The People of God and the World Today – Presented by Clifford Longley – Friday 11th May 2012
Catholics old enough to have experienced the changes introduced since the Second Vatican Council, are also those who have experienced the movement from a rule based and sin focused Church, to one that is based on ‘virtue ethics’ and even human rights ethics.
This is the fourth lecture given by Clifford Longley, during the month of May when here in Australia. His message is a plea for the return to the practice of virtue, the definition of which can be traced back to Aristotle. The stress on virtue was diminished during the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment and replaced by rules and quantifying sinfulness and punishment.
Our call to maturity is a call to personal responsibility; to a life of virtue, that is: courage, prudence, temperance, faith, hope, charity and justice for all.
Above all these lectures are challenging, happy, hopeful and trusting. Happy that the struggle has brought change and continues to do so; Hopeful that the move to ethical virtue will continue to bring the laity to full maturity in the Church and society; Trusting that the well-being of the Church is largely in safe hands of an emerging mature laity who are courageous, educated and faithful to the words and life of Jesus Christ.
It is such a pleasure to be with you for what is the fourth and last of my lectures in this lecture tour. I assure you I shall return to England in a few days tired but elated. The hospitality I have been shown in Australia has been amazing, not to be forgotten. You have got something very special going for you in this country – a “land which abounds in nature’s gifts, Of beauty rich and rare…” And the impression I am forming is that you have got something very special going for you in the Catholic Church here in Australia. Do your bishops realise how lucky they are? Does the Vatican? I’ll leave you to answer that later…
It always surprises how many people one meets in the course of the day in England turn out, if you ask them, to have kith and kin here. Every since my grandfather’s brother Bill went off to be a sheep farmer in New South Wales before the First World War, Australia has been part of my family mythology. The brothers used to play cricket together in Reigate in Surrey, I believe. Whether Uncle Bill played “down under” I do not know, but I would like to.
So we should not be so surprised when we come across Anglo-Australia coincidences. Let me tell you about on of them. About 15 years ago I was given the key to the archives of the late Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool. He had been secretary to cardinals and bishops at the Second Vatican Council and later, a peritus, that is to say theological consultant.
He even kept a secret diary, which was full of gossip and backstairs intrigue. I was to write a book about him and his papers – indeed, it was called The Worlock Archive. In one volume of his diary I came across an account of a dinner he had attended. It was the day a lay English Catholic, Pat Keegan of the Young Christian Workers, had addressed the council on the subject of the lay vocation – a first, apparently.
This is what Derek Worlock had written: “That night, after a meal in the Hotel Columbus, Archbishop Gillie Young of Hobart made an inspired speech about the caravan of God, trundling forward, some pulling ahead, some pulling back, some hanging on like grim death to the sides. It was the Church we were to know so well in the years following the council.”
Here’s the coincidence. I came across exactly this quotation on the website of Catalyst For Renewal here in Australia, the very people who have so kindly invited me over to give this series of lectures. It was in an essay on Archbishop Young by Father Edmund Campion, who teaches history at the Catholic Institute of Sydney. So I know that at least one person in Australia has read my book, though he told me he didn’t remember doing so! Father Campion added his own comment about Archbishop Young, whom he described as the only Australian to have had any impact on Vatican II. Guildford Young, he said, “was a bishop for a grown-up, Vatican II church.”
Cardinal Basil Hume had a similar metaphor for the post Vatican II church. He likened it to a caravan of the People of God on pilgrimage, strung out across the desert. Those at the front shouted “faster” while those at the back cried “slow down”, while outriders explored alternative ways to go and tried to steer the caravan to left or right.
The Second Vatican Council was never likely to be the last word about anything. It instituted reforms, but it also instituted an expectation of continuous reform. Now, I am unhappy with the view that Vatican II laid out a blue print for a modernised church, and all we had to do was to follow certain steps and we would get there. It was never a route to a promised land. The work was semper purificanda, which means a work in progress.
There is a disappointment narrative about Vatican II, a hermeneutic of betrayal, which says simply that we were offered a vision of a new church, which was promptly snatched away from us by the people it threatened. This feeling is summed up in the protest – “We was robbed!” But reform always was going to be an unpredictable process with uncertain outcomes. I don’t think that hermeneutical of betrayal is very helpful. It dies in any case have an expiry date.
Wise politicians understand that in politics there is a general rule, the law of unintended consequences, which says more or less, that any remedy for an existing known problem will create other unknown problems, also in turn in need of a remedy. Church politics is not immune from that principle. For example, relax the rule on what people may say because you want to hear them, and sooner or later they will start telling you things you did not want to hear. Good managements recognise that institutions need to foster all the talents available, which may include people who disagree over policy. Good managements know how to listen carefully, with a willingness to learn.
