Many writers will tell you that they never bother to re-read their published work. I am not among their number for I find few things more satisfying than reading something with which I entirely agree. This took me back to a 1966 copy of The Month, containing a piece titled “The responsible conscience.”
The burden of my article was that Catholics in general had been trained to avoid the use of their consciences in any process of moral discrimination. First, the panorama of moral teaching was so wide that the answer to any dilemma of consequence was available. Why try do-it-yourself when the answer was in the back of the book? Second, there was a particular virtue in obedience, which added an extra burnish to one’s moral act. And I quoted several authorities who bewailed the disappearance of the Catholic conscience.
The establishment attitude to teaching morals to the young was that moral education should be explicit, dogmatic and determinate. It should indoctrinate children until resistance to evil becomes almost second nature. It says to the child: you must be good in the way I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good. (Sorry, I should have used inverted commas. That was taken directly from a standard moral theology, Henry Davis SJ, 1958 edition.)
This former approach suggests a picture of the Christian life as a journey of great peril. We were either en route for blessedness or en route for a Hell of eternal punishment. Beheading by ISIL is positively benign by comparison. The current Catechism remains clear about this. We may rightly claim to be a religion of love, but we must also accept that in practice we were once a religion of serious psychological threat. We were controlled by menace. It is clearly stated that mortal sin requires full knowledge and consent. But we cannot escape full knowledge given our recognition of natural law and the Church’s teaching. And we do have consent because we have free will, and are assured that the grace needed to avoid sin is always available.
This will read strangely to younger generations. Vatican II reminded us that conscience takes precedence over extraneous moral teaching. We remember moral orthodoxies which have turned out to be heterodoxies. And we understand how full knowledge and full consent are more difficult concepts than we used to think. Shaw’s St Joan did not know whether she was in a state of grace: equally, we do not know if we are in a state of damnation.
Against this background we may understand better the differences of opinion which were expressed at the synod. Perforce, senior bishops and cardinals were brought up in the old school. And the earliest lessons drive deepest. There is a line of thought which says: sacramental marriage is indissoluble, remarriage is a continual state of mortal sin freely maintained with knowledge and consent, so reception of the Eucharist by someone actively at enmity with God is unthinkable.
Similarly, this reasoning goes, a homosexual couple must be aware that their relationship centres on a grave disorder (the Catechism specifically rules out ignorance of the natural law). Of course we must behave decently to them but accepting them as members of our community when they live in culpable enmity against God is many steps too far.
By the same token those couples who use contraception are in a similar case, although this subject appears to have been omitted from the discussions. I hope that the end of the world does not come when there is a queue in my parish church for Communion. I don’t think I could take the weeping and gnashing of teeth. The concept of a cycle of sin, repentance, confession, amendment, and sin again — repeated throughout a married life is, to put it kindly, bizarre.
The opposing view, sometimes described as the pastoral approach, does not, as far as I know, question the law. The indissolubility of sacramental marriage – notwithstanding the ingenious ways we have of disposing of natural marriage – is not in doubt. A mismatch between gender and sexual orientation is patent. And the Church certainly has the right to decide who should qualify for her sacraments. But human moral behaviour is deeply complex. Charting the spiritual state by measuring external behaviour was understandable in medieval terms, it is scarcely so now.
So how might we approach this? Pope Francis emphasises mercy and forgiveness. But, bearing in mind that our God is the one after whom all fatherhood is named, I find it helpful to look at the family. It would be presumptuous to reverse the metaphor and claim that human parenthood is a model of God’s parenthood. But it may be the best model we have.
Loving parents are not blind to their children’s faults or even indurated bad behaviour. We work to understand the different temperaments and motivations. We look at things from the child’s point of view. We are always searching out the good in the child, and we focus on encouragement rather than punishment. If a child offends we may have to condemn, but at the smallest sign of repentance we open our arms. We would admit the ultimate possibility, however unlikely, that a child of full age could exclude himself from the family through obstinate perversity but we would fight long and hard before we surrendered. And we would keep the door open and the fatted calf ready. Does that sound like pastoral care?