Development of a Mature Laity – Presented by Clifford Longley – Friday 4th May 2012


In defining ‘mature laity’ today, Clifford Longley looks back to the pre-Vatican II church.  He uses two particular writers to illustrate the mind of  a ‘good’ Catholic and ‘bad’ Catholic; ‘good’ being one who adheres to the rules and remains steadfastly loyal to the clergy;  ‘bad’ does not, is neither of these.  Both were laden with Catholic guilt and anguish .

Vatican II  heard  many voices raised within the Council, some pre-conciliar ideas where the laity remained under the jurisdiction of the hierarchy, and the spectrum of more forward ideas of equality within the Church, (though still under the hierarchy) and autonomy in the secular world.  The difficulty came in the area of training and formation –for whom, by whom, what content and how much.

Then came the crisis of Humanae Vitae, and its prescriptive effect on maturing of thought within the laity, the understanding of their role and as thinking members of the Church and the sudden loss of power of the hierarchy to influence their people.

Clifford Longley’s main thesis is about a need to return to and develop  the notions  of virtue, the standards of behaviour that include justice, prudence, courage, faith and hope. These and others focus on what kind of a person one is. Movement towards this is a measure of a person’s maturity, and indeed maturity of laity/peoples.

Clifford Longley ‘s writing is easy, and includes personal reflections of his rich experience as observer of and activity in the Church.

The Lecture

Let me say how delighted I am to be in Brisbane, which does not seem at all like a foreign city to me – which may be because I have family living here, as indeed I do in Canberra. 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 in this “land which abounds in nature’s gifts, Of beauty rich and rare…”

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 think so.

So we should not be so surprised when we come across Anglo-Australia coincidences. Let me tell you about one 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 periti, that is to say a 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! 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.”

One way of asking ourselves how far we have travelled towards a grown-up church, 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[i] – 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…

“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” or “good cricketer.” 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. 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. 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 of the central character, who was certainly a “Bad Catholic” but a good priest.

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.

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 it 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 most worried by his false marriage to the girl Rose, a mortal sin for which he thinks he is 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 Catholic God, it seemed, was easily annoyed.

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.

Let us jump, then, to what the Second Vatican Council thought about the laity. It seems to be generally agreed that this was not its finest achievement. The decree Apostolicum Actuositatem (on the Apostolate of Lay People) bears all the hallmarks of having been assembled from different sources. Some of the compromises that were necessary seem to have consisted of running alternative versions of the same ideas one after another, when finding a synthesis became too difficult.

In places its conception of the lay apostolate is strictly hierarchical: the laity act within and as part of the Mystical Body of Christ and must be governed accordingly. But that is the pre-conciliar stress. Elsewhere, the distinctive voice of the Second Vatican Council can be heard when it talks of the laity as part of the People of God, of their equality with other members of that People, and of their autonomy in the secular sphere. Their apostolate comes from their baptism, therefore, not from being commissioned or sanctioned by the hierarchy. These two ways of talking about the role of lay people sit ill together. The Council refused to choose between them: to that extent the decree reflects an argument begun but not finished.

Nowhere is the difficulty more acute than in the matter of lay formation. The model suggested is definitely the pre-conciliar one, but updated: that of lay apostolate as an official extension of the church’s general apostolate. Hence it is under the church’s control and direction, if not directed by the hierarchy then through priests the hierarchy has appointed for such work. It is a very churchy conception, tending to produce a clericalised laity. Clericalism is clearly not a phenomenon confined to those who wear dog-collars.

“Training” in the lay apostolate “is indispensable”…, said the final document, and “besides spiritual formation, solid grounding in doctrine is required, in theology, ethics and philosophy …” The decree concedes: “While preserving intact the necessary link with ecclesiastical authority, the laity have the right to establish and direct associations and to join existing ones.” By means of lay formation, the gap which had been opened up between priest and people at the time of the Council of Trent was to be closed again, not by lowering the priesthood but by lifting the people, making them less “lay” (in the common, slightly pejorative sense) and more like priests.

The Second Vatican Council brought forth a new understanding of the church as the People of God, which was a rival to or substitute for the more hierarchical pre-conciliar model, of the Church as Christ’s “mystical body”. In the terminology of “lay apostolate”, this ultimately must mean that the right and duty of lay people to spread the message of the Gospel in the secular world came directly from their baptism, not from their receiving transferred or delegated powers from the clergy.