A recent Tablet editorial reflected on what it called “normative dissent”, using Ireland as an example, remarking that “new survey of grass-roots opinion indicates that the typical Irish Catholic no longer accepts church teaching on a range of issues, mainly to do with sex and gender. Yet in terms of religious observance, they remain some of the most committed Catholics in Europe. But committed to what? The survey suggests that church teaching in these areas is no longer regarded as normative, and dissent from it as exceptional. The true position is almost the reverse: it is no longer seen as dissent, but as normal. It would be strange if that snapshot of the sensus fidelium were peculiar to Ireland. All the evidence, including surveys conducted in Britain, suggests it is not.”
The same is perhaps true of Australia, but you will know more about that than me. And as The Tablet also remarked, it is extremely difficult for the Church’s leadership to know how to react to this situation without making it worse. Fulminating against it only get you so far. What appears to have has happened as an indirect consequence is the decline of any sense of the laity being subordinate to the hierarchy. I have to say I do not think it is a good and effective pastoral strategy to treat grown-up people like children, or even, as in the United States, to try and tell nuns what they should or should not think. It won’t work. These are not the ways forward towards the creation of a mature laity.
So we have to make our own way, and develop new and more mature models for being the Catholic Church’s faithful laity. It does seem to me that the Vatican II model, based on the idea of a so-called lay apostolate where lay involvement in secular affairs is directed backstage by the bishops, cannot be the way forward for us today.
But here we need a word of warning. To define the laity as simply those outside the Church’s control, or as those in opposition to the way the Church is currently governed, is a very inadequate expression of what it means to be a Christian, and a very anaemic fulfilment of the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Nor does it do justice to the ringing declaration at the start of the Vatican Council final document, Gaudium et Spes, known as The Church in the Modern World:
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone . That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humanity and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
So where do we turn? I think a clue comes later in this document, where it states that “individual men and their associations cultivate in themselves the moral and social virtues, and promote them in society”, and it elsewhere calls the Catholic Church “an unspent fountain of those virtues which the modern world needs the most.” But it does not say much about what they are. The only one given a name, it perhaps will not surprise you to hear, is the virtue of conjugal chastity.
This insistence on the importance of virtue while failing to be more specific is not confined to this one document from 50 years ago. The papal encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI published in 2009, Caritas in Veritate, asserts that “Technologically advanced societies must not confuse their own technological development with a presumed cultural superiority, but must rather rediscover within themselves the oft-forgotten virtues which made it possible for them to flourish throughout their history.” But it is still specific what those virtues are.
It was as a result of reflections on this that when the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales issued their own document on Catholic Social Teaching in the course of 2010, they recognised that the issue of virtue needed more attention.
I should like to read what they said – and if you are harbouring suspicions that by quoting from this document I am guilty of plagiarism, let me quickly assure you that in fact I drafted it for them. So I quote – “Everyone involved in politics and public life must accept the personal character and a moral standards are as relevant to public life as they are to private life, “ it declares.
“The restoration of trusted institutions, whether in politics or in business, places a particular responsibility on those in leadership roles. They help shape the culture of the institutions they lead. Over time, leaders wield immense influence, and carry a heavy responsibility, especially now, to help bring about a real transformation by their vision and example. As Pope Benedict XVI has said: “development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good”.
To act in this way requires more than not breaking rules. It demands the cultivation of moral character, the development of habits of behaviour that reflect respect for others and a desire to do good. It requires, in fact, the practice of virtue.
And here I think we are getting somewhere at last. “Virtue helps to shape our lives as people,” it goes on. “By the pursuit of virtue we act well not because of external constraints but because it has become natural; thus do the virtues form us as moral agents, so that we do what is right and honourable for no other reason than it is right and honourable, irrespective of reward or punishment and regardless of what we are legally obliged to do. Virtuous action springs from a sense of one’s own dignity and that of others, and from self-respect as a citizen. It is doing good when no one is looking.”
The classical virtues can form us as people who are prudent, just, temperate, and courageous. Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity root our human growth in the gifts of God and form us for our ultimate happiness: friendship with God.
And what is the role of the Church in all this? Well, surely, to be a school of virtue. Virtue can be learnt, virtue improves with practice.
The virtue of prudence or right reason is the opposite of rashness and carelessness. The virtue of courage ensures firmness and the readiness to stand by what we believe in times of difficulty. Justice is the virtue by which we strive to give what is due to others by respecting their rights and fulfilling our duties towards them. The virtue of temperance bids as to moderate our appetites in the use of the world’s created goods.
