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Rome finds sexual ethics errors in work of Spanish moralist

NCR Staff

In a condemnation of “ambiguities and errors” in the work of a popular Spanish moralist, the Vatican has once again asserted that there are no cases in which abortion, sexual relations between homosexuals, masturbation or artificial birth control can be morally acceptable.

Three books by Redemptorist Fr. Marciano Vidal were the subject of a critical “notification” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released May 15 and published over two pages in the May 16 L’Osservatore Romano.

Vidal, 64, a professor in Madrid, is a well-known figure in Spanish-speaking theological circles. He is generally seen as a moderate disciple of the late Redemptorist moral theologian Fr. Bernard Häring, who emphasized personal conscience over abstract rules.

The Vatican’s obvious preoccupation with Vidal’s work is sexual ethics.

The notification quotes Vidal as saying that artificial contraception and sterilization can be acceptable “in situations of particular gravity” or when the intention is “to achieve a human good in a responsible way.”

“Both these positions are contrary to the teaching of the church,” the Vatican congregation said.

Regarding masturbation, the Vatican said Vidal believes that the personal condition and circumstance of an individual must be taken into account.

Catholic teaching, on the other hand, is that “acts of autoeroticism are objectively intrinsically evil,” according to the congregation.

Vidal, the Vatican said, has also taught that the church’s teaching on homosexuality does not have “an adequate biblical foundation” and should not be so categorical.

This position, the congregation said, is in conflict with “the objective morality of sexual relations between persons of the same sex.”

Vidal also “distances himself from the teaching of the church” by being open to in vitro fertilization procedures in which only a husband and wife are involved, not a third donor or surrogate mother, the Vatican said. The doctrinal congregation said Vidal’s manual, Moral de Actitudes, “contains ambiguous judgments on other specific moral problems,” including abortion.

“The author rightly affirms the overall immorality of abortion,” but “his position on therapeutic abortion is ambiguous” because it does not distinguish clearly between “indirect abortion” caused by a medical procedure and an abortion performed to protect the life or health of the mother.

The targeted books include Vidal’s three-volume manual on morality, a dictionary of moral theology, and a critical analysis of John Paul’s 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor. They “must not be used in theological formation” until suitably rewritten, according to the notification. The manual, sources told NCR, is widely employed by seminaries in Latin America and Spain.

While occasionally sharp in tone, the notification is not addressed to “the totality of [Vidal’s] work and his theological ministry,” and does not revoke his license to teach as a Catholic theologian. The congregation said Vidal had agreed to revise his manual “under the supervision of the doctrinal commission” of the Spanish bishops’ conference. The notification said that it hopes Catholic moral theologians, in light of Vidal’s case, will work in greater harmony with John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on moral questions, Evangelium Vitae.

The notification ended an investigation that had been underway for four years.

An accompanying set of “marginal notes” said that tensions between Rome and theologians can be positive if accompanied by “patience for maturation,” but when tensions harden into opposition, they are “harmful to everyone.”

The notes said that rather than “tearing down” the work of a theologian, Vatican notifications should be seen as “constructing” and “edifying.”

Sources close to the case said that the Vatican had at one stage prepared a much stronger denunciation of Vidal, but it had been softened after a meeting between Ratzinger’s staff, Redemptorist superior Fr. Joseph Tobin, Vidal himself, and Vidal’s advocate, Redemptorist Fr. Joseph Pfab (who has since died).

Pfab’s intervention was credited with taking the edge off the Vatican approach. It was not his first time at bat. Years ago, when Pfab was the superior of the Redemptorists, he accompanied Häring when the legendary German moralist faced similar Vatican charges.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001