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.