These virtues and the exploration of them belong to all humanity. They’re held in trust for all not least in the Christian traditions of thought and moral teaching. I should add, perhaps, that the recovery of trust through a revival of virtue needs to happen in the Church too. The hierarchy have to learn to trust the laity, in whom the spirit also dwells. The laity have to learn to trust the hierarchy, anointed stewards and guardians of the deposit if faith. This is not the time to rehearse in detail those things that have undermined that trust in recent years; just to note that they exist.
Now why is it so unusual if the find a treatment of the classical virtues in a Catholic document of this kind? What has happened to this ancient tradition that was so alive in the Middle Ages but which modernity has managed to forget? It seems the Catholic Church has been suffering from the same amnesia is the secular world. It is surely time for that situation to be reversed. My contention is that it is time to recognise that the emergence of a mature laity means above all the rediscovery of virtue as central to the Christian life.
There is a new category in field of moral philosophy called virtue ethics. Before virtue ethics reappeared on the scene, the theory behind moral reasoning was concentrated on three basic approaches. The first called the consequentialist approach judges the morality of an action by its results; the second, the deontological or rule-based approach, judges the morality of an action by its compliance with certain rules or laws. Both are utilitarian. The third declares certain actions intrinsically and absolutely wrong in all circumstances, regardless of consequences. It tends to be strongly favoured by those who do not have to live with those consequences.
We owe the beginning of the revival of interest in virtue ethics to the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who was a disciple and literary executor of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I should add by the way that she did believe certain actions to be intrinsically and absolutely wrong. But even more important to the recovery of the memory of virtue ethics was the later work of the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who published about 30 years ago a groundbreaking work, called After Virtue. Incidentally both Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre converted to Catholicism in the course of their philosophical work. I should also mention another British philosopher, Philippa Foot, who was a follower of both Wittgenstein and Anscombe and who invented the famous “trolley problem”, otherwise known as trolleyology, as a thought experiment in rational ethics. Unlike Anscombe and MacIntyre she was an atheist; who knows what Wittgenstein was? That of which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.
Alistair MacIntyre started something of a revolution in moral philosophy, with journals, seminars and even a learned society, the International Society for MacIntyrean Enquiry, devoted to promoting and developing his work on the ethics of virtue. And yes, it has a website and a journal. MacIntyre’s basic insight was as follows: if we look around the modern world we quickly notice fragments, shreds and traces of an older moral universe, but one which has lost its coherence and has become disconnected from its philosophical foundations. We do not even know what it was called. But we continue to make use of it, if we can. Its origins lie in the work of the ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle above all, who asked the basic question: what are the qualities required of a good citizen to make Athenian democracy flourish? It is an excellent question, easily transferred to the present day. What are the qualities of character needed to make a good citizen of Church and Society in the year 2012 AD? And the answers turn out to be not very different the answers Aristotle arrived at in 300 and something BC.
To him we owe the four categories of civic virtue which I mentioned earlier. The route by which these ideas about virtue entered Catholic moral theology was largely through the role of St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. The virtues had sometimes been thought of as essentially pagan, and were viewed with some suspicion for that reason. At the risk of oversimplifying a very long story, Aquinas Christianised them by adding to the four civil or cardinal virtues the three supernatural or theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
And the greatest of these is charity, said St Paul. But can there be charity without justice? It is possible to love someone while denying them what is their due as human beings. Slave owners in the Deep South sometimes loved their slaves. Thomas Jefferson fathered four children with his Black slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. I don’t doubt he loved her. But was he just to her?
You might ask what has happened to some of the other attributes we traditionally think of as virtues, such as humility, integrity, open-mindedness, and sensitivity, and the vices of, say, pride and prejudice. The standard answer, which you may or may not find satisfactory, is that these other virtues are sub-sections of the major categories, or combinations of two or more of them, or even are not real virtues at all – certainly Aristotle did not think humility was a virtue.
Talking of pride and prejudice, by the way: the novels of Jane Austen have been described as studies in virtue, because they are all about moral character. So what happened to the virtue tradition? It was severely scrutinised during the Reformation, for instance on the grounds that it promoted the notion that individuals could earn their place in heaven by their good works. This attack, initially from Luther and Calvin, was responded to by the Catholic Church itself by renewed emphasis on salvation by faith and grace in its own doctrine. And in line with Reformation thought, new emphasis was placed on the Ten Commandments.
Thus did Catholic morality, like Protestant morality, become more interested in the avoidance of sin and observance of rules than in virtue, and indeed in the Catholic case in the gradations of sin in the working out of the appropriate penance. The concept did not altogether die, and indeed was kept alive most of all within the order to which Thomas Aquinas has himself belonged, the Dominicans. But the tradition was in decline.
