By KATHLEEN SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — On March 11 at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, ecumenism became a word of action. As part of the seminary’s eighth annual John Lewis Yost Jr. Lecture Series, a Catholic and Lutheran theologian came together to demonstrate the universality and necessity of Pope John Paul II’s moral teachings.
In the presentations, the document which received the greatest emphasis was Veritatis Splendor or The Splendor of Truth, an encyclical of the Holy Father on morality. “I am sure that Veritatis Splendor will be remembered as the most important encyclical in the century,” said speaker Father Augustine DiNoia, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Father DiNoia, editor of the Thomist and author of several books, spoke passionately about how the pope addresses the fundamental question, “Why be moral at all?,” a question most compelling in a time when morality is so poorly defined.
“The challenge of Veritatis Splendor is to reject legalism and moralism,” said Father DiNoia, who conveyed the document’s desire to replace obedience of the “forbidden and permitted” with a better understanding of the Trinitarian God’s love and law which is designed to help individuals choose between good and bad. “God created a world in which all things move towards him,” said Father DiNoia, pointing out that a sin (turning away from God) does not anger God, but saddens him because it ultimately hurts the individual. “Sin is not an exercise of freedom, but a failure of it because it prevents us from reaching fulfillment in God.”
Father DiNoia also noted that Pope John Paul II signed his encyclicals dealing with moral matters, such as Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae and Fides et Ratio on feast days whose mysteries are keys that unlock the meaning of the documents. Veritatis for example was signed on the feast of the Transfiguration, thus connecting “discipleship with communion and transformation in Christ.”
The other guest speaker, Dr. Reinhard Hutter, associate professor of Christian Ethics and Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, shared equal enthusiasm with Veritatis and other writings of the pope on the topic of morality. He edited and contributed essays in the book called Ecumenical Ventures in Ethics — Protestants Engage Pope John Paul II’s Moral Encyclicals. He said at first he felt like he was “eavesdropping” when reading Veritatis, but soon felt as though the document was addressed to him. “This encyclical is about freedom. The drama of the reformation was also about freedom … but it seems we have treated freedom like a coin handled by too many people. It has lost its impression thus it has lost its worth and meaning. Veritatis Splendor gives freedom back its imprint,” said Hutter.
“… [We] as late moderns are caught in the manic-depressive roller-coaster between the angelic dreams of autocreativity, of designing our bodies, of choosing our gender, our values, our destinies freely according to our idiosyncratic likings and longings on the one hand, and on the other hand, the Hades-like nightmare of being endlessly victimized by “the system,” by anonymous economic, political and cultural power structures …,” said Hutter.
He continued that Veritatis seeks to end the oscillation between the angelic daydream and the nightmare by properly explaining freedom in the context of God’s law. “God’s will, seen identical with God’s eternal law, provides the point of reference, the pole of stability and accountability that gives human freedom its inner shape and prevents it both from its explosion and its eclipse,” said Hutter.
The complimentary insights into Pope John Paul II’s teachings on morality by these two theologians prove that Catholics and Lutherans can benefit from each other’s unique perspectives which will continue to open new doors to honest and productive dialogue.
Oratorian Father William Pentis, pastor at St. Anne Church in Rock Hill, found the lectures useful and enlightening. “It gave me the impetus to take another look at the encyclical,” he said.