Liberality and the law

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?

About Quentin

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4 Responses to Liberality and the law

  1. claret says:

    I’m always surprised , although experience should tell me differently, how naive the Vatican ‘diplomacy department’ is. Does anyone ever tell them anything? Do they even listen? Which century are they living in?
    Time and again we get pronouncements that despite years of waiting for, are still ill thought out, and are therefore followed by a catalogue of ever more confusing explanations.
    The Vatican is a State in its own right. It needs to be a lot more ‘Statesmanlike’ in its dealings.

  2. Horace says:

    An official at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments [said. . ] “The Church works according to the principles of Roman law, and one of the consequences is that if a thing is not allowed, it is banned.” while in most other western legal traditions, “if something is not banned, it is allowed”, the official added.
    This is an interesting quote from the current Catholic Herald and, if correct, it perhaps explains a lot!

  3. tim says:

    Evading the main point: there is an ancient legal joke:

    “In England, everything which is not specifically forbidden is allowed. In Germany, everything which is not specifically allowed is forbidden. In Ruritania (or substitute country of your choice) anything that is specifically forbidden is allowed.”

    Some people seem to prefer to classify the Vatican with Ruritania.

    Interestingly, the English approach does not always give the most liberal results. Something that is allowed under one English law may still be forbidden under another one. But if a German law specifies an exception, that may overrule what looks like an unqualified prohibition in another law.

  4. James H. says:

    Interesting how tribal differences surface in Europe. I’ve often thought the difference between northern and southern Europe is not the Protestant work ethic (having grown up in ultra-Protestant white South Africa, I can safely say there’s no such thing!). The difference is the Teutonic ethic of Obedience, best shown by both the English and the Germans.
    So, yes, Humane Vitae coming out just as people were ‘letting it all hang out’ would have come as a slap in the face to those of us with a Teutonic attitude.
    But the job of the church is to tell the Truth, some of which can’t help sound undiplomatic.

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