An even greater assault on Aristotelian virtue ethics occurred in the Enlightenment, because its radical rejection of metaphysics left no room for Aristotle’s philosophical idea of moral character because it depended on the idea of telos, the end towards which our lives are directed.
Virtue ethics places the emphasis on what kind of person you are rather than on your actions or even your intentions. That raises the teleological question, asking “What kind of person ought you to be?” It presupposes that we are constructed according to a pattern not of our own design. This becomes highly complex when we live in the age of the self-made man.
But MacIntyre is right that virtue ethics has left a loud – if rather incoherent – echo in our culture. We still refer to moral character, for instance, as when we say a person has a good character or a bad one. Virtues are essentially moral habits, and our virtuous acts flow from the sort of person we are. A person who lacks courage can acquire it, and become more courageous by the practice of it. The same is true of the other virtues. We can learn how to be prudent or just, and we can get better at it. Indeed this is how wisdom is acquired.
So here at last are some answers to the question of how we ought to behave, and what is the route to a truly mature Christian laity? Think what a transformation there would be if examinations of conscience in ordinary Catholicism concentrated on our virtues rather than a vices. We would no longer be so interested in what homosexuals did with each other sexually; instead we would ask in what way does their relationship serve the common good, and is their relationship governed by virtue?
Think what a difference this would make to the impasse over contraception in the Catholic Church… Or the remarriage of divorcees. Certainly marriage should be a school of virtue, not only for the adult partners but above all also for their children. This is surely a much richer concept of conjugality. Education has to be seen not as the teaching of knowledge and skills, but as the formation of the whole person, the intellect and memory but above all of the character.
This also has fundamental implications in other areas. I have recently helped to organised a series of sex lectures at Cambridge University, with Virtue Ethics as an underlying theme. Our preliminary document said as follows:
The Catholic Social Teaching tradition centres on the notion of the common good, upholds the primacy of the individual conscience of those engaged in economic processes, and asks what formation such a conscience needs if that individual is to make a contribution to human well-being. A business ethic that encourages personal and individual virtue is beneficial to society, and to the business itself; within appropriate structures, the initiative, productivity and creativity of the individual increase human wellbeing and prosperity. Catholic Social Teaching recognises that a business economy geared towards the creation of wealth and made more efficient by the disciplines of the market can bring great benefits to humanity.
Catholic Social Teaching also introduces the concept of “structural sin”, a term which describes structures obstructing or impeding solidarity and subsidiarity, and which fail to respect the full human dignity of those affected. Individual virtue is linked with just and unjust structures by means of organisational culture: what is it in the ethos of the enterprise that encourages or discourages individual members to make sure the joint activity of the enterprise is directed towards the common good? A virtuous structure will help its members be more virtuous; the individual and the institution reinforce each other’s virtue. This may require rethinking of the concept of reward and remuneration, and of the responsibilities of leadership.
Now I always think that one of the tests of Catholicism is that it ought to be somewhat out of step with prevailing culture, from which it ought to try to keep, shall we say, a critical distance. This emphasis on virtue I have just described is certainly that. Since Aristotle virtue has always had a strong social component in its definition – it is not just about being a good person, but a good citizen, a good person-in-community. It does not fit very well with the highly atomised individualism which is such a prominent mark of Western culture.
The strongest expression of that individualism is the use it has made of the concept of human rights. There has taken place in Western culture, perhaps alongside a decline in explicit religious belief, a decline in the notion of sin. It has been said that we have moved almost unconsciously and unnoticed from a sin based morality to a rights based morality. Indeed many people welcomed the spread into general acceptability of the concept of human rights as offering us a set of common moral standards which were independent of revealed religion and hence would fill the vacuum caused by the decline in belief in sin, which only made sense if you had a clear idea of a God who could be offended or angered.
And rights morality does have one serious advantage over one based on sin. Think about it: the central focus in a sin-based morality is one the sinner – whether they have infringed and why, how culpable they are, what they have to do to be absolved and redeemed, etc. A very good example of that is the criminal justice system, and it is just as true in Australia as in Britain and the United States. The emphasis is on the crime and the criminal. It is easy in such a situation to forget the victim. They are marginalised, not because people working the system are deliberately callous, but because the system itself points the spotlight away from them. Courts nowadays do try and take account of the victim’s needs, but the machinery of criminal justice is still mainly preoccupied with the perpetrator and how to punish him or her.
Maybe that is necessary. But a rights morality focuses on wrongdoing differently, and starts by asking what are the rights of the victim that have been infringed and how is that infringement to be rectified. That feels to me better, somehow more moral, than the emphasis on sin and crime.
