Saturday, 25 April 2015

Faith on Tap

Fr Michael Docherty, the parish priest at The Sacred Heart parish in Carlisle, is organising a series of Faith on Tap meetings - that is to say, vibrant Catholic discussion, starting (and accompanied) with a pint or two...

Here's what the parish website has to say:

Commencing Thursday 7th May, we will begin a series of monthly evenings at 7.30 pm in the Parish Centre.  The aim of the evenings is to enable exploration of the Catholic Faith - there will a talk for enquiring minds from gifted speakers!  On Thursday 7th May, St. Roseann Reddy of Glasgow’s Sisters of the Gospel of Life will be with us for a talk followed by opportunities for questions.  

Future speakers include Bishop John Keenan, Fr. Lawrence Lew OP, Dr. Caroline Hull, Canon Luiz Ruscillo, Rev. Dr. Andrew Pinsent and Sr Julian Eikman.  A wonderful opportunity to come along in a relaxed setting and explore our wonderful Faith!


These sound like an excellent idea, so anyone lucky enough to live within striking distance of Carlisle should put them in the diary at once.

But why not...?

The question that arises from my last post, is But why not continue to teach the indissolubility of marriage, whilst operating a merciful pastoral practice when people fail to live up to that ideal?

In the first place, the question as posed risks misleading people. Chastity is not an ideal, in the sense of some unattainable aspiration. By the grace of God, it is a real possibility, and its attainment is a proper goal of Christian living.

But leaving that aside, there are more important issues at stake.

One is the integrity of the Church. Were she to proclaim one thing formally, but endorse its contradiction in practice, that integrity would be compromised: and we do not have the right to compromise Christ's mystical body.

A second, and related, issue is the corruption of the Church's mission. The Apostles were sent out by Christ to teach all things He had taught, and baptise all peoples, to incorporate them into Him.

But it is a self-evident truth that teaching is about more than proclaiming doctrine. What we do often teaches more clearly and convincingly than what we say: hence the well-known dictum often attributed to our Holy Father's namesake, St Francis of Assisi. Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.

The result of the Church adopting a pastoral strategy in contradiction with her doctrine would be initially confusion, and eventually a widespread belief that the Church doesn't really mean it, with regard to the doctrine.

One only has to reflect on the lack of teaching on Humanae Vitae, in particular the lack of a call to repentance and confession of those who breach its teachings, and the resultant conviction of much of the world, and indeed many Catholics, that it is an optional teaching.

Likewise, one can see how changes in devotional practice, combined with a lack of proper catechesis, have affected belief about something as central as the Real Presence.

Indeed, it seems likely to me that some of those promoting ++Kasper's 'pastoral solution' are hoping for precisely that outcome: that the Church's teaching will be silenced, and eventually treated as optional, and beyond that as outdated. And that risk is real. For while the Church, formally, is indefectible, there is no guarantee that the majority of the bishops, or the majority of the Faithful, will not fall into error - witness the Arian crisis.

So it is a matter of great importance that the integrity of the Church's teaching, which she has Christ's mandate to proclaim to all nations for all ages, is maintained both in her formal teaching and in her pastoral practice. 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Underestimating the love and compassion of God

I had to write yesterday's post in a hurry, and there are more things I wished to say.

Let us consider a hard case: a man whose wife abandoned him for another man, and who has reason to believe that the marriage was never valid, but who cannot prove that through the annulment process. Further, he is morally certain that there is no possibility of restoring his original, true marriage to its rightful state, or of his wife having anything further to do with him.

He has re-married and is raising a family with a new woman.

Let us further suppose that he is striving to grow in holiness, and recognises the objective truth - and therefore the necessity - of the Church's teaching and practice. We can then consider various possibilities.

Perhaps he agrees with his new woman that they cannot separate, for the sake of their children, but should live as brother and sister as the Church requires. Can anyone doubt that God will not shower such self-sacrificial love with grace and blessings? He is not to be outdone in generosity.  This could well be the path to sanctity for both of them, and a school of true love and holiness for their children.

