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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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I would make the following suggestions concerning the forthcoming synod of bishops on family life, but with no hope that they will be heeded.
First of all the almost total lack of married men in the Roman Catholic ministry cripples the decision-making process. There are insights that you cannot gain by reading books, by talking to parents, by having siblings, nephews and nieces. Those of us who are parents have those qualifications as well. They are no substitute for being a spouse and rearing children.
Secondly, the nullity procedure tells us that "those whom God has joined together" does not always apply, He doesn't always oblige and there are cases where some would judge that God would have to have taken leave of his senses to do so even if the couple do not formally qualify for a nullity under church rules.
Thirdly, if natural law is to be a major factor, it should be natural law as known and perceived in the twenty-first century.
Finally, the bishops should ask whether they really intend to rob many of God's people of frequent access to a priest for the sake of a matter of discipline, not doctrine; and whether they intend to keep Holy Communion from a significant number of people in "irregular" marital situations where the "irregularity" is based mainly on the perceptions and decisions of childless celibates.
Revd Patrick Bryan, Palmer's Cross, Wolverhampton
Like other readers, I too am grateful to Fr Gerald O'Collins for raising the spectre of Humanae Vitae in the context of the Synod on the Family (Letters, 21 June). Those of us who are old enough to remember that day in July 1968 when the encyclical was promulgated will recall that Paul VI’s spokesman, Mgr Ferdinando Lambruschini, stated the encyclical did not denote the Pope's infallibility. That observation took me back to an RE class when I was about 14. A very competent priest explained what it meant, and then asked for questions. Were the Pope's sermons infallible, asked one boy. No, was the answer. Could he make a mistake in an encyclical, asked another – to which the teacher replied, theoretically, yes, but it is unthinkable, because of the care which is put into the preparation of those documents.
It may well be that this time the bishops will have to think the unthinkable.
Dr Michael M Winter, London, N19
Regarding the working document or instrumentum laboris for the Synod on the Family, do not blanket denunciations of supposed Western decadence risk fuelling attacks on the West by fundamentalists while also overlooking the wonderful results flowing from the promotion in the West of women’s dignity, education and independence?
And what practical help are such denunciations to Catholics, especially when so many in positions of authority within the Church have themselves given scandal?
Does not the fact that persons in a second union wish to receive Communion when so many, who could do so, choose both not to attend Mass and not to receive the Sacraments, suggest those persons have the right disposition and that their wish should be acceded to?
Where annulment is not available to couples in a second union, what is proposed when they attend Mass and have children who are scandalised by the non-reception of Communion by their parents, yet the couple are in practice unable to extricate themselves from their situation by reason of the family commitment?
Perhaps daily facing the trials and tribulations involved in supporting one another and their children in these times of austerity, especially when both have to work to make ends meet and are too busy to ponder questions of decadence, could be regarded as their “penance” for whatever wrong they have done so opening the way to reception?
J A Judge, Southport
The statements from Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes) concerning conscience and family planning which are quoted by Dr Stephen Bullivant (Letters, 5 July) reminds me of what sometimes seems to be the Catholic Church's understanding of what is commonly called an informed conscience. Obviously, church authorities hold that one must follow one’s conscience in making major decisions in life and that that conscience must be informed. All well and good. One cannot act in conscience if one is ignorant of the issue or issues involved in a decision.
But what that usually means for the Church is that one's conscience, once having been informed by church teaching, must ultimately conform to and be obedient to that teaching. It implies that, in the case of contraception, if married couples would only inform themselves of church teaching then they would automatically “see the light” and realise that contraception is wrong!
But this is to deny or ignore the fact that many married couples do indeed inform themselves of church teaching. They have read and understood Humanae Vitae and have prayed about it. They know of the tradition of the Church, yet, nevertheless, while respecting much of what is said in Humanae Vitae, they cannot, in conscience, accept that teaching on contraception if they are to be true to themselves and act as mature, responsible and loving adults.
Frank Graham MHM, Formby, Liverpool
Judging by the letters to the editor regarding the forthcoming synod on the family it is obvious that there is much confusion over contraception and the observance of Humanae Vitae.
There are two approaches. One the "perfect" way and the other the "pragmatic" way. Both ways have their difficulties. Our natural inclination tries to have the best of both worlds but they are diametrically opposed.
The pragmatic way says you can have it all. Family, career, independence, money, acceptance, freedom, so long as you accept the worldly culture of this century, and bow down to its rules with its vicelike grip: huge debt, a politically correct number of children, a high-paying career, exotic holidays, surrender of freedom. They bring all the unhappiness we see in our newspapers every day. At present in this city we are witnessing the trial for murder of a beautiful woman by her husband and going through the intricacies of her life and marriage. One can only feel sympathy for a beautiful family that was subject to the pressures of the pragmatic road. There is no doubt in the judgemental public mind where the blame lies. Nobody will acknowledge it but it is the choice of the pragmatic road and the "culture of death" (JP11)
Then there is the "perfect" road, not because those who choose it are perfect but because the presence of the encyclical lights the way. For a start you have to be open to life. Being open to life means that every sexual relationship could result in a new life, despite sensible measures to space children.
Taking a pragmatic road there is no way that holding down a demanding career is compatible with turning around and preparing for new life. The obvious obligation of the pragmatic way is an abortion. So the result is that you are a slave to artificial contraception.
Following the "perfect" way, keeping close to God brings the greatest happiness. It fills your home with beautiful children and later grandchildren.
Once on either road it would seem there is no turning back.
Mrs Edna Szylkarski, Brisbane, Queensland