Sunday, 18 January 2009

Times: Fr Peter's Perspective - Faithful reasoning

Sunday, 18th January 2009; Interview with Fr. Peter Serracino Inglott

There have been instances when you did not agree with the Church's guidelines. Have you ever thought of excommunicating yourself?

The closest shave (I choose the word deliberately) was exactly on the eve of when I turned from layman into cleric. At that time it was necessary to take what was called the anti-modernist oath. It included a rejection of "the values of the modern world", and as I thought that such a declaration was absurd, I went and said so to the Rector of the Seminary in Paris where I was a student.

He pointed out to me that the statement I refused to accept was a quotation from an encyclical and the context showed that "the values of the modern world" were defined in such a way that it was absurd not to reject them. He was right and, in fact, the next day I was tonsured, i.e. a circle was shaved off the back of my head.

I am telling the story because I think it is an excellent illustration of the adjunct to the core doctrine of the moral teaching of the Church, which is that one should always follow one's conscience meaning practical reason, but that one's conscience should be well informed. Many disagreements, in fact, arise out of verbal misunderstandings, which churchmen should be more careful than they often are to avoid.

Catholics accept the Church's claim that it has received authority from Jesus Christ to transmit His teaching and that it is protected by the Holy Spirit in this task, but at the same time they recognise that the Church ordinarily operates in the world with the limitations that beset all human institutions.

Pope John Paul II confessed solemnly in St Peter's Basilica a list of errors and even crimes committed in the course of the history of the Church, including encouragement of both anti-Semitism and the Crusades. So it is not always an easy task to determine sharply with what authority churchmen speak.

Perhaps Pope Benedict has made the task even more difficult. Even when he occupied his previous post, which is generally thought of as that of the Grand Inquisitor, he wrote in the same style as that of a university professor, and did not restrict himself to confuting opinions that were manifestly incompatible with the clear teachings of Christ. He has continued to speak in the same style as Pope, even on occasion inviting the expression of disagreement with his own proffered interpretations of the Faith.

How pertinent is this to the homosexual question?

Perhaps the first consideration to be kept in mind is that just as there is development of dogma, by which truths are extracted that were previously only implicit in revelation, likewise there is progress in moral perception.

Unlike the case of such methods of birth-control as the Pill, about which there is nothing and there could not have been anything in the original deposit of Faith, there are statements in both the Old and the New Testament about homosexuality. But as with the process of procreation, understanding of it has greatly increased over time. Consequently, even explicit biblical statements require subtle interpretation, and it is only through philosophy that actual moral guidelines can be derived.

Some of the Pope's statements on gender matters can hardly be contested not only by Catholics but by any reasonable person as well. However, his presentation of human nature as if there were an absolutely sharp and rigid dichotomy between male and female is a philosophic stance that can hardly be thought to belong to the deposit of Faith and indeed scarcely fits in with the perspective of such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, at least as I read him.

Contemporary knowledge has made it clearer that men and women constitute a whole range of variations upon an essentially androgynous nature. The Pope's homilies, especially if heard in his soft voice, do not strike me as being the pronouncement of anathemas, but rather gentle challenges to reflection and examination of conscience.

Are you saying that disagreement with the Pope even on such important moral issues as say the use of contraceptives does not in itself logically mean that one should leave the Catholic Church?

Faith begins with the recognition that everyone of us human beings is, in fact, instinctively selfish and in need of divine help in order to communicate better with all his or her fellow human beings as the way towards full communion of life with all creatures in God's own Kingdom. This future life is anticipated in this world through sharing in the sacramental economy of the Church.

As D. M. McCarthy has written: "The common task of all Christians is to accept God's invitation to share Christ's body in the Eucharist, which means to let our bodies be formed by our call to discipleship and by our place in the one body of the Church. God's invitation is our call to live out God's hospitality as members of the body of Christ."

A believer does not discard his religion as if it were a coat on a hot summer's day. There could be disbelief in basic tenets of the Faith that would require for consistency's sake departure from the table of Communion with one's fellow human beings in the body of the Risen Christ and with God Himself.

But I would certainly not do it myself especially because of disagreement on disciplinary matters or if the Church itself did not deem it fit that I be expelled.

Fr Peter Serracino Inglott was talking to Miriam Vincenti.

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