This was certainly a great step forward from the idea that the laity had nothing much to do but “hunting, shooting and fishing” or “paying, praying and obeying” – that as far as the church was concerned their proper place was to be the passive and grateful recipients of the ministrations of those in Holy Orders. But it still put the laity in a subordinate relationship to the clergy, who were still, so to speak, the professionals.

“Lay formation” was an idea modelled on the formation given to priests, but in an adapted and abbreviated form. There obviously was not time to equip a layman with all the knowledge a priest had, so a priest had to be available to him as a convenient repository of this expert knowledge. The spiritual formation was just as important – deepening the layman’s prayer life, so that he became more humble and virtuous, indeed more Christ-like. Humility would make him receptive to the guidance of a priest rather than reliant on his own opinions. If he was receptive to the guidance of a priest he would be unlikely to become a troublemaker, one who criticised the policies of the hierarchy.

It is in this area that the idea of a “Bad Catholic” held most dread for church officials. Bad Catholics could mislead Good Catholics into sinful and rebellious ways. The thought of what they might do was enough to induce a shudder of horror. A Bad Catholic was worse in every way than a merely lapsed Catholic. One thing a Bad Catholic might do, for instance, was to challenge such settled doctrines as the one that said that the use of contraception was a mortal sin.

The Bad-Catholic/Good-Catholic divide may have emerged unscathed from the Council. But it did not long survive the crisis in the Church that broke out three years after it ended, arising from the publication of the papal encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae.

Another novelist who has explored the Bad-Catholic/Good-Catholic territory was David Lodge, though he deconstructed it rather than used it as a fictional framework. In his novel How far can you go? – in case you are wondering, yes, the question does address issues of sexuality – he described a group of lay Catholics who travel through the time of Vatican II and the Humanae Vitae crisis and emerge with a transformed idea of the Catholic faith. The title of the book comes from a question allegedly symptomatic of all the angst of being a young lay Catholic in the 1960s and 1960s – “Please father, how far can you go with a girl, Father…?” (Does anybody ever ask such questions nowadays? I wonder.)

The group started to campaign for the kind of Catholicism they now believed in, calling themselves the “Catholics for an Open Church” movement. Ring any bells? It is the kind of thing you may be familiar with, though those who first embarked on it had the thrill of entering into unexplored, forbidding and even forbidden territory. Lodge describes a conversation at one of these group meetings, where the topic was, inevitably, “what had gone wrong…”|

“Where we went wrong, of course,” said Adrian, “was in accepting the theology of mortal sin.”

“No,” said Miriam, who had been listening quietly to their comments. “Where you went wrong was in supposing that the Church belonged to the Pope or the priests instead of to the People of God.”

They nodded agreement. “The People of God” was a phrase the Catholics for an Open Church approved of. It made them sound invincible.


Lodge is poking gentle fun at them, though I happen to know he was also one of them. And so, incidentally, was I. But the very question of his title “How far can you go?”, betrayed not only a continuing obsession with sexual sin but also with obedience to rules, neither of which would we regard as particularly mature.

From about the late sixties onwards, the notion of a lay apostolate as being in a subordinate role delegated by the hierarchical church went off the boil, and instead there ensued a battle for control between hierarchy and laity which has not yet been resolved. The essential problem was doctrinal and theological. Perhaps as a direct result of the crisis in 1968 over birth control, lay Catholics began to develop a deaf ear for some of the teachings of the hierarchical church, especially in the area of sexuality.

1968 was a crucial year, for it was the point where many leaders of the more progressive side of the church took fright and decided things had gone too far. This certainly happened to our own Cardinal Heenan of Westminster. And indeed it happened to the Professor Joseph Ratzinger, though partly his own change of mind was triggered by political events that year such as student revolts and anti-Vietnam war riots.

