25.1.05

Review of the Papal Encyclical "Veritatis Splendor": John Paul II and Moral Theology

Book Cover of John Paul II's papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth)
Veritatis Splendor is John Paul II's 
papal encyclical outlining the 
Catholic Church's moral teaching.
Why is Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor so hard on  "teleological", "consequentialist" and "proportionalist" ethical theories?
    John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor places emphasis on the good rooted in a divine, or eternal law.  In saying this he is advocating a moral system based on the principles of Natural Law Theory, even though in the encyclical he states that the Church does not support a particular theological or philosophical system, it is precisely natural law that he advocates in this encyclical.  The Pope doesn’t like the systems he calls “teleologismand “proportionalism”.  About Teleologism and Proportionalism, he says, “Such theories however are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law.” So, again, it seems John Paul II doesn’t like it when a moral system does not place commandment over love, for example, or personal responsibility.  It makes sense that he would argue in this manner, considering the Gospel passage he chose to set the stage for this encyclical, the story of the rich young man, which he uses to set up the standard for moral norms.  The Pope wants to place certain ethical norms in place, based on an ethics of divine commandment.
Using "Object - Act - Consequence" When Evaluating Moral Decision-Making
     The Pope tries to work out a system that claims certain actions are evil, because their objects, in of themselves are evil. He claims that the so called proportionalist and teleological systems do not claim the “object” of an act  such as contraception  as evil in of itself, but instead attempt to examine the intention or circumstances of the act, invariably “letting people off the hook”.  For the Pope, an evil act is evil, regardless of the circumstances or intentions. For example, contraception is evil, because the object of preventing life to form in a woman’s womb artificially is always an intrinsically evil act  even though in Humane Vitae, Paul VI tried very hard to steer clear from such wording, the Pope seems to have no qualms in doing so.
Is There a Middle Ground in Moral Teaching that Still Stays True to Catholic Teaching?       
    It seems to me that instead of point-blank condemning these moral systems the right thing to do would be able to form some kind of compromise between the two or to discover a moral theologian that seems to be able to form a really good systems based on something rather than the object in of itself and still remain true to Catholic teaching.  I myself do not consider myself a proponent of Natural Law. I am too Platonic, too much of a Romantic, to get into the Aristotelian flavored ethics of Thomas. Although, it seems to me the Pope should be more like Thomas in attempting to incorporate “pagan” ideas into Christian thought.  Maybe there is something good out there that we really have not integrated well into our Catholic moral teaching. If Thomas could do what he did with Aristotle, why can’t we do the same with Existentialism  or even Phenomenology?
Billboard in front of Canadian Memorial Centre for Peace
Should the Church's moral teaching be more open or closed?
  
Are All Immoral Acts Equal Evil?
     The Pope is a phenomenologist, I understand, but this encyclical does not seem to be written in a phenomenological vein, instead, it is much more steeped in the language of law and norms, especially in regards to sexual ethics. Wouldn’t it be okay to sanction certain objectively evil acts?  Doesn’t the church in a way use proportionalism when it attempts to justify war? I may be wrong, but it seems that the Pope is unyielding when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, when in fact, the parable of the rich young man is more about wealth. There seems to be a trend in moral theology that condemns without reserve evil acts such as abortion but allows wiggle room for war and deportation, for example. Again, I believe we should be able to reach a compromise.
On Some Criticisms
      When I read Veritatis Splendor I also read Häring’s criticism in the Tablet.  I also looked at op-ed pieces that were written at the same time and was amazed at the flood of criticism.  Melina is right; most of the critics focused on chapter two of the encyclical, the part about the sources of Moral of Theology and intrinsic evil and not on the other chapters.  Chapter two of the encyclical is the most important part of the encyclical, I agree, but Melina argues that the document should be looked at in its entirety.  Melina wants renewal in Moral Theology too, new Gospel wine, a new, comprehensive outlook yet profoundly traditional (6).  Melina knows that one cannot get rid of the the moral norms but at the same time he realizes that morality should not be governed by a legalism so prevalent in older systems.  There has been a “rupture of the bond between freedom and truth” and there is a crisis in Moral Theology.
     The subject has been fractured and takes on the guise of whatever social environment it finds itself in.  The fractured “I” is not truly free because it is bound to the truths of disconnected moral systems, never really able to “become a free subject of action”.  He points a finger at the bourgeois society of the “rich young man” as the result of the shipwreck in morality.  He also sees technology as destructive to man when disconnected from conscience.  He quotes Heidegger and Rabelais.  Our computers and super-fast jets are nothing without conscience.  I passionately believe this; that technology can remove us from a “connect”, not only from a guiding conscience but from the connect of the other as well, thus a disconnect from God.  I am reminded of Fahrenheit 451, the novel about a dystopia where firefighters burn books to keep people from thinking and feeling.  Maybe there needs to be an embrace of the more profound questions of human existence, rather than just “What must I do”?   

