02Nov Context of doctrinal rules needs to be re-examined

As the dust settles on the excellent debate organised by The Times (Malta) on October 2, thinking opinion has largely fallen into two camps. There are those who support the views so powerfully expressed by the revered Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in his death-bed interview, that the Church must change if it is to remain an effective force for good. Then there are those who oppose the need for change.

They argue, as one letter-writer to The Times explained, that “basic moral principles spelled out 2,000 years ago by Christ and his disciples are still relevant today… (these) underlying principles can be said to apply in issues as abortion, assisted human reproduction, euthanasia, and so on”. Rather grandly, he writes “…the moral principles it stands for are basic and elemental and a shining light for the way forward in peace and harmony”. Yes, of course.

But to characterise the divide in The Times debate as being between the Church, on the one hand, as “a human institution liable to error” and, on the other, as a “Divine element” incapable of change would be a grotesque caricature of the debate, which has so starkly and providentially been ignited in Malta by Cardinal Martini.

It would be utterly facile, as well as wrong, to suppose either that the Church, and the Maltese Church in particular, is incapable of change, or that it hasn’t already changed, or that it doesn’t need to change because of “basic moral principles spelled out two thousand years ago.”

Nor would it be acceptable to argue, as some have, that it is a “Divine” institution and that somehow this absolves it from the human frailties that make the Church either effective or an abject failure in promoting its mission on earth.

The Archbishop, the Bishop of Gozo and their monsignors are made of flesh and blood and cannot hide behind the so-called magisterium of the Church. The success of the Church’s Divine mission on earth depends on the leadership, efficiency, effectiveness, organisation and humanity of those running it – mundane issues to those who see only “divinity”, but crucial to the Church’s success in its earthly vocation.

It is clear from the Synod of Bishops that gathered in Rome last week aimed at boosting the flagging Church, that senior Bishops recognise the central truth of this.

As Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella said: “We have lost credibility… We have closed in on ourselves… We have turned a life of faith and ritual into bureaucracy”. Philippine Bishop Socrates Villegas said that the root of the problem lay with Church arrogance and hypocrisy: “Evangelisation has been hurt and continues to be impeded by the arrogance of its messengers… The hierarchy must shun arrogance, hypocrisy and bigotry.” I am confident that Auxilliary Bishop-designate Charles Scicluna will recognise these cri de cours, but will Bishop Mario Grech who is in Rome representing the Archbishop?

I am not a theologian or a religious fanatic. I am simply your ordinary, lay Catholic man in the street. I accept that the Church deals in absolute truths. The dogmas and doctrines of the Church do not just change and cannot be compromised to suit a popular view that they are inconvenient. Hundreds of years of thought and refining detail of what Jesus Christ was asking us to do cannot be lightly dismissed. If anybody knew this, it was Cardinal Martini, an outstanding Scripture scholar.

But the message is, surely, that the provenance and context of when and how the doctrinal rules were made and interpreted need to be re-examined. That was what Vatican II was meant to be about. To take some random examples: contraception (can anyone truly believe that if you intend not to have a baby it matters whether you use a thermometer, a calendar or a pill?

As Cardinal Martini said, the encyclical Humanae Vitae was a grievous mistake); women priests; married priests and priestly celibacy (the Church had married priests a thousand years ago, why not today?); gay relationships; IVF treatment; the right to die, what constitutes a family in the 21st century. These are doctrinal rules on which Catholics all over the world are seeking enlightenment and change and which many of us thought were going to be addressed. In Cardinal Martini’s words, these are “the doctrinal and disciplinary knots” which need to be unravelled because these are turning people away.

These are the issues that Cardinal Martini, a man who was a leading biblical scholar, had consistently highlighted. His life was dedicated not so much to re-modelling the fundamental beliefs or dogma of the Catholic faith, but more on nudging the Church away from entrenched and untenable positions. That, too, is my (humble) position. It is not for me to provide the answers on doctrinal issues. But it is for me and others to express our concerns.

It is for the Universal Church to find the answers to these doctrinal issues, or risk losing even more of its flock, as the current Synod of Bishops in Rome is so clearly underlining.

13 Responses

  1. Eamonn Keane

    Martin says: “To take some random examples: contraception (can anyone truly believe that if you intend not to have a baby it matters whether you use a thermometer, a calendar or a pill?”

    Yes it does matter. To use the pill is to reject the integral meaning of the marital act by the couple in its very performance. This cannot be said of the use of natural family planning methods, in regard to which the use of ‘thermometer’ or ‘calendar’ do not violate the integrity of the marital act itself, but rather indicates whether or not the act if engaed in is more or less likely to result in conception. This is simply an exercise in fertility awareness, not an attempt to separate the unitive and procreative meaning of the act itself. Of course, this is not to suggest that the ‘contraceptive mentality’ may not at times accompany the use of natural family planning methods.

  2. Joe O'Leary

    Yes, good summary of the anti-pill argument — ” the integral meaning of the marital act “. Of course in practice, cultivating fertility awareness through delicate operations with thermometers is felt by many women to be oddly unnatural. And very many feel that “the integral meaning of the marital act” is well able to look after itself and does not need to be attended by fear about a potential unwanted pregnancy.