The authorities of the Church were not prepared for the adverse lay reaction to Humanae Vitae, and attributed it, as they inevitably would, to the influence of radical clergy and the supine bishops who failed to rein them in. The most worrying focus of dissent, in this analysis, concerned feminism and its related ideas, including calls for a re-evaluation of Catholic attitudes to homosexuality. Most conspicuously in Holland but more or less all over the globe, the Vatican tightened up on the appointment of bishops. From then on, they were only to be appointed from among priests with a known tack record of opposition to such trends. In most casse, the Vatican waited for a See to fall vacant; in a few, however, it took steps to have the troublesome bishops removed. I’m afraid this is a painful pattern here in Australia just now, with Bishop Bill Morris falling victim to the thought-police. In the United States there was a long term policy of trying to steer the Catholic Church to the right, including the political right, by appointing bishops of a certain persuasion who would gradually pull the centre of gravity of Catholic thinking in a neo-conservative direction.

This naturally produced a bias in new episcopal appointments towards safe men, sound in doctrine, not too adventurous, not likely to be rockers of the boat, for whom loyalty to the prevailing trends in Rome was paramount. This enforced consensus has also affected the work of the International Synod of Bishops, which was initially intended to capture the spirit of collegiality which was so manifest by the time the council ended, but became one more lever in the hands of the Church’s central administration. Clearly there were many moments in the unfolding story of Vatican II when the curia lost control and things did not go its way. Collegiality was a specific threat to that bureaucratic hegemony.

What you make of all this of course depends on which side you are on – if the trends needing to be corrected were away from the truth, then radical surgery was the only way. If they were in some sense a fulfilment of everything the council stood for, on the other hand, then the “powers that be” were smothering the renewal of the Church that the Council had called for. I do not see the gap between these two positions being closed any day soon, though it is also true that later generations of laity do not have the same indignation as the 1960s generation – expressed by one of them to me as “We was robbed!” Dissent is still there, but it has become normative, no longer worth remarking on.

A recent Tablet editorial reflected on some puzzling aspects of this ongoing phenomenon, using Ireland as an example, saying 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 surely true of Australia. 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. But what has happened as an indirect consequence is the decline of any sense of the laity being subordinate to the hierarchy, as if they were troops waiting for orders to go over the top. All those notions of lay apostolate – of the laity being directed by the clergy – were becoming obsolete. They did not even apply to the new religious movements in the Catholic Church, some of which were nevertheless conservative in other ways. They tend to be – or to have become – lay initiatives, lay lead.

So we have to make our own way, and develop new and more mature ways of being the Catholic Church’s faithful laity. Yet to define the laity as 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 not specific.

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. This is the only detailed authoritative treatment of virtue as a sub-set of Catholic Social Teaching that I know of.

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 a real 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 virtues are not about what one is allowed to do but who one is formed to be. They strengthen us to become moral agents, the source of our own actions. The classical virtues 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.

The virtue of prudence or right reason is the opposite of rashness and carelessness. It enables us to discern the good in any circumstance and the right way to achieve it. It is rational and intelligent, including emotional intelligence which knows how to weigh the meaning and importance of our feelings.

The virtue of courage ensures firmness and the readiness to stand by what we believe in times of difficulty. It is the opposite of opportunism and of evasiveness. It is the practice of fortitude in the face of difficulty, and produces heroism in every field. Courage is an important element in artistic creativity, and it helps those who battle against sickness, injustice or depression.

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. It expands our notion of quote self unquote by strengthening the ties between us all. Justice towards God is the virtue of religion which frees us from the tyranny of false gods who would claim our worship.

The virtue of temperance holds as to moderate our appetites and the use of the worlds created goods. It is the opposite of consumerism and the uninhibited pursuit of pleasure. It is about learning to desire well. Indeed it is an essential part of a happy life.

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. Our society will rediscover its capacity to trust by the recovery of the practice of virtue, and through an ethically founded reform of many of our social and economic institutions

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 rediscovery of virtue.

There 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 two basic approaches, the first called the consequentialist approach which judges the morality of an action by its results, and the second, the deontological or rule-based approach, which judges the morality of an action by its compliance with certain rules or laws.

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. 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, on virtue ethics, called After Virtue. Incidentally both Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre converted to Catholicism in the course of their philosophical work.

MacIntyre started something of a revolution in moral philosophy, with journals, seminars and even a learned society devoted to promoting and developing his work on the ethics of virtue.

Alistair McIntire’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.

With all due respect to St Paul, I think he was wrong, and the greatest is, in fact, 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 and them. But was he just to them?