       How is Melina going to recontextualize Moral Theology yet remain profoundly traditional?  It seems he is going to bring in the virtues to put together the pieces of the shattered ego.  I don’t know how he is going to do this, but noticing that he has already quoted Alistair McIntyre (After Virtue) and C.S. Lewis and Aristotle in the first thirty-three pages I can see that Virtue Ethics will play a large role in resurrecting the fragile “I”, the wounded subject that seems to be the cause of the crisis in Moral Theology.  He will also bring in the necessity of community in creating a moral realm that is aesthetic and good.  Beauty is necessary for salvation, I believe.  Beauty is the splendor of truth.  If we lose the beautiful then we have lost humanity.  If we lose the community, the need for friends, that Aristotle so beautifully wrote about in the Nichomachean Ethics, then humanity will surely be at lost, no matter how technologically advanced we become.  Melina asks a beautiful question that I hope he expounds upon: “What kind of community will help me to attain the values to which I am called”.  I get frustrated in thinking about what I should do; I am asked about what I do in my life, so much so, that I wish sometimes people would ask me, ‘how will you attain the values to which you are called’?  There has to be a return to the virtues, to an aesthetic, and a re-tethering of freedom and truth, I agree and the moral life must find a home.   
      But, still, I wonder what he means by remaining profoundly traditional?  He mentions that he is going to address the nexus between freedom and truth, which may bring a profoundly traditional Moral Theology, yet, still I do not know what he means by that statement.  He is also going to bring in the connection between faith and morality.  I can see how this will also be profoundly traditional because Melina does not want the attitude of faith lost to morality; he wants to affirm that to believe is also a profoundly moral assertion.  So, I hope that these books provide some insights into bringing back the human family, so we can more authentically say to one another, “What?  You too?  I thought that no one but myself  ...” (32).

2.1.05

Poem: "Lessons"













While he slept I peeked my head through the doorway and
noticed that he was sleeping with his glasses on

so I gingerly removed the spectacles from his face,
so he wouldn’t roll over in his sleep and crush the glass,

so better save him now, while I can,
similar to the bike ride earlier that day

when I tried to save him from his cold dash into the night and he consoled me,
indicating the efficacy of street lights and the

apparent paucity of vehicular traffic −
and I remember sighing a huge breath of relief because it didn’t seem to matter

anymore that the sun was sinking into the river, drowning away
like a melting orangcicle,
bodies bobbing on the surface of its tan waves, white foam froth

foaming at its Cerberus mouth −
that’s the mississippi for ya −

and we raced the rest of the way back
and I masked my anger that he had won;

I placed his glasses on the night stand,
retracing my steps back to the guest room to gather my stuff,

wondering if I should have just let his glasses dangle there on his face, wondering if in the morning he would be bitter that I