There is a relevance here to the issue of child abuse inside the Catholic Church. It seems plain that the bishops initially understood child abuse as being mainly about the perpetrator, someone who had put his immortal soul in jeopardy by committing serious sin – indeed all the more serious when committed by a member of the clergy. Because the moral methodology was sin-based and not rights based, the victims were left out of the picture. Yes, it was bad what had happened to them, said the church, but they were passive victims, not sinners, and hence their souls were not in danger. I should emphasise that I am seeking here to explain and understand, not to excuse. Once we look at it from the point of view of rights, however, the victim becomes central, and frankly, compared with that, who cares about the state of the sinner’s soul? It is almost indecent even to raise the question.
But the key point about sin-based morality is that it is heavily dependent on a set of rules. The key point about a morality based on virtue ethics is that it is about moral character, which even envisages the possibility that in certain circumstances rules may have to be broken – virtuously – in pursuit of some higher good. I don’t think strictly following the rule book ever got anyone anywhere near the Kingdom of God, and St Paul says more or less the same, only better. There are some bishops who may needed to be gently reminded of that.
One way of asking ourselves how far we have travelled towards a mature understanding of the laity is to look at where we were a couple of generations ago – let us say in the decades prior to the start of the Second Vatican Council.
Let us then first glance at three English novels, two written before the council and one not long after, all three by distinguished Catholic authors. The first of the three is Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, written in 1938. You will recall that the gangster villain, Pinkie, also described as the Boy, has befriended the lonely and naive Rose.
“You a Roman?” the Boy asked. “Yes,” Rose said. “I’m one too,” the Boy said. He gripped her arm and pushed her out into the dark dripping street. He turned up the collar of his jacket and ran as the lightning flapped and the thunder filled the air. They ran from doorway to doorway until they were back on the parade in one of the empty glass shelters. They had it to themselves in the noisy stifling night. “Why, I was in a choir once,” the Boy confided and suddenly began to sing softly in his spoilt boy’s voice: “Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.” In his voice a whole lost world moved – the lighted corner below the organ, the smell of incense and laundered surplices, and the music. Music – it didn’t matter what music – “Agnus dei”, “lovely to look at, beautiful to hold”, “the starling on our walks”’ “credo in unum Deum” – any music moved him, speaking of things he didn’t understand.
“Do you go to Mass?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” Rose said. “It depends on work. Most weeks I wouldn’t get much sleep if I went to Mass.”
“I don’t care what you do,” the Boy said sharply. “I don’t go to Mass.”
“But you do believe, don’t you?” Rose implored him, “you think it’s true?”
“Of course its true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell, Flames and damnation,” he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, “torments. ”
“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said, ”maybe.”
The second is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1945. In the final scene, Lady Julia explain to her one-time and would-be lover Charles Ryder why they cannot ever see each other again. She is trapped in a loveless match to a faithless husband, but divorce is forbidden to Catholics.
“I’ve always been bad,” said Julia. “Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy… I saw today there was one unforgivable thing … the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.” If she gives up thought of marrying Ryder, “if I give up this one thing I want so much” then “however bad I am, He won’t quite despair of me in the end.”
Let me say what I think is going on here. It is summed up in a term very current before and for some time after the Second Vatican Council: the “Good Catholic”. He had a blacksheep cousin, of course, the “Bad Catholic”. So what was a layman, in the eyes of the church in the era before Vatican II? A layman was not a priest. And a layman was either a Good Catholic or a Bad Catholic.
This approach comes straight form the Council of Trent, whose Catechism, under the heading “The Members Of The Church Militant” goes on to declare: “The Church militant is composed of two classes of persons, the good and the bad, both professing the same faith and partaking of the same Sacraments, yet differing in their manner of life and morality…
“The good are those who are linked together not only by the profession of the same faith, and the participation of the same Sacraments, but also by the spirit of grace and the bond of charity. Of these St. Paul says: The Lord knoweth who are his. Who they are that compose this class we also may remotely conjecture, but we can by no means pronounce with certainty. But although the Catholic faith uniformly and truly teaches that the good and the bad belong to the Church, yet the same faith declares that the condition of both is very different. The wicked are contained in the Church, as the chaff is mingled with the grain on the threshing floor, or as dead members sometimes remain attached to a living body.”
