I had coffee with a scholar buddy, BA, earlier this week. As two people fairly committed to Christians getting on well together, we got to talking about ways in which different Christian traditions have different strengths. I suppose we were playing a sort of Denominational Top Trumps, where us evangelicals were very good with handling the Bible and Catholics are very good at prayer and the Church of Ireland is very good at showing up at wine receptions hosted by powerful people.
I apologise to my Anglican readers. I obviously still have a lot of work to do within myself in Foundational Ecumenism.
Our conversation touched briefly on a curious aspect of Catholic teaching which appears to Catholics to be very wonderful and appeared to us to be very problematic. The specific aspect is the Catholic tendency to have a view on everything. Presbyterians or Pentecostals can’t have a view on everything because the “official line” in those traditions and traditions like them is so diffuse that it is a wonder they manage to have a view on anything. What is simply impossible for Presbyterians seems to be irresistible for Catholics.
The existence of an authorised teaching office means that the Pope has words to say on world peace, on evolution, on condoms as well as on you know, the Resurrection. In Ireland today there is a fascinating story that can be pointed to by considering a couple of vectors. Firstly there is the decline of Catholic practice in the country. Secondly you need to chart the increase of people who want to declare themselves in some serious way as “non-religious”. But the final line it would be great to have some way to chart is the large batch of people within the first group that still consider themselves Catholic in more than some kind of weird political-national identity way.
In other words, Ireland is for a short time going to remain among the most Catholic countries in the world as measured in terms of attending mass and going to confession and baptising babies. But soon a tipping point will be reached where there are more people who do not participate regularly in the worship and practices of the Roman Catholic Church than that do. And the thing none of us can make sense of yet is that there will still be a Catholic majority in the country because a huge number of Catholics are Catholics in rebellion.
There are competing ways of explaining this. My hardcore Catholic friends in seminary would just say that if you don’t follow the Magisterial teaching and perform the sacramental aspects of the religion you can’t call yourself Catholic. There are hardcore atheist friends on the internet who would trot out an equally blunt and equally simplistic argument that this just represents the inexorable march of reason and progress, which requires the dimming and then extinguishing of all religious light. There is a third approach that BA and I were trying to work out. It would basically involve the Catholic church taking back some of the things it has said.
Specifically, I think that if they found a way to take back Humanae Vitae and redescribe why Catholics are asked to be suspicious of contemporary sexual morality as it is presented today, then a huge gulf between the official church and the (non) practising believer on the ground would be closed. Of course, we might just be Protestants who don’t understand how Rome works here but we were struck with relief that as leaders in churches we would never have to offer a systematic and complete position on how every married couple should approach their family planning. Of course, we might be foolish enough and arrogant enough to propose such a system but we would be shot down in our hubris by the sheer fact that our congregations would ignore us.
It seems to me that if a theologian or pastor outlines a moral theology that simply cannot be lived out in the real world, that would be a pretty sure sign that the moral theology is deficient. I am not saying that our theological ethics ought to be shaped by the prevailing norms of the culture we live in. Rather, I am trying to remember that Christianity is a liberation movement. The teaching we advocate is counter-cultural and it will get into fights with other systems and approaches and it will be difficult and require worshipping, virtue-forming communities to sustain it. But if your teaching is almost universally ignored and in effect discredits your doctrinal teaching, your Gospel preaching and your worshipping, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
But when you have set yourself up as the Teaching Office, then going back on yourself is a tricky task.
Often in the last year I have had cause to reflect on how common it is that I need to take my words back. In the past, I have stuck my foot in my mouth with alarming regularity. I think that a year filled with more pastoral work and preaching in a range of different churches and the humbling effect of living life in the complexity of the world that I live in has made me far less likely to shoot from the hip (to use a phrase I despise because it is almost always an insult hidden as a word of wisdom). Even when I do, I know I can declare fallibility and without hesitation change my mind (which is after all, a literal description of what the word “repentance” means).
As a preacher I take 1 Peter 3:11 very seriously: ” If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.” The bit of that hard sentence that gives me the comfort and solace needed to keep preaching is “do so as one” who speaks with divine authority. That “as one” is an aspiration and a stance and an attitude. It doesn’t assure me of infallibility. The responsibility of being a teacher in the church is grave and we should aim to speak with prophetic and revelatory force. But in our private life and in our public ministry, how delightful it is to be able to take back what we’ve said.
Your Correspondent, Can do more with one foot than most people can with three.