foolishly sought to save him
again,

or would he forget



Greig Roselli © 2005

27.12.04

Meditations Aboard the Saint Charles Streetcar

On Carrollton and Claiborne the Streetcar begins about three blocks from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
The streetcar that I ride is classic Christmas green with brown edging. Usually once a week I’ll walk down to the streetcar stop to take a ride. My destinations vary. Yesterday I took the streetcar to visit a High School religion class on Saint Charles Avenue. I spoke to all four classes and at the end of the day got back on the streetcar, a train that does not care about race or sexuality, education or gender. We all sit in the same car (thanks to Rosa Parks) and commence on our respective journeys.  One little girl about as tall as my knee told her girlfriend how she couldn’t wait to get home to eat cornflakes, take a hot bath and get a nap in before her momma got home. On another day, the driver spoke to me about the Presidential elections. He was very passionate about his election choice, warning me about the next four years. I thanked him for his observations and got off at the Latter Library. Another time some tourists in front of me were murmuring about how loud it was and how they should have stayed at the hotel to take a nap. I sat on the seat clutching my bookbag, protecting my laptop so it wouldn’t fall. Streetcars are bumpy, you know. The benches are hard so your body feels every movement, every shock of electricity. The lights will dim off and on near Carrollton and Willow. No one announces the stops. You just have to know. There are no maps in the car, just the signs from the windows. As I ride along, I watch the people get on and off and sometimes I hear the driver announce the next stop. She’ll even announce a good place to eat if you listen. This is journey. I’ve learned you have to listen if you want to reach some kind of spiritual maturity. It is a spiritual journey because it is humanity gathered together  I see it as nearly as I see my own hand typing these words. It is humanity in the fullest sense, an existential snapshot of the human condition right there on Carrollton and Claiborne.
If you liked this post about New Orleans — read more in my book
Things I Probably Shouldn't Have Said (And Other Faux Pas).
On the streetcar you see lots of things out of your window. Low-economic housing and a few blocks away on the same street, huge Garden District mansions, College campuses, zoos, and parks.  Pedestrians and bikers. I was translating Ancient Greek at the car stop one afternoon and was yelled at by college guys in a red truck. They called me a freakin’ queer. I had my back turned to the street, sitting on the concrete with a book bag, an open Greek book and two stacked notebooks by my leg.  I heard their taunts and whipped my head around.   I didn’t say anything, just heard their jeers and saw their contorted faces. A jolt of anger ran through me.  Who were these boys to lash out at me because of their own insecurity? Do we live in a world where it is insane to read? Where reading is queer, different, out of touch? Sometimes in this journey, I feel like I live in a dystopia.  It is then that I feel lost and discouraged, reluctant to take the ascent to a newer level. I become despondent and alone, jaded about the world around me and discontent with the state of affairs. I fail to see the possibility of spiritual ascent.  All the ladders seem broken, all the paths are one-way streets. I envy Jacob and his ladder. The vision of angels descending and ascending. Spiritual life is in the midst of the urban jungle. There is a world pulsing at every moment. But, I can stop on a street corner and take a deep breath of acrid air, sigh, lift my hands high and thank God for his many gifts. I thank God for how he has blessed me.  I say a small prayer on the earth that I stand, no matter where I stand. I whisper prayers to myself as the car rumbles.  I can hear the electric lines above snapping and recoiling, their vicious dance apparent as we roll down the oak-lined street. I think of the ladder of ascent. I pray to God to illumine my eyes, to soften my heart and to open “the ears of my heart”. These are not stages. I am not on the journey one day, and then on the next, ascending the spiritual ladder. At the end of the day, I do not suddenly become mature in my faith. The journey is continuous. Whether it be here in New Orleans or back home, whether in the motions of my heart and mind or in the paths of my friendships and loves, in the intimate whispers of my prayers to God. Maturity is marked along the path.  Sometimes without a street map handy to guide the way. Off the cuff and without warning I have to be Father to someone in need, and just as unrehearsed I have to be nurturing mother. The reality of father is new to me.  The reality of son is a comfortable role for me. I notice that I am being called to spiritual fatherhood. I sense that this is an important step in my spiritual journey. I am nurturing mother in the way that I care for the elderly in my community and my family. The opportunities for maturity are there, surely, I just do not always apprehend them as I should. Because I am lackadaisical and unaware of the possibilities around me to grow in my faith.  I certainly have the knowledge.  I certainly have the brain. But as my mother has told me in the past, I do not always have the heart. Sometimes my heart says things I do not know how to articulate.  Sometimes I am at the end of the streetcar line and I have to get off. The outside wind is often cold and the ground is hard on my feet. I have a few quarters in my pocket, not enough to take the bus.

So, I walk, meditating again in the urban jungle.  Suffice it to say I am on a journey, a mediocre journey (I have come to terms with my own mediocrity long ago) and not always sure where the road will lead. I am okay with only having questions.  I am not so naive, or vain, or prideful (thank god) that I need answers. I am a seeker. That is the best word that describes my spirituality. I am a seeker on a particular rung of the wheel.
Saint Charles Avenue Streetcar, New Orleans, Louisiana
To me, the ascent is rather a wheel than a ladder. A ladder presupposes one way up; while a wheel implies by its very design that different spokes can reach the same spiritual center.  The wheel turns with all of its spokes intact.  The center will hold; I believe that.  I am on the streetcar now and it has come to a stop, so I really have to get off now.  I can hear the driver yelling already!