These concepts were so all-pervading in their influence that few bothered to examine their content. They were everywhere to such an extent that they were invisible. “Good” in this reference does not always necessarily mean morally good, as in “a good man”. It means “good at being a Catholic, as in “good musician”. Like a good musician, a good Catholic had to be specially “formed”. It was even possible, within this terminology, to be a “good” man and a “Bad” Catholic simultaneously. However, a certain odium was inevitably connected with being a Bad Catholic (that is to say, with being bad at being a Catholic). Bad Catholics had broken the rules in some respect, and keeping to the rules was itself deemed morally good even if the rules had no objective moral content, such as abstinence from meat on Fridays. Divine sanction was attached to them. Missing Mass on Sundays, taking part in a Protestant church service, getting married without the blessing of a priest: all these actions, morally indifferent or even conceivably positive in themselves in certain circumstances, became sins when they involved deliberate disobedience of the Catholic Church’s authority.
In English terms the twilight zone between the Good and Bad Catholic was more often explored by novelists than by theologians or sociologists. As we have just glimpsed, both Evelyn Waugh’s and Graham Greene found rich material in the Good-Catholic/Bad-Catholic dichotomy. Their popular success could not have depended solely on Catholic readers, even less in Waugh’s case on an elite wealthy snobbish clique which would have recognised itself in Brideshead, because there were not enough of them. They appealed to the non-Catholic English public at large partly because they transcended this narrow and esoteric caste system of Good Catholics and Bad Catholics in order to say true things about the human condition and the divine spark therein; but partly also because the English were able, through these novels, to get an idea of what a religion would be like if those who belonged to it believed every word of it (something they could not learn from contemplating the internal affairs of the Church of England.) The perils of Catholic damnation or the miseries of Catholic guilt could be enjoyed vicariously. Indeed, they had a powerful attraction.
The Bad Catholic did not equate with the Continental idea of an anticlerical. It may have had its origins in the 17th century divide between “church-papists” on one side and “recusants” on the other – two ways of coping with the severe penalties that were attached to the practice of the Catholic faith in England at that time. Recusants refused to attend the services of the Church by Law Established, and were regularly fined for their defiance. For some of the period, assisting a Catholic priest to go about his duties was a capital offence.
Church-papists, who were so numerous that their alleged influence over the court of Charles I was one of the causes of the Civil War, were secret Catholics who outwardly conformed to the State religion. Recusants saw them as disloyal to the Catholic faith, putting self before duty. English Catholics had to grow acutely sensitive antennae to distinguish between recusants and church-papists. Thus arose the searching question one Catholic would ask another about a mutual Catholic acquaintance: “Is he completely loyal to the Church?” In other words: “Is he a Good Catholic?”
On top of the political issue there was also the influence of Jansenist spirituality in English-speaking Catholicism, not least in Ireland. The movement started in France in the mid-17th century as a protest against the alleged moral laxity preached by the Jesuits. It was strict; it did not like the human body and its functions, and it did not like people enjoying themselves because of the ever present danger of sin. It had some of the characteristics of Calvinism in its insistence on the initiative of God in human salvation – “by grace alone”. Its influence on popular Catholic piety was to foster the feeling that salvation was a precarious prize easily lost, and that God was fearsome and only to be approached with extreme trepidation. It discouraged regular Communion almost as much as it discouraged human contentment. It was the source of a lot of Catholic anguish.
Aside from this intensification of spiritual nervousness caused by Jansenism, orthodox moral theology of the Counter Reformation era already taught that mortal sin destroyed the relationship with God and could only be restored by confession and absolution. Hence priests were necessary. One who died in a state of mortal sin went straight to Hell: only confession to a priest could save him. If you want to see this theme developed, read Graham, Greene’s The Power and the Glory, where the duty to save souls by hearing the confession of those about to die leads directly to heroic martyrdom.
One who was not in a state of mortal sin was said to be in a state of grace. Though it was not part of the teaching of Cornelius Jansen as such, the Jansenist outlook made it seem that mortal sins were easily committed and the state of grace was for ever in danger of slipping away. It was necessary to be very watchful, even scrupulous, if this was to be avoided. Like Calvinists, Jansenists strongly believed human beings were naturally wicked and left to their own devices much more likely to prefer the wrong to the right.
Priests influenced by this spirituality naturally encouraged lay Catholics to stick to the rules of the Church as rigorously as possible, as the only safe course. It was accepted, for example, that to eat even a morsel of meat on a Friday was a mortal sin, damning the soul to Hell. There were, of course, escape routes. The young thug Pinkie (‘the Boy”) torments himself with the thought that he might die in a state of mortal sin and burn in Hell for ever; but is comforted by remembering that even “between the stirrup and the ground t is possible for the sinner to repent and still get to heaven. The Good Thief was the Patron Saint of Bad Catholics. Crucified with Jesus, the Good Thief repents of his sins and asks to be admitted into heaven even as he dies. Jesus tells him his wish is granted.