  3. Eamonn Keane

    The ‘pill’ promised women entry into a sexual ‘Nirvavana’. Instead it has transformed large numbers of women and men into sexual predators, devoid of any sense of resopnsibility in all things sexual. By engendering a view of sexual engagement severed from its intrinsic connection to life and marriage, it has undermined respect for both. The anti-life orientation of the contraceptive mentality has contributed to the demand for abortion as a ‘backup’ to the contraceptive acts that fail. The main problem with a contraceptive inspired understanding of marital sexuality is that it is not anchored in the ‘truth of being’. As such, arguments supportive of contraceptive practices are evil myths conducive to the decay and collapse of civilisation.

  4. Gill Slater

    I and many other Catholics of my generation (I’m 45) await the day that the Church acknowledges that some of the changes it is resisting are in fact progress, desirable to a loving and compassionate God. But – we cannot wait! We have a duty to nurture the future of our church – but the historic interpretation of what God wants from His church is effectively aborting the faith of many young catholics during their teenage years.

    A plea from an ordinary catholic with no great doctrinal insight, but attempting , like many other Catholic parents, to support our children on their journey of faith – Do not hesitate too long in re examining the context of doctrinal rules … or the youth of our church may have wandered away disillusioned with a church it sees as intolerant and backward.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    ” By engendering a view of sexual engagement severed from its intrinsic connection to life and marriage, it has undermined respect for both. ”

    It may have further encouraged such an outlook; but this outlook is as old as the hills.

    “The main problem with a contraceptive inspired understanding of marital sexuality is that it is not anchored in the ‘truth of being’. ”

    I think that married couples who use contraceptives are exercising responsibility and are solidly grounded in reality.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Joe, I’d like to say that anyone ingesting chemicals to change their chemical composition should read a few articles on how sewage discharge in Canadian waterways have led to the occurence of male fish growing female reproductive organs on their testes.
    Everyone has the the responsibility to not tamper with things you don’t understand, like nature for example, but this is unlikely because it seems we’ve gotten drunk on our own intelligence.

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    I just recently read that you were “saddened” by the bishops ‘snub’…here are a few “work” related questions I’d like to see them ‘snub’:

    Is the Pope willing to entertain a worldwide parishoner vote?
    If not, how many Roman Catholic signatories would it take on a petition for him to consider it?
    According to the Vatican, is Canon Law, positive law?
    If it is so important for positive law to prescribe to natural law, then why does Canon Law fail?
    Could this be the reason for the current “crisis” in the Church?

    Give them these, tell them I sent you. A Roman Catholic survivor of clergy abuse. I’m sure they can find it in their heart to answer them for me.

  8. Kevin

    ‘Heart’ being the operative word here Lloyd.

    Must organise a bus to Oz.

    With God’s help, and a little miracle of sorts, maybe we could assist them in locating a brain. If truly blessed – a smidgen of courage. And with a newly fitted heart they might engage the rest of us as they ought.

    Best we keep breathing in the meantime :-)

    Take care of yourself.

  9. Stephen Edward

    “These are doctrinal rules on which Catholics all over the world are seeking enlightenment AND change”. They can either seek enlightenment OR change but not both (try the Catechism for the former). Martini lived too distant from the Anglican/Protestant experience to appreciate that those who demand changes will not return to the practice of religion when they actually come. The ordination of women in the CofE would, it was confidently asserted, bring people, who claimed to have been alienated by gross unfairness, back into the fold. It did not happen, they stayed away and the loss of active membership continues unabated.
    Saint John Vianney claimed that any parish could be revitalised if the parish priest would pray without ceasing for his people’s conversion, fast, obey his superiors without question, give away his possessions and cheerfully accept all his crosses without complaint. It worked for him. But perhaps studying the most recent theological theories, attendance at seminars and training in public speaking work just as well!

  10. Nuala O'Driscoll

    I notice that all the pro-Humanae Vitae responses have been written by men.

  11. Ger Gleeson

    “Martini lived too distant from the Anglican/Protestant experience to appreciate that those who demand changes will not return to the practice of religion when they actually come”. I think you are right with your comment Stephen, but I would add that the Pope himself, Cardinals, Bishops and some Priests are also too distant, not just from those who demand changes, but from all the faithful. They are not fathers and certainly mothers who are trying to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, look after the education of their children, and at the same time try and keep their children faithful to our Church. Very difficult jobs that religous do not need to worry about. I would love to live the life of St John Vianney, if I did not have the stated responsibilities to worry about.

  12. Carrie Baker

    As a young lay woman (under 25), I’m sick of hearing that the ‘hierarchy’ need to listen to what the lay people want. Did Jesus ask his followers what teachings they felt like accepting, and alter those teachings accordingly?
    We can go on and on talking as though the Church is something we should control, as though Church teachings (especially those regarding sexual morality) should be decided by popular vote; but what good will it do? Everyone needs to take a step back, stop trying to control the Church, and maybe cook themselves a nice little humble pie. God has revealed certain Truths to us, and to ignore those Truths because it doesn’t suit our ‘modern’ way of living, is beyond arrogant.
    We do not have the right to ‘decide’ Church teaching; it is our duty to hold fast to the Truths God has revealed to us. The use of contraception is simply another way of saying, “Lord, not your will, but mine be done.”

  13. Stephen Edward

    Ger, I wasn’t suggesting that a layman try to closely emulate the Cure d’Ars nor that he ever suggested such a thing. I am a layman too and a father and grandfather.
    The good, but ill-educated saint, did however have good advice for all. He said that his theology, which deeply impressed many a well educated prelate, was gained solely at his prie-dieu.(His teaching catechism is available on line and is a model of clarity).


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