Is There Growing Confusion over Church Teaching?

I begin with a piece, spotted by Fr Tim Finigan and reported in his indispensable blog The Hermeneutic of Continuity, which had been published in Sandro Magister’s blog—not his English one, Chiesa, but his Italian language blog for L’Espresso, Settimo Cielo.

A few days ago, Magister told the story of a parish priest in the Italian diocese of Novara, Fr Tarcisio Vicario, who recently discussed the question of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. This is how he explained the Church’s teaching on the matter: “For the Church, which acts in the name of the Son of God, marriage between the baptised is alone and always a sacrament. Civil marriage and cohabitation are not a sacrament. Therefore those who place themselves outside of the Sacrament by contracting civil marriage are living a continuing infidelity. One is not treating of sin committed on one occasion (for example a murder), nor an infidelity through carelessness or habit, where conscience in any case calls us back to the duty of reforming ourselves by means of sincere repentance and a true and firm purpose of distancing ourselves from sin and from the occasions which lead to it.”

Pretty unexceptionable, one would have thought.

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His bishop, the Bishop of Novara, however, slapped down Fr Tarcisio’s “unacceptable equation, even though introduced as an example, between irregular cohabitation and murder. The use of the example, even if written in brackets, proves to be inappropriate and misleading, and therefore wrong.”

Fr Tim comments that “Fr Vicario did not ‘equate’ irregular cohabitation and murder. His whole point was that they are different—one is a permanent state where the person does not intend to change their situation, the other is a sin committed on a particular occasion where a properly formed conscience would call the person to repent and not commit the sin again.”

It was bad enough that Fr Tarcisio should be publicly attacked by his own bishop simply for propagating the teachings of the Church. Much more seriously, Fr Tarcisio was then slapped down from Rome itself, by no less a person than the curial Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who said that the words of Fr Tarcisio were “crazy [‘una pazzia’], a strictly personal opinion of a parish priest who does not represent anyone, not even himself.” Cardinal Baldisseri, it may be remembered, is the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, and therefore of the forthcoming global extravaganza on the family. This does not exactly calm one’s fears about the forthcoming Synod: for, of course, it is absurd and theologically illiterate to say that Fr Tarcisio’s words were “a strictly personal opinion of a parish priest who does not represent anyone, not even himself” (whatever that means): for, on the contrary, they quite simply accurately represent the teaching of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

Sandro Magister tellingly at this point quotes the words of Thomas, Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, who was appointed in January this year as one of the five members of the Commission of Cardinals Overseeing the Institute for the Works of Religion, and who at about the same time as Fr Tarcisio was being slapped down from the beating heart of curial Rome, was saying almost exactly the same thing as he had:

Many people who are divorced, and who are not free to marry, do enter into a second marriage. … The point is not that they have committed a sin; the mercy of God is abundantly granted to all sinners. Murder, adultery, and any other sins, no matter how serious, are forgiven by Jesus, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the forgiven sinner receives communion. The issue in the matter of divorce and remarriage is one’s conscious decision (for whatever reason) to persist in a continuing situation of disconnection from the command of Jesus … it would not be right for them to receive the sacraments….

What exactly is going on, when Bishops and parish priests can so radically differ about the most elementary issues of faith and morals—about teachings which are quite clearly explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—and when simultaneously one Cardinal describes such teachings as “crazy” and another simply expounds them as the immemorial teachings of the Church? Does nobody know what the Church believes any more?

The question brought me back powerfully, once more, to one of the most haunting blogs I have read for some time, one to which I have been returning repeatedly since I read it last Friday. It is very short, so here it is in full; I am tempted to call it Fr Blake’s last post (one can almost hear his bugle sounding over sad shires):

It is four months since Protect the Pope went into “a period of prayer and reflection” at the direction of Bishop Campbell, someone recently asked me why I tend not to post so often as I did, and I must say I have been asking the same question about other bloggers.

The reign of Benedict produced a real flourish of ‘citizen journalists’, the net was alive with discussion on what the Pope was saying or doing and how it affected the life of our own local Church. Looking at some of my old posts they invariably began with quote or picture followed by a comment, Benedict stimulated thought, reflection and dialogue, an open and free intellectual environment. There was a solidity and certainty in Benedict’s teaching which made discussion possible and stimulated intellectual honesty, one knew where the Church and the Pope stood. Today we are in less certain times, the intellectual life of the Church is thwart with uncertainty.

Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church, today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.

I look at my own blogging, and see that I perfectly exemplify this. More and more, my heart just isn’t in it; and I blog less than I did. Now, increasingly, I feel that silence is all. Under Benedict, there was vigorously under way a glorious battle, an ongoing struggle, focused on and motivated by the pope himself, to get back to the Church the Council intended, a battle for the hermeneutic of continuity. It was a battle we felt we were winning. Then came the thunderbolt of Benedict’s resignation.

After an agonizing interregnum, a new pope was elected, a good and holy man with a pastoral heart. All seemed to be well, though he was not dogmatically inclined as Benedict had been: all that was left to the CDF. I found myself explaining that Francis was hermeneutically absolutely Benedictine, entirely orthodox, everything a pope should be, just with a different way of operating. I still believe all that. But here is increasingly a sense of uncertainty in the air, which cannot be ignored. “One knew where the Church and the Pope stood” says Fr Blake. Now, we have a Pope who can be adored by such enemies of the Catholic Church as the arch abortion supporter Jane Fonda, who tweeted last year “Gotta love new Pope. He cares about poor, hates dogma.”

In other words, for Fonda and her like, the Church is no longer a dogmatic entity, no longer a threat. That’s what the world now supposes: everything is in a state of flux. The remarried will soon, they think, be told they can receive Holy Communion as unthinkingly as everyone else: that’s what Cardinal Kasper implied at the consistory in February. Did the pope agree with him? There appears to be some uncertainty, despite the fact that the Holy Father had already backed Cardinal Mueller’s insistence that nothing has changed.

We shall see what we shall see at the Synod, which I increasingly dread. Once that is out of the way, we will be able to assess where we all stand. But whatever happens now, it seems, the glad confident morning of Benedict’s pontificate has gone, never again to return; and I (and it seems many others) have less we feel we can say.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared July 11, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: CNS / L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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