The practice of the virtue of justice is not just about what goes on in the law courts, but extends most importantly into the social sphere, hence the concept of social justice. The Catholic Church has a marvellous tradition in this area, sometimes called its best kept secret, which goes under the name of Catholic Social Teaching. I devoted a whole lecture to it in Canberra on Wednesday. It is in this sphere above all that the Catholic laity has a distinct vocation to fulfil, for Catholic Social Teaching covers the whole question of how society is to be organised so that Jesus called “these the least of my brethren” are not to be oppressed or swept aside. It is highly relevant to the economic and financial crisis that overtook the global economy in 2008 and whose effects are still with us. In fact Catholic Social Teaching embraces all the cardinal and theological virtues, not just justice. It is by working in this area above all that a mature laity should be able to find its proper role in the Church.

So what happened to the virtue tradition? It was severely criticised 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. It was as if the only virtue that mattered in the Church was the virtue of obedience to authority – which was not on Aristotle’s list at all! Indeed I think he would have said it was contrary to the virtue of courage, not to mention prudence and justice.

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: we also recognise that our virtues can be improved by practice, as in the word virtuosity. 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. And in the process we have reconnected the notion of a good Catholic and a bad Catholic with the notion of a good person and a bad person. They are one and the same.

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. And if you ask what then about conjugal chastity, the only virtue mentioned by name in Gaudium et Spes, I would say it is only masquerading as a virtue; it is in fact de-ontology, rules-based morality, in disguise. 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.

Alasdair MacIntyre himself was and is pessimistic about the possibilities of virtue ethics ever being fully revived, because he thought it need to be underpinned by a philosophical system that had room for the idea of telos, of our lives having a higher purpose. But it does seem to me that the one area of our culture that does not have that problem of a philosophical or ideological vacuum, that has not sold out completely to the values of utilitarianism, is the Catholic one. We still find the ideas on moral virtue of Aristotle and his interpreter and baptiser Thomas Aquinas, congenial to our souls. The rest of society may not be able to go the whole way with us, but we can show it the way.

A mature laity acting independently of the church hierarchy will be perceived by many hierarchs as threatening, for the theological reason that it appears to upset the due order in which decisions are made inside the Catholic Church, and the psychological reason that it takes a good deal of personal maturity to be able to trust others enough to let go of the steering wheel. If that is an issue where relations between bishops clergy and laity are concerned, it is just as much an issue affecting the relationship of bishops to the Vatican.

After the end of Vatican II mechanisms appeared by which the Church was in future to be governed by the worldwide episcopacy functioning as a college. This spirit of collegiality had emerged very strongly by the end of the Council, and the bishops did not want to let it go. But the international synod of bishops was never able to develop a role for itself, largely because the Vatican naturally stepped in to provide the necessary organisational backup, but in the process took it over. Vatican II had taken note that the relationship between pope and the bishops had been distorted by the decrees of the incomplete council called Vatican I in 1870, which strengthened the powers of the papacy and made many bishops think of themselves as no more than branch managers, under a CEO based in Rome.

Collegiality was the idea that was going to restore the balance, but it never worked that way. It would be wrong I think to attribute this to malice or right-wing conspiracy, because we do not need such explanations. The simple truth is that no organisation willingly gives up power, and the Vatican acted exactly as any social anthropologist would have predicted. It turned the synod of bishops to its own purposes. So the collegiality deficit which marked the church after Vatican I is still there, still waiting to be dealt with. I doubt whether anything short of another general council of the church – perhaps Vatican III, perhaps held somewhere else altogether and hence called something else – would have sufficient weight to redress that balance.

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. As we have noted, 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. Archbishop Young’s idea of a caravan is very much of that kind. Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster had a similar metaphor, that of a caravan of pilgrims strung out across the desert, the zealots at the front urging “go faster!”, the laggards at the back shouting “slow down!”, some pilgrims wandering off course to left or right – scandalising those still in the middle – but all proceeding towards the same general direction.

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 and His People do at times get along fine, 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 compelling idea in all this – whatever the true meaning of the Church’s travails at any one time, God is still in charge, calling the shots. I hope that is a comforting thought.

So here we are, entirely fulfilling Archbishop Gillie Young’s of Hobart prophetic image of the Church as the caravan of God, trundling forward, some pulling ahead, some pulling back, some hanging on like grim death to the sides.

But where is it headed, and is that the right direction? I think that would be a good moment to stop, and having heard what I think, for you to tell me what you think. Thank you