As a Polish Archbishop, he criticized the libertine communist state for legalizing divorce, abortion and birth control. As a member of a Vatican review panel, he signed the minority report that became the basis for "Humanae Vitae," the 1968 papal encyclical that banned the pill and other "artificial" methods of regulating birth as contrary to "nature." And as Pope John Paul II, he is more convinced than ever that his long-held views on human sexuality should be enshrined as an unambiguous doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
Now he's on the verge of closing every intellectual loophole. One of the first things the pope is expected to do upon his return to Rome is apply his editor's pencil to a new encyclical on moral principles. A working version of "Veritatis Splendor" ("The Splendor of Truth") has been circulating for weeks among bishops and theologians. Those who have seen the 130-page document say it could provoke a greater controversy than "Humanae Vitae" did a quarter century ago.
The pope's goal is to demonstrate that all forms of moral reasoning theologians use to justify contraception are unacceptable in the Roman Catholic Church. The message would be unambiguous: not only are the Catholic dissenters wrong on birth control, but it's time for them to be silent.
Those who know the pope well say the inspiration for the new encyclical came to John Paul II during a vacation in the Dolomite Alps. There he went for long hikes in the mountains, bearing his usual knapsack full of treatises by German philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Max Scheler. He came back from one such daylong walk declaring that he had been inspired to publish a major theological investigation that would confirm the often discredited arguments underpinning "Humanae Vitae." After several consultations with like-minded colleagues and various rewrites, the pope is ready to release the document this fall.
According to Vatican sources, the pope's new encyclical will mount a powerful critique of ethical relativism. He will argue that some objective moral truths exist and can be discovered by the light of reason without resorting to the authority of the Bible. But ultimately the pope intends something far more radical: an expansion of the doctrine of papal infallibility. He will argue that papal infallibility is not limited to moral doctrines derived from divine revelation, like the Ten Commandments. Rather, he will say that even truths about human nature derived from reason can also be infallibly proclaimed and made binding on all Catholics. And natural-law arguments are at the core of the church's ban on birth control. The effect of all this, warns Father Norbert Greinacher, a Catholic theologian at Tubingen University in Germany, could be "horribly negative" for the church.
Even the pope's advisers within the Roman Curia are at odds over just how far he should push his views. One faction believes the pope should limit his arguments to abstract principles. Others think he should get specific and declare straight out that theologians who deny "Humanae Vitae" can no longer be considered Catholics. The greatest fear among the many theologians is that he will eventually declare that his teaching is infallible. This would be an exceedingly rare exercise of papal prerogative, one that would surely divide the church as it hasn't been since the Protestant Reformation.
What drives this pope to exacting formulations? Part of it is his own passion for intellectual consistency and rigor. "He believes that principles are our refuge," says Stanislaw Grygiel, a philosophy professor at the Lateran University in Rome and a longtime friend of John Paul's. The pope is also driven by his foreboding that the world is beading toward a moral apocalypse--even after the demise of communism. But in part his views reflect his own mystical flights of prayer. He starts each day with 90 minutes of silent meditation. Sometimes, say old Polish friends, he spends the whole night in ecstatic prayer, face down on the floor of his private chapel, with his arms out in the shape of a cross. Time and again he has exhorted Catholics to embrace life as a series of purifying crucifixions. But if his forthcoming encyclical is as demanding as it is expected to be, John Paul II may be asking ordinary Catholics to embrace a cross that few are willing to bear.