- More or less
The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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The clue should have been in the word: Cardinal Vincent Nichols promised a “reflection” on the responses to the Vatican survey’s on marriage and family life from Catholics in Westminster Diocese.
A “reflection” is not a summary of what respondents actually said – and we certainly haven’t got that. Instead what has been published is an analysis of why they those who competed the questionnaire have given views and observations that are contrary to the Church’s magisterium. In short, according to the document produced by Edmund Adamus, Director for Marriage and Family Life at Westminster Diocese, the findings represent a failure of formation.
“Clearly there is a great deal of confusion over what is meant by conscience. There is an urgent need to help people revisit what it means according to the Catechism, especially in the light of simple rules such as “One may never do evil so that good may result from it”, writes Mr Adamus in the document approved by Cardinal Nichols which appears in Westminster Record this weekend.
For “evil” in this context one might read a married couple using artificial contraception, a person remarrying after leaving an abusive husband or wife, or parents giving their blessing to a gay son or daughter who has entered into a civil partnership. We have to guess because we aren’t being told what people said in the questionnaire.
It seems that it is matters of this sort that Mr Adamus has in mind because he goes on to write: “Matters of conscience centre upon issues of responsible parenthood and regulation of fertility. Formation of the moral conscience, therefore, demands fresh efforts on many levels.”
His message therefore is that the Catholics who completed the questionnaire or those they wrote about – Mr Adamus does not distinguish between the two – have been seduced by secularism and need a refresher to become obedient Catholics. He advocates a closer reading of the Catechism, longer and more thorough marriage preparation and the imparting of sound instruction to children by their parents and teachers. His pious reflection is liberally sprinkled with quotations from Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Pope Francis (though it is noticeable that those remarks of Francis that call for a spirit of openness to reform are avoided).
The questionnaire is part of the preparation for October’s extraordinary synod and is essentially a listening exercise. Listening implies being open to change. The German bishops reported that their respondents want to see sweeping reforms in church teaching on family issues and sexual morality. It is highly likely that most of the respondents in England and Wales have done the same. These views will have been arrived at through the lived experience of family life, the love of children, the need for mercy and forgiveness, through much soul-searching, pain and disappointment. They should not so lightly be dismissed. The 16,500 Catholics who took the time to complete the 18-page questionnaire deserve an accurate report of what they said. Reflections, unlike this one from Westminster Diocese, come after their views have thoroughly aired and discussed.
Elena Curti is deputy editor of The Tablet