Pope John Paul II's new encyclical was being especially welcomed by U.S. Catholics seeking a clearer moral compass but was troubling for those who say that moral choices depend on circumstances.
That was the preliminary consensus yesterday among Roman Catholic theologians as the Vatican made public a sweeping new papal encyclical, "Veritatis Splendor" (The Splendor of Truth).
Six years in the making, the final draft mentions only in passing the sexual issues that have preoccupied the U.S. church. But the document has an underlying assumption that if Catholics stand on the fundamental moral foundations outlined in it, specific actions the church has deemed immoral or even evil -- among them artificial birth control, abortion, euthanasia and sex outside of marriage -- will be avoided.
"I think it's a remarkable document. It just sweeps away over a quarter-century of confusion about Catholic moral teaching," said Ralph McInerny, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and publisher of the conservative Catholic journal Crisis.
Others, including Catholics for a Free Choice -- who oppose numerous church teachings, including the prohibitions on artificial birth control and abortion -- accused the Vatican of a "siege mentality."
"The professional conservatives will be elated. The professional liberals will hunker down, and probably the ordinary person won't give a damn," said Father Charles E. Curran, a theologian who was banned by the Vatican from teaching Catholic theology in 1988, largely because of his dissenting views on sexuality.
In exhorting bishops to faithfully affirm traditional Catholic moral doctrine and hold Catholic theologians and universities accountable, the pope gave no quarter to "reformers" in the United States and may have further sharpened the moral divide that separates many U.S. Catholics from the church hierarchy.
Overall, however, the initial reaction in the United States to the encyclical was far different from the uproar that accompanied the birth-control encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," issued 25 years ago by Pope Paul VI.
"I think people will read this. They will take it in stride," said Father James L. Connor, director of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said the pope recognized "the complexities and difficulties of moral discernment today" but clearly restated the church's teaching that there are moral absolutes.