In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis offered the pastors of the Catholic Church guidance on how to interpret traditional teaching concerning marriage and family life. One principle was that “the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives”. Another was that “the Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”. These words are particularly relevant to two of the most contentious issues raised in the recent consultation on marriage and family life: contraception, and the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion.
These principles, the Pope went on, “have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness”. It is plain that bishops’ conferences such as those in Germany and Austria have thoroughly absorbed this wise advice, whose spirit runs right through their official reports on the consultation in their countries. It may still be hoped that the same spirit would inspire whatever opinions the bishops of England and Wales eventually prepare. But if they follow the line taken in the official reflection of Westminster Diocese, the outcome will be a major disappointment. The reflection, published in the diocesan newspaper, falls short of the pastoral sensitivity of the Pope’s words.
Instead it reveals a state of denial that any fundamental problem exists in the gap between Catholic teaching and Catholic practice – except in its implication that all the Church has to do is to re-educate an ignorant and disobedient laity and bring it into line. Yet the Pope himself, in a “letter to families” published this week, humbly seeks to be allowed into every Catholic home to ask for prayers for a satisfactory outcome to this process. “May we all, then, pray together,” he says, “so that through these events the Church will undertake a true journey of discernment ...”
The Westminster reflection is signed by Edmund Adamus, director for marriage and family life, who said it was commissioned and approved by Cardinal Vincent Nichols. “Matters of conscience”, Mr Adamus writes, “centre upon the issues of responsible parenthood and the regulation of fertility. Formation of the moral conscience, therefore, demands fresh efforts on many levels.” And then he says: “The whole of the parish community, including schools, in partnership with parents, must be actively involved in seeking to inspire the young from an early age to aspire to lifelong matrimonial commitment in a loving and stable union open to life.”
Those last three words hardly do justice to those thousands of respondents who, after prayerful discernment, find official Catholic teaching on contraception – that sexual intercourse must always and invariably be “open to life” – incomprehensible or just plain wrong. It becomes all the more imperative, therefore, that the English and Welsh summary of responses should be published in full as soon as possible.
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