While our minds are full of Brexit and the arrival of President-elect Trump we should also be aware of another crisis which is of great interest to Catholics. As is so often the case, a point of conflict will remind us that the water has been coming up to the boil for a long time.
That is true for secular issues such as international trade or the gap between the rich and the poor. But the Church’s conflict in the matter of divorced Catholics receiving the Eucharist concerns the very nature of the Church. As we know, four senior cardinals have seriously challenged Pope Francis on his refusal to give a clear judgment about this in his encyclical Amoris Laetitia. Is he, they suggest, undoing a grave and established ruling of the Church derived from established moral doctrine? Here the flame has been under the kettle as far back as Vatican II.
Most of us, I imagine, were brought up in a powerful Church. The doctrines we learnt could be plainly understood, and left no room for private opinion. The moral law, neatly divided into mortal sin and venial sin, was abundantly clear. All we had to do was obey. I recall writing at that time that the moral law could be computerised: we would only need to type in the circumstances and the computer would produce its judgment along with the correct penance. It would have needed only a little extra work to calculate the mathematical probability of the sinner in question spending his eternity in Hell.
But Vatican II changed the direction. Instead of accepting the proposals drawn up by the Curia – which would have enabled the Council to be short indeed – the bishops appear simply to have ignored them, and to set about the task of reviewing the Church to enable the whole community to share in the work of the world’s redemption. They may have got some things wrong but they got the important things right, Chief amongst these was the declaration that even the whole Church, full of sound and fury, could not slip itself in between the conscience of the individual and God. Indeed within a very short time this principle was tested in the matter of artificial contraception. It was quickly admitted that this serious teaching, in line with the tradition of the Church going back to at least the fifth century, could nevertheless not bind the consciences of Catholics.
Of course any council of the Church takes time for all its teaching to be absorbed. Some say that a council takes a hundred years to come into full effect – so we have still some way to go. The current conflict is evidence of that.
And that’s what makes it important. Yes, we hold that sacramental marriage can only be ended by death. Yes, a second marriage expressed sexually may technically be a sequence of adulterous acts. Yes we must accept that a Catholic in such a case is living in an irregular relationship. But if he (or she), taking notice of guidance and prayerfully considering conscience, wishes to receive the Eucharist to bring him closer to God and to reinforce a virtuous family life, we must consider whether he should be allowed to do so. In our consciences we do not see God through the hazy spyglass of the Church, we hear him directly. No one can answer for us but ourselves.
This issue is important enough in itself but it also signifies our overall attitudes concerning the relationship between law and conscience. If we permit Catholics to contraceive despite the Church’s grave prohibition, why may we not apply this mercy in the matter of second marriage?
If you have a little time to review what Pope Francis has to say about the law and pastoral care, set aside a few minutes (or perhaps the rest of your life) to read the Catholic News Service story of Pope Francis’s response at http://tinyurl.com/j73e5oj