It is symptomatic of a certain style of Catholicism that with various murders and other crimes on his conscience, Pinkie is also worried by his false marriage to the girl Rose, yet another mortal sin for which to be damned. It was against the law of the Church, and the power of the Church is not to be mocked.
In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Lord Marchmain makes that final movement of the hand on his deathbed, the sign of the cross, which signals to those watching that he has repented of his long-time rejection of Catholicism at the last possible moment – again “between the stirrup and the ground”. It is the climax of the novel. But neither Pinkie nor Lord Marchmain are proposed as models to be followed; they are interesting because they defy the rules until the last possible minute and get away with it (or in Pinkie’s case, perhaps not).
There were two essential points about being a Good Catholic. The first was the importance of observing all the rules of the Catholic faith, not just some of them. Being approximately Catholic did not count. The redeeming aspect of this supercharged landscape of instant damnation was the ready availability of the prescribed antidote. Confession to a priest made good the harm done at once, restored the life of grace, washed away the sin (though not, in theory, all the punishment due for it). In extremis, as Greene often noted in his novels, an individual could be rescued from imminent damnation by saying to himself a perfect “act of contrition” – repenting totally of all his sins, and throwing himself entirely on the mercy of God. Risky, though. What if his act of contrition was not perfect?
The second crucial aspect of the life of grace of a Good Catholic, therefore, was maintaining a relationship of good humoured and respectful submission to the clergy. The notion that grace, authority and spiritual power flowed down from the top through the various strata of the hierarchy did not just make the priest special. It also made him necessary. A willing dependence on priests was therefore the mark of a Good Catholic. And that has shaped the relationship between priests and people for many generations. It was, needless to say, a very unequal relationship. They – the hierarchy and clergy in general – were the teachers and leaders; we – the laity – were the taught and the lead.
In his recent visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict XVI made an extraordinary remark. “It is not right that laity should feel treated as if they hardly count in the Church,” he said. “It is particularly important for pastors to ensure that a spirit of communion reigns among priests, religious and the lay faithful, and that sterile divisions, criticism and unhealthy mistrust are avoided.” Well amen to that. Note that the Pope made two points – one, that the laity were indeed now being treated as if they did not count; and two, that they should not be so treated. “It is not right.”
That requires a much more equal relationship. If the clergy and hierarchy continue to insist on the dichotomy I have just described – “they as the teachers and leaders; we as the taught and the lead” – that relationship of inequality will inevitably lead to the “sterile divisions, criticism and unhealthy mistrust” that the Pope deplored. In my experience many priests have already grasped that truth. They have experienced and rejected the infantilisation of the laity that came from the old priest-people relationship based on a downwards gradient of power and significance. They want to be equal; indeed they want to serve rather than be served.
It will only be after the recasting of these relationships that the church will be prepared to tackle the crisis I referred to at the beginning – the widespread dissent from traditional church teaching on sex and gender. It will mean for example paying serious attention to what lay Catholic women have to say about their experience – their relationships, their status, even their sexuality. I have long had the impression that the two fundamental flaws in Catholic sexual morality, for instance, were first, that it was based on a very male idea of what sex was about, and second, that it ignored what we now believe to be the way sexual and reproductive behaviour has evolved in our species and the species that came before us.
What if human sexuality has evolved primarily not as a reproductive device, more or less completed once it results in pregnancy, but instead as a binding mechanism, so that the growing human infant has the benefit of the nurture and protection of one parent of either sex throughout its extended childhood – a far longer childhood than any other mammal, and closely connected with the gradual development of the human brain from infancy to maturity? What if indeed. I do not think the church has yet reached the point where it would allow Darwin’s Origin of Species to sit in judgement over Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, but the time will surely have to come.
I am fairly sure that time will not some this side of an event which I am calling Vatican III, a third Vatican Council – though it may be held somewhere different from the last two. The world has changed so considerably since 1965 that it is almost obvious that remedies deemed appropriate 50 years ago would no longer be much help to us now. Indeed, in what other department of life would there by no real policy rethink for half a century, on the assumption that what was good enough for our grandparents was good enough for us?
There is a bigger reason than that. I have a sense that the long established model of bishops, priests and laity isn’t working any more, and in fact both sides are walking away from it. Do we allow it to continue to reshape itself, or do we try to shore it up? Events of the last ten years, especially the scandal of child abuse, have moved us to a different place and I do not see, or even want there to be, a way back.
The problem, in a word, is clericalism. It isn’t necessarily inherent in the basic structure of the church. It owes rather more to the Counter Reformation than to the Gospel. There is a structural dimension to it, in that it traps individuals in ways of being and seeing that they are not free to escape from. Those who are caught in its coils may be entirely free of blame. It is in other words an ideology.