Or we could imagine that he sets off on that path, but they find it too hard, and relapse back into living as man and wife. But he goes to confession, renews his resolution, and starts again. In such a case, too, it is impossible to imagine God failing to reward such perseverance with countless graces and blessings. Our Lord repeatedly preached on such issues, for there is more joy in Heaven over one repentant sinner...

Or we could imagine that he raises the topic with his new woman, but she, not being a Catholic, simply doesn't get it, and will not agree. She presents him with an ultimatum: to live as man and wife or to separate. For the sake of his children, and for love of her, he will not separate. So he goes to Mass regularly, but in a spirit of humility and obedience, and to avoid giving scandal, he refrains from receiving Holy Communion. Do we think Our Lord will refuse him grace for that? And if his first marriage really were null, and his second thereby valid, can we doubt that Our Lord, through His infinite mercy and compassion, will give him as much, or even more, grace as he would have received as a communicant?

I think that is perhaps the worst error of all, underpinning the soi-disant reformers' case: that they underestimate the love and compassion of God, and believe that they have to make up the deficit.

And while we debate this, in the approach to the Synod, let us never forget to pray for all those in irregular situations,  for all those who disagree with us, and for the success of the Synod and the good of the Church.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Mythology of Re-Marriage

In the run-up to part two of the Synod, I fear that I am going to have to return to this theme more than once.

So perhaps I should start this post (which is a follow-up, as promised, to this one) by stating my credentials. I am no moral theologian, or scholar of religion. However, when it comes to this topic, I do have some life experience to bring to bear. I am a sinner from early childhood, so understand something of the dynamics of sin and self-deception; and I have been married for more than thirty years, for better and for worse, and know a little about that.

But much more importantly, I have been raised in the Faith of the Church, and simply seek to pass on what I have received.

It seems to me that the movement in favour of telling divorced and re-married people that they may receive Holy Communion must rest on one or more of the following errors.

  • A false understanding of mercy and compassion
  • Confusion about the reality of sin
  • A lack of belief in the teaching authority of the Church
  • A desire to change the Church's teaching
  • A belief in the necessity of erotic love

So let us address them in turn.

A false understanding of mercy and compassion. The argument is often couched in terms of mercy or compassion. That may be the underlying intention indicated by this: I see no reason why one cannot believe in the indissolubility of marriage in a doctrinal sense, but still think that it is right in practice to make allowances and bend rules for people whose lives go wrong. In fact I think this is far more Christlike than treating them as uniquely sinful.

The general drift is that we mustn't be too hard on people, because that is not kind; and we all make mistakes (or even, in more reactionary circles, 'we all fall into sin'). Therefore, we should overlook the fact that someone is divorced and remarried, in the name of mercy or compassion.

However, that is not the approach taken by Christ, who surely is our model, nor the approach taken by the Church, His Mystical Body, animated by the Holy Spirit. Rather, Christ's approach, and the Church's approach following His example and inspiration, is to call sin by its name, and to call sinners - that is all of us - to repentance.

Of course, Christ is compassionate; of course, the Church is; of course we must be. We must reach out in love to everyone.  But it is a false compassion to teach people that sin is good, and needs no repentance.

Moreover, the kindness advocated by those calling for change is very unkind, and indeed unjust, to others; not least abandoned spouses and children. It also creates a moral climate in which more people are likely to suffer abandonment in the future. It strikes me as the kind of compassion that buys the drunk another drink at the bar, rather than the tough love that would insist on walking him home...

Underlying that error is another, I think, that is at the root of the problem for many people: 
Confusion about the reality of sin. The problem here is that many of us know people who have been divorced and re-married. We know that they are not evil people. We know they are often devoted to their new families. So surely their new relationship cannot be harmful. Even if, technically, it is not legitimate, if it is based on love, and their conscience is clear, what can be wrong with that?

This view confuses two things: the subjective and the objective. About the subjective, we are forbidden from judging: indeed how can we possibly know the state of someone else's conscience? We may, charitably, assume that they are acting according to their best lights, and therefore recognise that the guilt associated with their illicit relationship may be negligible (if, for example, they truly believe that their first marriage was invalid). We are certainly forbidden from reaching a negative judgement about another's conscience.

