- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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It is disappointing that the Vatican response to the questionnaire on marriage matters seems to comprise only persuading the faithful to accept Church teaching and to condemn less those who find it difficult to follow (The Tablet, 28 June). What is needed is for the Church to acknowledge that its teaching is flawed and has never been received by those it most concerns. This policy is simply applying the patch of compassion to material which is frayed and worn out.
The problem arose in 1968 because Pope Paul could not bring himself to deny the teaching of his predecessor, to acknowledge that Church teaching could be in error. The fault seems to be an idolatry of the institution, believing that the Church is already the perfect Bride of Christ, which she will be only at the end of time, instead of a pilgrim people, sometimes falling and straying off the right path, but always seeking to follow the divine Founder.
The Church took a great step forward when it no longer ruled that the sins of abusing priests should be covered up; an honest Church is more worthy of respect than one which seeks to maintain a false reputation of holiness. The way to renewed health and vigour for the Church would seem to be to acknowledge that she is not only not sinless but also capable of error, and to find her way forward by listening to the voice of all her members and paying attention, as Pope John advised, to the signs of the times.
Josephine Way, Brynmill, Swansea
Clifford Longley’s article about the visit of Archbishop Derek Worlock’s to the synod in Rome where he gave an impassioned plea for compassion for the break up of families and the plight of remarrieds is timely, indeed.
The archbishop must also remind a great number of Christians of his dedication to Church unity. He must also have experienced the disunity of the Christian Church profoundly as he worked closely alongside Bishop David Sheppard and other church leaders in Liverpool.
He gave me a vision of the Christian Church as one unique body, which was divided within and it was social issues which particularly united the church leaders. These two themes, the splitting up of families or the so called domestic Church and the splitting up of the Christian Church seem to me to mirror each other; Christ cannot be divided but tragically humans can. I pray that at the forthcoming Synod in Rome on the family, these difficult matters will be discussed in the spirit of mutual brokenness, which I am sure Derek Worlock would have fully endorsed.
Michael Waterfield, Dorset
May I suggest that discussing the arguments for the acceptance or rejection of the teachings of the Church on artificial contraception in the language of Natural Law and New Natural Law (The Tablet, 7 June) is at a dead end for many Catholics. The difficulty lies not necessarily with the term "natural" but with is the term "law".
Commonly understood, law is something that one adheres to or contravenes, and in the case of contravention implies attached penalties. This common understanding of law linked to the arguments for and against artificial contraception has imposed the sentence of chronic agony on many who do not agree with or live by the teaching of the Church in the matter of family planning. In reflection and discussion of ethical and moral matters the Reformed (Calvinist) Churches prefer the term natural gifts to natural law. Citing various Reformed authors, J. M. (Koos) Vorster of the Faculty of Theology of the North-West University, Potchefstroom, explains the preference for the term creational gifts:
"The revelation of God in the book of nature entails that God has bestowed on every human creature a sense of morality. These gifts were called natural law in the early Reformation. A more preferable term is “creational gifts”, which entail gifts that were given by God to all people, not to bring about their own salvation, but to preserve law and order in human society. This idea was prominent among Reformed theologians in the Reformation. Therefore any person can formulate good norms and live by good moral norms and every government, irrespective of persuasion, can make a good law. Moral views depend on deeply held notions of the good. Everyone draws on such sources" (NGTT Deel 54, Nommers 1 & 2, Maart en Junie 2013).
In the run-up to the Synod on the Family, perhaps Rome can learn from Geneva and formulate arguments on the sanctity of family life in fresh and refreshing terms!
Fr Stephen Giles MHM, Kroonstad, South Africa
The pastoral tale recounted by the Jesuit Gerald O’Collins, (The Tablet, 21 June), about the Archbishop of Venice’s action to counteract the fall-out from the papal encyclical typifies the man’s humanity. When later elected Pope he was confidently expected to do more than protect the flock from the disappointment of Humanae Vitae. His successor, Pope John Paul II spent the early years of his reign justifying the encyclical which some writers believe he had persuaded Pope Paul to issue in defiance of agreements reached by the Papal Commission.
