When my wife miscarried at three months she pulled herself, haemorrhaging, to a tap so that she could baptise her baby. Why? Because she had been taught that an unbaptised baby will never get to Heaven. I commend her devotion, but just look at the situation: this child created to be fulfilled in eternity with God might, simply by chance, miss the whole point of its existence. Indeed at an earlier time it was thought that its destination was punishment in Hell because it was damned by the inheritance of Original Sin. Later we invented Limbo, but the principle was the same.
If that looks absurd to me – an active cradle Catholic – how would it look to an outsider? Flip through the New Testament and you will read the fundamental message that the vast majority of the world’s population is on its way to Hell. The only way to escape that fate is to be baptised and, in doing so, become a member of an exclusive organisation called Christianity. There are only one or two small exceptions, such as baptism of desire.
And, even the baptised are likely to stand in danger. How many of us can hold our hands on our hearts and claim that we have never committed a mortal sin – as so described by the Church?
I have tried to explain to outsiders that we have to interpret Scripture in terms of the context and knowledge of the times. They politely say they understand – but they walk off shaking their heads. And really I agree with them. Scripture is clear and emphatic about this. And the Church throughout its history has solemnly taught these things. If the infallibility of the Church cannot be invoked here, where else can it be invoked?
We are all aware of the decreasing proportion of Catholics in the developed world. And we know of so many who have in fact lapsed. I know, because it’s my generation, and many grandparents tell me that their adult children, to say nothing of adult grandchildren, have simply slipped away. It was a granddaughter of mine in her early teens whom I was teaching Catholic sexual doctrine. In fact she knew it well from her convent. She said “Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught, but I have to think about real life.”
I am aware that the beliefs and principles of the Church will often be rejected by the world. We should expect that. But I would be happier if we were associated with a moral law which others might envy, and which we fully understand and defend out of conscience rather than fiat;. For example, I will have no truck with abortion – I don’t need the Church to tell me that. But I am open to a more liberal attitude towards homosexuality – now that we understand the condition much better.
It is no surprise that Pope Francis is in trouble with the traditional conservatives. He favours active and continual exploration of the demands of morality. He respects tradition but has little time for accepting it as always the last word..