However, the subjective does not over-ride the objective. A (hypothetical) abortionist who sincerely believes that his vocation is to help women in difficulty, and is therefore subjectively innocent, nonetheless kills an unborn child every time he performs an abortion. Further, he does himself genuine harm each time: he gives Satan a further foothold in his soul (and the macabre case of Kermit Gosnell, for example, demonstrates the cumulative impact of that, as does the willingness of other abortionists to perform the visibly evil partial-birth abortions).  The point is that sin is bad for us (and others), even if we do not fully understand that it is sin, or fully consent to it. There is an objective reality at work here.

It is distressing when even Cardinals of the Church seem to forget this truth, and say that the old language – of mortal sin, for example – was a misguided attempt to motivate the faithful (see here).

In the case of the divorced and re-married, there are several things going on at this level. One is the continuing breach of the solemn promises made at the first marriage. A second is the objective act of adultery committed each time the new union is consummated. A third is disobedience to the teaching and authority of the Church. Even where subjective guilt is minimal, these objective facts will cause harm to the person committing the sin. That is why it is a false mercy to pretend to the person that it is all right to continue to do so: in doing so, we are colluding with the individual doing great harm to himself or herself, and inevitably to others, too (for such is the nature of sin); not to mention offending God. For, and this is the really tricky bit, the teaching about re-marriage being adultery, and adultery being sinful comes straight from Christ Himself.

There is one other aspect to this. Many pastors seem to think that the issue should be left to the conscience of the individual. That is to overlook another reality: Original Sin. Part of the damage we suffer (known as concupiscence) is that we are not the best judges in our own cases: the merest self-reflection reveals how quick we are to make excuses for our own sins. It is a false compassion to allow people to delude themselves on so vital an issue.

As mentioned, persistence in believing that, though divorced and remarried, one should be free to receive Holy Communion, also demonstrates a lack of belief in the teaching authority of the Church. The Church has clearly and consistently taught that those in a state of mortal sin thereby exclude themselves from communion, until they have confessed their sin, with a firm purpose of amendment. That teaching, of course, follows logically from what has been stated above, that sin is bad for the sinner, and from St Paul's admonition. Therefore, the Church, in her maternal love, calls the sinner to repentance, just as Her Lord did. One of the reasons for the current confusion, I think, is that the Church has not been sufficiently clear about this in recent decades. For everything I argue here also applies to anyone in a habitual state of sin which he or she is not repenting of and striving to amend - such as the Catholic couple who use artificial contraception, or the priest who entertains impure thoughts or uses pornography, and so on. 

The leads us to the next error I identified: A desire to change the Church's teaching.
My instinct is that the corruption of the faithful, and possibly the clergy, at this level underpins this call for 'compassion.' It is much more comfortable to call for the 'rules' to be changed than to confront the need to submit to the change that Christ demands - and will accomplish, if we allow Him to.

However, the Church can no more change the moral law than she can change the nature of the Trinity. She can only pass on the truth entrusted to her - or fail to do so. And in the case of so many of our pastors, it is the latter we find. They fail to teach the truth, and in failing to do so, end up losing their grip on it themselves. 

And in large part, I think that is due to them succumbing to a particularly peculiar error: 
a belief in the necessity of erotic love.  This seems to underlie comments such as the suggestion that repentance followed by living “ as brother and sister” as laid down in Familiaris Consortio is ludicrous and cruel.' (here, 4th letter). We know that the deepest and truest love need not be expressed through sexual intimacy: again we have the example of Christ to follow here, as well as His Blessed Mother, countless saints through the ages, and many celibate priests, religious and lay people in our own time. But in a post-Freudian, post-sexual-revolution world, many of our bishops and priests seem to think that such a truth is unteachable. Which is an error that is visibly causing immense harm to the Church and many, many families.


As I mentioned at the start, I am no moral theologian, and am always open to correction if I have misunderstood or misrepresented anyone or anything in this blog. Just let me know. But my fear is that my analysis is correct, and that the battle at the Synod will be damaging.

Sub tuum praesidium 
Sancta Dei Genetrix.

Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.



