VATICAN LETTER Jun-16-2006 (810 words) Backgrounder. xxxi
Sex, marriage: Pope discusses love, Vatican official discusses sin
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In early June, Pope Benedict XVI drew favorable attention when he said the church does not want to "suffocate" the joy of love by its teaching on sexuality and marriage.
What many noticed was the pope's positive approach -- his recognition that young people, in particular, feel an "urgent call to love" and his insistence that the church's goal was not to place barriers in their path.
He said the church's teaching should not be seen as one "no" after another, and urged church leaders to implement a pastoral "strategy of intelligence" that takes seriously people's questions and doubts.
The following day, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family published -- without warning -- a 60-page catalog of modern sins against the family and responsible sexuality.
Signed by the council's president, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, it said that "never before has the natural institution of matrimony and family been victim of such violent attacks." It condemned a long list of practices, including cohabitation, birth control, divorce, gay unions, and the "abusive interference by the state" in some sex education programs.
The document shocked many readers when it said couples who limit their family size to one or two children are, in effect, living in a "marriage willingly made sterile." As for abortion, it said the act itself was an "abominable crime" that should not remain unpunished by civil authorities.
The difference in tone between the pope and one of his top aides did not go unnoticed. The pope was solidifying his reputation as a gentle teacher; Cardinal Lopez Trujillo came off as an ecclesial "Terminator."
"What this document is missing is love," said the Rev. Maria Bonafede of Cardinal Lopez Trujillo's text. The Italian Waldensian's remark deliberately alluded to the theme of Pope Benedict's very popular first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love").
The contrast illustrated an age-old problem for journalists in Rome: How much weight to give various Vatican pronouncements.
In this case, should the two interventions be taken as complementary sides of a strategy -- the pope extending an open hand to potential allies and the cardinal delivering a knockout punch to opponents?
The pope, at Cardinal Lopez Trujillo's request, will preside over the Fifth World Meeting of Families in July in Spain, a country where church and state are engaged in pitched battles on family issues. While most of the attention will focus on what the pope says at the events, some saw the pontifical council's document as the Vatican's bottom line on the issues.
But the situation is slightly more complicated than that.
Cardinal Lopez Trujillo has a history of issuing documents that are deliberately downplayed by the Vatican press office. And while the Colombian cardinal inevitably makes headlines, there are many inside the Vatican who would not want him to be seen as a spokesman for this pontificate.
Interestingly, the cardinal's latest document was handed out unannounced to reporters, without a press conference. And then the text simply disappeared from view. Ten days later, it still hadn't been released on any of the Vatican's Web pages, including the council's, and it wasn't printed or even referred to in the Vatican newspaper.
The document was dedicated to Pope Benedict. But there was no indication that the text had been approved or even seen by the pope prior to publication.
The pope would probably have found little to disagree with in the text; occasionally in his first 14 months as pontiff he has spoken about these same issues. But he has presented his teachings about marriage, sexuality and the family in the context of a wider discussion about key relationships -- between God and humans, the body and the spirit, and freedom and fidelity.
This approach has won him praise across the spectrum, in Italy and beyond.
The Italian newspaper Libero recently commented, "Up to now, Pope Benedict's magisterium has been aimed precisely at freeing Christianity from the prejudices which have painted it as an oppressive moralism."
The pope has emphasized that Christ came to lighten people's burdens, not add to them, and that the sense of being loved by God is the first thing Christians should communicate to others.
Upon these lovely concepts, Libero commented, Cardinal Lopez Trujillo's document has fallen "like a load of cement."
The cardinal had no regrets about the tone of the document, however. He told the Rome newspaper La Repubblica that unless the church is willing to remind people of uncomfortable truths, its teachings risk being devalued.
"The uproar provoked by the text is a positive thing," he said.
All of which has piqued interest in what Pope Benedict will say in Valencia, Spain, where on July 8-9 he will enjoy his first global platform for expressing the church's teachings on the family.
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