What we have done is to attach power and authority to the sacramental order, so that those who perform the sacred mysteries are also the elite who govern us. The hierarchy represents a gradient of power and of holiness – popes archbishops, bishops, priests of descending rank, then the lowly laity – but even they are divided into two castes, male and female. I don’t find this in the Gospel. And if I may say so, if I were a Catholic woman I would stay well clear of it. Female ordination could so easily suck women into the clerical power structure. The Anglican experience, I believe, shows that that is what has happened there.
If we are to realise the kind of equality that the Pope was talking about in Mexico – though I am not sure he fully realised the radical implications of what he was saying – let’s see if there is anything we can do symbolically to speed things up.
So how about we dismantle some of the appurtenances of feudal aristocracy that the church still harbours? Would Jesus Christ expect to be called His Holiness when he returns for his Second Coming, or addressed as Most Holy Father? So why is it appropriate to use that title for the Vicar of Christ? Would he want his apostles to be called Eminent, or addressed as His Eminence? Why are archbishops still sometimes given the courtesy title of Your Grace, as if they were dukes at a mediaeval court, or bishops as My Lord, as if they were feudal barons? Why all the palaver about Most Reverend, Right Reverend, Very Reverend or even just Reverend; why Monsignor, which simply means My Lord in Italian? And while we are about it, how about all that grand attire, all that lace and silk and gold and silver embroidery: do people seeing that, see the face of Christ? Or do they see power, and an institution which has taught us to glorify in it? Do they see a way of salvation, or a set of rules to burden them with?
Let’s see what Catherine of Siena had to say, in one of her many outspoken letters to Popes and cardinals.
“I tell you in the name of Christ crucified,” she declared on one occasion, “that you must use your authority to do three essential things. You are in charge of the garden of holy Church. So uproot from the garden the stinking weeds full of impurity and avarice, and bloated with pride (I mean the evil pastors and administrators who poison and corrupt the garden)….Use your authority, you who are in charge of us!…”
and later she tells the Pope “The blessed Christ is complaining that the vices have not been cleared out, and that your holiness is not as conscientious about this as you should be…. I don’t want you paying attention to clothes or anything else, to whether these things are of more value rather than less; I am concerned only that these people be honest, that they behave uprightly and not falsely.”
I should like to close by venturing timorously into a subject called typology, which is about the application of Old Testament archetypal figures or situations to New Testament or even contemporary themes. After the Second Vatican Council the metaphor of the People of God tended to replace the metaphor of the Body of Christ as the preferred way of thinking about the Church.
But when we examine how the story of the People of God is told in the Old Testament, we do not see an easy and comfortable relationship, harmonious on both sides. God’s People and God do at times get along, but at other times they are furiously at odds. The People did sometimes wander from the true path, misled by their religious and political leaders – who are sometimes the same people – into all sorts of wickedness and idolatry. And they were chastised. When they fell on hard times or were defeated by their enemies, prophets arose to tell them that that was what was happening. God was angry and had withdrawn his protection. This was known as declension – a cycle of sin, bondage, repentance, devotion, followed by sin and bondage again; and so on.
I don’t think it would be heretical to ask whether we can see the same pattern in the Church today, though one should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that we know what the sin consists of, or how we should repent. It may be the neglect of widows and orphans; it could even be turning the power structures of the church into a false idol.
I would offer one very tentative theory of my own. I do not think the Catholic Church has yet atoned enough for allowing what happened to the Jews in mainly Catholic Europe under Nazism; and I do not think it has yet expunged from itself the tendencies that enabled that to happen. Blind eyes were turned, confrontations avoided, lest the power and authority of the Church be weakened. And I think the child abuse scandal was a demonstration that those tendencies are still present. Are those sins and crimes worthy of chastisement? I certainly think so.
At any one time, you do not really know where you are in the cycle, or be sure what exactly it is that you have done that brought the chastisement on. You may not even be aware that what you are experiencing is a chastisement. It takes a prophet to tell you; and it can take a very long time to sort false prophets from true ones. But there is one comforting, indeed compelling, thought – whatever the true meaning, God is still in charge, calling the shots. I hope that is a comforting and hopeful thought with which to close this lecture. I am anxious to hear what you make of it. I am very grateful for your attention, and for all the generous hospitality I am being offered here in this wonderful city of Melbourne. I hope I have been provocative enough to stimulate you into a response, and I have learnt over the last three events that the most interesting part of the evening often comes after I’ve finished my lecture, and it’s your turn to speak.