuddy-duddy. He exhibits a powerful apprehension of the character of late 20th century ideas, which is why his repudiation of them is so powerful.
He shows how the modern idea of freedom in opposition to nature destroys the dignity of human beings body and soul. By contrast, the doctrine he upholds is humane.
1 was immensely struck by the encyclical's use of some
words of St Gregory of Nyssa on how moral acts define the person: "...we are in a certain way our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions."
Once he has shown the relation between morality and Christian faith, the man who claims to be successor of Peter must logically reassert his Church's authority in moral matters.
Many, of course, repudiate this, but I do not see how anyone could reasonably have asked him to argue differently.
I see this encyclical as appropriate to the times in the sense in which martyrdom is appropriate to its time as a witness to the, truth when people are disposed, like Pilate, to say "What is the truth", and not stay for an answer.
Charles Moore is editor of the Sunday Telegraph.