See here for my additional thoughts on hard cases, and the love and compassion of God.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Quick Reaction

In the comments box on a recent post, Savonarola (which I am strongly inclined to think an assumed and fictitious name, as the Bosher Street Beak said of Sippy's nom de guerre Leon Trotzky) has written:
I don't particularly dislike the letter, but I do disagree with its stance - like perhaps a large majority of our priests. I see no reason why one cannot believe in the indissolubility of marriage in a doctrinal sense, but still think that it is right in practice to make allowances and bend rules for people whose lives go wrong. In fact I think this is far more Christlike than treating them as uniquely sinful. If the resulting contradiction between doctrine and pastoral practice is messy and confused, so be it. We cannot expect everything in human life and seeking to follow God's ways in our lives to be neat and tidy. A mature faith so far as I can see is far more a matter of living with contradictions than it is of getting everything neatly worked out.
I think this is more coherent than the arguments in the Tablet, which I was commenting on, but no less misguided. This post  is the first of two which explain why... In this one,  I will give the brief version, and over the weekend I will write a more extensive consideration of the issues.

So, in brief:

Firstly, the idea that we can bend rules is an odd one, when the rules are Christ's.

Secondly, I think the phrase 'people whose lives go wrong' rather ducks the issues at stake. It is not a matter of a historic error or sin, but a commitment to repeated sin that is at issue here. 

Thirdly, I dispute that we are treating divorced and 're-married' people as 'uniquely sinful'. The Church insists that anyone who is guilty of unrepented mortal sin should stay away from communion; and where that is in the public domain, may enforce that to avoid the additional sin of scandal.

Fourthly, I reject the notion that denying or obscuring the objective reality of sin and its consequences is 'far more Christlike.' I see Christ doing nothing of that nature in the Gospels: quite the contrary.

Fifthly, 'A mature faith so far as I can see is far more a matter of living with contradictions,' again seems to me to duck the issue. It is not a matter of living with contradictions, but living with a commitment to sin. That has nothing to with a mature faith, as I understand it.

As I say, a longer and more considered post will follow.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Make Room for the Holy Spirit

I want to return to Sr Moira O'Sullvan's letter to the Bitter Pill, on which I have already commented here

In particular, I want to re-visit her suggestion that the priests' letter, which I see as an admirable exercise of their teaching ministry, 'seems to be pre-empting the working of the Holy Spirit during the Synod by arriving at conclusions before debate, prayer and discernment.' 

I return to this, as I suspect that it will be the main line of attack on the Church's teaching and discipline in the run-up to the Synod. For it seems such an unobjectionable  - indeed Catholic - line of thought: Make Room for the Holy Spirit. Who could argue with that?

The answer, of course, is that nobody could. However, it is what is being smuggled in with that thought that we need to attend to. The implication is that pointing out that the Church has already settled this issue, on the authority of Christ Himself, the blessed Apostles, the Magisterium and the universal Tradition of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in communion with Peter, is somehow elbowing out the Holy Spirit. I would suggest that the reverse is the case.

Whereas it would seem that Sr Moira and those who think like her believe that to make room for the Holy Spirit, we have to put aside all of that, and instead orientate ourself according to the mores of contemporary society.

So how do we make room for the Holy Spirit?

I would suggest that we start by clearing our lives, (including our minds and hearts) of sin: sacramental confession suggests itself. We then follow Our Lord's example at the start of his public ministry, and before all His great works, of seeking the Spirit in prayer and fasting. 

Beyond that, we look where the Spirit is to be found. It is the Holy Spirit which animates Christ's Mystical Body, the Church, starting at Pentecost: so to listen to what the Church has consistently taught, since Pentecost, is to listen to the Holy Spirit.

And we practice the virtues: not least the unfashionable ones, such as humility and obedience, submitting ourselves to the teaching of that Mystical Body, animated by the Holy Spirit, even when it inconveniences us, or is hard to hear. Because finally, to listen to the Church is to listen to Christ: we cannot see Christ's teaching and the Holy Spirit's as in any way separable. And as St Peter said: Lord, to whom else should we go? You have the message of eternal life...

