I will always remember the day Macpherson was drowned. I was 15 when it happened, and Macpherson (name changed) would have been a year or so older. He was in a single skull on the Thames nearby and apparently he capsized, was caught up in the toggle, and died. It was a shock for us all, and it raised a momentous question: had Macpherson been seen at Communion that morning?
Why momentous? Quite simply, if he had received Communion we could be confident that he was in a ‘state of ‘grace’ and, perhaps after a bout of Purgatory, he was in line for eternal bliss. If he hadn’t, it could be assumed that he had been guilty of solitary vice. He had not gone to Confession (along with the queue of penitents on the same quest present every night in the school chapel) and so was destined to the eternal torture of Hell. And eternity didn’t just mean for, say, the equivalent of the 13.8 billion years since the universe began, it would be forever. So the answer was really quite important – to Macpherson and indeed, potentially to us.
You may say that we had a grotesque, distorted, view of death, judgment, hell and heaven. Maybe so, but we were bright boys benefiting from the best Jesuit Catholic education. And that is what we thought we had been taught. When I read Professor Dawkins suggesting that early religious teaching could be a form of abuse, he may have a point. Had some Middle Eastern tyranny imposed a punishment like that for an equivalent crime, we would have been demonstrating in Trafalgar Square at the grossest breach of human rights known to man. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild!
Not that I blame the Jesuits. It was how they were brought up too. The equation runs: solitary vice = grave matter; grave matter committed with full knowledge (we all knew the law) and full consent (we had free will and sufficient grace) = mortal sin; dying in unforgiven mortal sin = hell for eternity. QED.
My wife giggles at this, but then she was an adult convert, and so missed the advantage of an early Catholic education, and the atrophied conscience which this might have induced. She remains the best spiritual adviser I know. (Convenient, too. I would never have to confess my sins, she points them out to me even before I have committed them!)
Why do I write about this, at this point? First of all, the equation I cite above remains in the Catechism. Secondly, the tension in the Synod lay very much between those who argued that any weakening or softening in Catholic moral teaching would lead down a slippery slope to a religion of no more than vague good will, and those who argued that she must understand people as they are in the circumstances of their lives. The wind must be tempered to the shorn lamb. Both positions are strong, but – as yet – we have not found a way we can reconcile them. Perhaps a Second Sight Blog discussion would help.
And, in case you were worrying, several people remembered that Macpherson had been to Communion that morning. Phew!