7.12.04

Theology: Reflection on the Vatican II Document Sacrosanctum Concilium

Second Vatican Council convenes in St. Peter's Basilica
It has been over thirty years since the Vatican Council began, since the renewal of the liturgy and the subsequent changes that have affected Catholic worship as we know it was first set into motion. I was born in 1979, more than a decade after these changes. I grew up knowing nothing different than the Mass that I know today, in the vernacular, which for me was the familiar language of English. I only know Mass where the priest faces the people, not the other way around.
     Little did I know as a boy in Catholic grammar school that the liturgy and worship of my time and place had had a long and tumultuous history, a journey spanning two millennia, from the the breaking of the bread recorded in Acts (2:2), to the Greek concept of koinonia, the Orthodox liturgy of the East, to the dramatic Papal displays of Medieval Europe to the Tridentine Mass so familiar to a whole generation of Catholics who came before me.
     So, reading the document on the liturgy from the Council today, more than three decades later, is very interesting, because it is important to go back to the source of what changed dramatically a liturgy that had been practically unchanged since the Council of Trent. What has really changed and what has really stayed the same? What did this document have to say and how have we been faithful to it in our interpretations?

3.12.04

Poem: "Bobby"


Bobby was bigger, but only by a few inches; in a fight, he always toppled me
effortlessly to the ground
with a swift kick of his Keds, a warm thud: undulated by the trampoline’s
attraction to the center of things.  Bobby snarled like an innocent kid on crack as he stood over me, his hair almost falling into my face —
then laughing, jumping into the air,
landing on my belly
laughing —
again

I was angry by this
invasion after school with something I could only guess was
fucked up camaraderie,
his cat calls of queer only adding to the sting of the taut tarpaulin,
the weight of Bobby,
my own inability to stand on my own two feet, the feeling of
discontinuous motion,
too fueled with raw gut to understand what he meant when
he pushed his weight on my stomach,
his Abercrombie jeans against my ribs.

If there was intimacy,
it was only for a moment —
and even then,
I surmise,
illusory
for
he took my head
back to the grainy tarp, my face a contorted red mash:

His suck-my-dick mantra seemed a distorted fraternal gesture,
an initiation into the world of men,
inverted love and affection parading,
threatening to undo me —
pinning me in a corner,
giving me a cruel chance to

not verily “men loving men”
as I would read about later —
when I got older —
not a continuum —
but fractured fraternity,
violent; 

And he would
clap my back after we fought
as if it was a ritual of friendship.

as if the previous humiliation was nothing, really, as if I had nothing to be ashamed about — any feelings I might have had were none at this moment because Bobby was kind
and generous.

You did okay for a pansy.  Really.
Can I borrow X-Men?

I would say “sure” and “okay” like a monk at chant.
“They’re in my room”.

But, he was my friend.

Bobby in his white cotton v-neck Fruit of the Looms
and Abercrombie jeans,
wiry blonde hair —
(he didn’t sleep; red circles around his eyes)
would
graciously accept my comic books
as a token of some sort,
a secret pact between us —
and he would bring them back,
in their plastic slipcases,
as if he knew they were precious to me,
punching my chest with a cordial
fuckface,
not too distant from my mother’s call
to come to dinner.

9.10.04

Poem: Fat Contented Ladies

I took this photograph of a decorative electric light bulb and lamp at the Louis H. Lattimer Museum in Queens.
photo credit: Greig Roselli*
the fat contented ladies with their
formaldehyde eyeliner, pat expressions -
flit around like wearied gods
looking for a handout, a dimpled whisper -

I can’t stand ‘em
PDF Copy for Printing
*I took this photograph of a decorative electric light bulb and lamp at the Louis H. Lattimer Museum in Queens.

11.7.04

Of Carmelites and African Greys

Brother Gabriel Rivet, OSB
In a mostly abandoned seminary building I climb a flight of stairs, pass two meowing cats and knock on the door of an old prefect’s office to rendezvous (as I do every Saturday afternoon) with Gabriel Rivet, a monk of Saint Joseph Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Covington, Louisiana, a bedroom community of New Orleans. The office is musty, retired parrot feathers garner the air and there is a strong scent of vegetables, parrot mix and the lulling hum of daytime television. “Mostly to entertain her,” Gabriel tells me pointing to the African Grey who does, in fact, seem to be watching TV, her head cocked to one side, intent, soaking it all in. Newspapers line the bottom of Jocko’s cage, old Times Picayunes and church bulletins; Br. Gabriel is exceedingly insistent that I place three layers of print to cover Jocko’s cage and to make sure I secure the edges with scotch tape. While he prepares Jocko’s egg – a treat the avian companion gets every afternoon – we talk about Saint Thérèse, Saint Benedict and monasticism. “You want your egg, Jocko?” Gabriel croons, motioning to the bird with a plate he places on top of the cage. Jocko knows the routine and determinedly climbs up to eat her fill of the yellow yolk. Usually, the monk, who will celebrate his fiftieth year of monastic profession this summer, offers me the white of the egg. “It’s not good for her. No nutritional value.”