For 45 years the Catholic Church has had an elephant in the room. When it was young it trumpeted a good deal but, after a while, we decided to let it be, hoping that it would go away. But it stayed and it grew, and we can ignore it no longer.
We now have a deep rift in the Church. On one side we have the teaching arm. It puts its full authority behind a range of commands concerning personal behaviour which apply primarily to the laity. It insists that these are grave matters, allowing of no exceptions. The sanctions for wilful disobedience are eternal despair and eternal punishment. On the other, we have the laity, and the laity have, by and large, said no.
The elephant stands in full daylight because the laity were consulted in preparation for the family synod in October. The results so far analysed indicate rejection on contraception, approval of pre-marital unions, doubts concerning re-marriage outside the Church, acceptance of homosexual relationships, and rejection of an unconditional prohibition of abortion.
None of this comes as a surprise. In 2013, the religious sociologist Linda Woodhead summed up the position from her research: “What these findings show is that most Catholics under 40 now have a very different sexual ethic from their leaders… Taking into account the age trend, support for Catholic teaching is declining rapidly.” This, she commented, was not a dispute between the faithful and the unfaithful but between those who share the same fundamental faith.
One may suppose that there have been a number of contributing factors, such as the allegedly liberal reforms of Vatican II, the emphasis on personal conscience, the general lowering of moral tone in society, the child abuse scandal and dilution of doctrine in the schools. Be that as it may, I date the crucial change to July 29 1968 when, passing through Marble Arch, I picked up an Evening News. Its headline read “The Pope bans Pill”, and the strap said “Decision ‘certain to cause a major crisis’”. This was not an overstatement.
The story of the fuss which ensued is for another occasion, but the various national hierarchies were faced with a challenge. How would it be possible to remain loyal to the teaching of Pope Paul’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, without causing a mass flight from the Church, or at the least putting millions of serious Catholics into bad faith? For several hierarchies, the chosen method was to insert a paragraph which said (I quote from the German bishops): “[A] responsible decision made in conscience must be respected by all.” And the continued use of the sacraments was encouraged. So the idea was born that it was possible to subscribe notionally to the teaching while deciding in practice to ignore it.
While this convenient principle at first applied only to a single issue, it was noted correctly at the time that authority is indivisible. The body of dissenters simply believed that the pope had got it wrong. Once that was tolerated, it followed that any other moral teachings, judged by conscience, might be disregarded. Conscience in many cases meant no more than opinion. Thus the way was open to question similar issues, now extended to abortion (which is a different matter altogether). The new approach has had 45 years to spread its influence. The damage has been tremendous. The bishops have been solid in their orthodoxy – indeed, anyone hoping for a crozier, or to retain one, had to toe the line.
What happened to the successors of the nine cardinals and bishops on the papal commission (a substantial majority) who decided that contraception was not intrinsically evil? Have they changed their minds? We do not know. But we do know that the Magisterium’s witness to the good of marriage and sexuality is seen as largely irrelevant both within and without the Church. Who would have the ill manners to ask a member of the clergy for his personal opinion on the question, when he has taken a solemn oath to uphold the formal teaching? We are aware, from such scant evidence as exists, that a majority of the parish clergy in this country is at least equivocal.
And the lay person? Even those who have dismissed the teaching, following a serious application of conscience, do not rid themselves of a background guilt arising from their differences with the Church they love. That the confessor is under guidance not to disturb the settled conscience of the penitent does not remove the sense of alienation. I believe that the sorry decline in Catholic practice, which I recorded in this column on December 7, owes much to this. To which I would add the disappearance of Confession as a common feature of a devout life. This is a strong indication of the abandonment of the relevance of the Church to the moral life of its members.
I have not debated the merits of the teaching here, But I will ask readers to consider the future of this clumsy elephant. Will it still be there in 100 years? Perhaps we will continue limping along with an awkward abyss between the teaching Church and the practising Church. What sort of Church would that be? Will the current teaching on sexual morals have slipped into desuetude, regarded by then as an historical curiosity? Will some of the teaching have been abandoned and credibility perhaps regained? Will the leash have been tightened so that a much smaller Church, to which all conform, has developed? But perhaps you have a better answer.