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.


Unknown said...

"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."


Savonarola said...

Something like 12% of priests signed the letter. Are the remaining 88% all victims of triviality? Or does their formation suggest to them that these matters are not nearly as clear and straightforward as fundamentalists want to make out? Who really is being trivial and superficial?

Joseph Shaw said...

I don't know what the others think. Do you?

Anonymous said...

It isn't just the B.Pill. There's a couple of vague and poorly argued letters in The Catholic Herald too, presumably for the purpose of 'balance and fairness.' I really don't know how they were published. I used to read The Herald. It used to be a reasonably safe bet. I believe their sales are falling. No wonder!

Savonarola said...

No, but the fact that they did not sign the letter would suggest that they do not agree with what it says or at least have reservations of some kind about it.

Ben Trovato said...


I was commenting on what we do know: the paucity of quality of the arguments deployed in the letters in the Tablet. If you think they are strong arguments, by all means defend them.

I would hesitate to speculate in the way you do, as there are too many unknowns.

I have heard from a number of priests who would have signed but were unable to, for various reasons ( not being on the database, being away at the time etc) . I have read one priest's explanation of why he chose not to sign. But those are a very small sample. For the rest, we simply don't know.

Sitsio said...

I know several who did not sign, not because they do not agree, but because they did not see the letter in time, because they felt the pressure from the top would cause them problems, or they felt that unity was more important than signing (a position I find most difficult to understand personally). As Dr. Shaw correctly points out, it would be absolutely wrong to assume what the motives of those who did not manage to sign it were.

David O'Neill said...

I too know priests who did not sign mainly because it was lost in the reams of paperwork our priests are subjected to. It does not under any circumstances mean that they have reservations about the content

Savonarola said...

If we are taking about poor quality of argument, it seems to me that the arguments advanced here are pretty thin: I had too much work, the letter got lost, I was afraid the bishop might not like me if I signed, it got chewed by the dog etc. etc. It does not take much, a few seconds, to sign a form and post it in the sae provided, but let's allow say a generous 8% for those who genuinely could not do this for whatever reason.
That still leaves about 80% of priests canvassed who did not sign the letter. I make no comment on why they did not, but it seems reasonable at the very least to suppose that they had reservations of some kind about it. Only special pleading could lead one to believe otherwise. The priest I know best did not sign because he did not agree with the letter. it's as simple as that.

Ben Trovato said...


Yet what I think I detect is that you don't like the letter - but you have offered no arguments for that stance.

Savonarola said...

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.

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for taking the time to explain where you stand on this. I think your argument is more coherent than those I was commenting on. I also disagree, as you won't be surprised to learn. If I get time later today or tomorrow, I will outline why I disagree.