I recall the remarks of a couple, who were members of a Catholic discussion group I belonged to decades ago. They had lived in Rome for a long time, and they told me about the different attitudes to law between Italians and Anglo Saxons.
The Anglo Saxon instinct, they told me, was to take the law as something of a bedrock. Our immediate response is to accept the obligation of obedience. Italians on the other hand shoot out their laws without really expecting people to take them too literally.
As I recall, this was in the context of Humanae Vitae – which came as a seismic shock in this country. For the first time the Brits found themselves disobeying the law. And the attitude towards Vatican authority has never been the same since.
I am reminded of this by a 2006 article in the American National Catholic Reporter by John L Allen – who was their Rome Correspondent for many years. He made just the same point, and suggested that many of the tensions between the Vatican and the American Bishops, arising out of different rulings, could be attributed to this cultural difference. The Vatican uses its rulings as a starting point, assuming a liberal application governed by particular circumstances and pastoral issues. Americans, who have an Anglo Saxon approach to law, would get very uptight about rulings which they assumed they were being obliged to apply down to the last comma.
If this difference in attitudes towards law really exists – and nearly 60 years separates my discussion group and Allen’s article – then perhaps we should be taking it seriously into account when the Vatican speaks. A universal Church is a wonderful and necessary thing, but it does require us to pay heed to possible misunderstandings between cultures.
Do you regard the Vatican as giving us the last word on many matters, or only the first word – which we have to apply with discrimination?