When the Pope’s weekly lectures were eventually published, in book form, at the beginning of the century, it was lauded by theologians like George Weigel, Michael Novak and others who have little of consequence to say to ordinary people. My favourite comment on Body and Soul is: “I would welcome from this Pope some appreciation for the goodness of sexual pleasure – any bodily pleasure, come to think of it.” How many modern day Christian theologians would disagree?
Time has moved on and Catholic couples who may have used their collective consciences (census fidelium) are long past the need for contraception. Pastoral gymnastics are irrelevant. Lateral thought is required. For the most part, the next generations do not know what the fuss is all about. If we accept Cardinal Martini’s virtual death bed declaration that the Church is a couple of centuries behind the times, change has to be radical. Nothing less than a new foundational principle and anthropology for sexual ethics should be embraced by the Synod Fathers at their October gathering.
Terry Swales, Liverpool
Reading Clifford Longley’s piece in The Tablet this week reminded me of teaching the topic at GCSE on Marriage & Divorce (which always seemed to me to be a rather pessimistic juxtaposition or perhaps a harsh reality check).
I stressed continually that marriage is “ideally” for life – knowing full well that many of my pupils did not return home to such an ecclesial ideal. Past questions would often ask pupils to discuss whether or not “divorce is wrong” or “divorce is sometimes necessary”. The most difficult question – for me - was: “describe how some Christians might respond to a person getting married after divorce” - because this inevitably focussed on the Church.
My secular-immersed pupils displayed a compassion and understanding that the Church, at this moment in time, is in desperate need of – although many of them do not regularly attend Mass. At their age I did not have such insight or understanding, possibly because such issues were neither acknowledged nor discussed in such an open and frank manner in the classroom. I find their honesty and compassion uplifting.
Having grown up in a family divided and dislocated by divorce I would have appreciated such debates.
I am not convinced that the Catholic hierarchy really has a firm grasp or insight in to the reality of the domestic lives of their congregations – both practising and not. As a Catholic teacher I have witnessed a significant increase in the fragmentation of the family over recent years. I suspect there are many and varied reasons for this phenomena. The pressures now facing many families are not new or any less demanding than in the past but what has changed is the influence and presence in their lives of the Church and its teaching. A vacuum has occurred and, in the absence of a compassionate and caring response to the trauma and tribulations of break–ups, the Church has been by-passed. It has been left without meaning and purpose for many people because it trots out the same unchanging and, to many people, desert-dry response.
Jesus cured people on the Sabbath. He associated with the outcasts of Jewish society. It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the unhealthy – whether that is physical, emotional or spiritual. The Church has a wonderful opportunity to be more than a guardian of rules and regulations. I suspect a more missionary-type approach is needed if the Church is to reconnect with its congregations on a more profound and significant level. I hope at its Extraordinary Assembly in October the Synod of Bishops will not only talk about the pastoral challenges facing the family but it will offer a new and all-embracing approach to the People of God.
D. J. Kearney, Northwich, Cheshire
Clifford Longley's reminder of the Synod on the family of 1980 is useful. However, the more detailed account of what happened at and behind the scenes of that event from Cardinal Nichols himself in a series of videos developed by the Bishops Conference for the 30th anniversary of Familiaris Consortio is much more informative.
With all due respect to what Longley describes as the "impassioned" plea on the part of Archbishop Worlock, far more interesting in my opinion was the intervention of Cardinal Hume, also cited on the CBCEW website, in which he described a vision within his dream: “I saw with great clarity that the insight of Paul VI in the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, confirming the traditional teaching of the Church, was surely right. But alas we did not know how best to speak to the people. We must speak gently, compassionately, co-agonize with them, lead them gradually and speak a language which enables them to say: 'Yes, that is right; it is now clear, we accept the teaching.’"
During his intervention Hume spoke of the need for the Church to find a new language to proclaim such truths. At the time of the Synod Pope St. John Paul II had only just begun his catechesis on human love , now known as theology of the body. Now that decades of work have been done to interpret and popularise this catechesis successfully for a whole new generation, we can see how prescient Cardinal Hume was.
Edmund P Adamus, Director for Marriage and Family Life, Diocese of Westminster