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Bitter Pill on The Priests' Letter

The once-Catholic paper, known in better days as The Tablet, but now more frequently identified by other soubriquets, carries a series of letters in response to the now-famous letter from 463 brave priests in defence of Catholic teaching on the sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Matrimony.

The arguments are telling, not least because of how feeble they are.

Consider this, for example, from Sr Moira O'Sullvan (and guess what, she doesn't wear a habit...): 'it seems to be pre-empting the working of the Holy Spirit during the Synod by arriving at conclusions before debate, prayer and discernment.'  Is she seriously suggesting that Our Lord failed in prayer and discernment before declaring re-marriage adulterous? Or that St Paul was a stranger to debate when he pointed out that we should not eat or drink unworthily? Or that the Magisterium for 2000 years, including with great solemnity at Trent, and as recently as Familaris Consortio, had arrived at its definitive teaching without 'debate, prayer and discernment'? Does she imagine not only that there was no proper teaching before Vatican 2, but also that since then it has only emerged in the mind of Cardinal Kasper? And if not that, what?

She goes on (and on, I dare wager), claiming that the letter 'has done nothing to help move the Church towards greater unity.' How curious it is that Kasper and his cronies, declaring that they will not wait for the Synod, nor be bound by its conclusions if they aren't the conclusions Kasper has already reached, are presumably moving the Church towards greater unity, whilst those who seek to maintain the unity of Catholicism through time, and in particular its unity with Christ's clear teaching, are not doing so. What Orwellian logic is this?

That was the letter given pride of place by the Pill, so one imagines they thought it had the strongest arguments. Amazingly, as one reads the rest, one concludes that they were right to think so.

The second letter concludes: 'The Church is for all of us who are open to God's grace, including those who are in a relationship which is not included in the concept of traditional Catholic marriage.' What could that conceivably mean, except that one does not have to accept any Catholic teaching to be open to God's grace and a communicating member of the Church? Were I the editor, I would be embarrassed to publish such bilge.

The argument of the third letter entirely eludes me, so it is hard to point out its errors. It seems merely incoherent.

The fourth letter laments the bad old days when 'Mortal sin was high on the agenda,' which suggests a strange unfamiliarity with the teaching of Christ in the Gospels, who frequently warns of the danger of being consigned to Hell; and then it goes on to maintain that 'the suggestion that repentance followed by living “ as brother and sister” as laid down in Familiaris Consortio is ludicrous and cruel.' Wherein lies the cruelty? If one loves somebody, then one should not want to risk consigning their soul to Hell for the sake of physical intimacy. Surely the cruelty lies in telling people that sin is healthy and acceptable...

The fifth letter seems to lack any supernatural perspective at all. However, at the sociological level, there is at least the semblance of an argument: 'they [moral rules] must be shown to benefit the society’s members while they are in force; and this must be shown, not just (as some theologians may think) by appealing to the natural physiology of the human species, but also by considering the historical, social and economic circumstances existing at the time.' I would agree (though I think there are also other considerations). But even arguing on those terms alone,  I would point to the enormous damage done to abandoned spouses, to society more widely, and above all to the children of broken families (all of which are both readily observable and capable of proper scientific study and evaluation) which are brought about by a culture of divorce and re-marriage. 

The sixth letter wails: 'It is hard to discover that there are still so many clergy who spend their time defining and deciding who cannot participate instead of fulfilling their vocation of leading their fellow men and women to a deep encounter with God.' But surely proclaiming the Gospel truth, especially when it is most challenging, is precisely the way to lead people to a deep encounter with God. Simply going along with the norms of a broken society leads to a superficiality, and indeed corruption, of religion that leaves people bereft of a supernatural perspective, and ultimately drives them away from God altogether.

The final letter asks: 'Can anyone really believe that the loving God who drew them to the Mass, wishes then to withhold himself from them in Communion?' Of course not. Nobody believes that. What we do believe is that, as in the Gospel, God wants people to repent and return to him; not go to the front of the temple and declare themselves righteous in the manner of the Pharisee in Our Lord's parable.

The quality of argument in all these letters is truly trivial, and tells us something deeply worrying about the lack of formation of those who have written them. We must pray and work for the re-Catholicising of the Church in this country and the world.