So the Vatican has asked national bishops’ conferences around the world to seek input from Catholics at “all levels” about how the Church should respond to sometimes difficult questions of modern family life, such as divorce and remarriage. It was reported this week that bishops have been asked to respond in mercy and avoid basing their pastoral care solely on current Catholic doctrine.
This comes a year after the English and Welsh bishops’ conference decided to publish widely the Vatican consultative questionnaire on the family, in preparation for last October’s extraordinary synod and next year’s ordinary synod on the family. Catholics welcomed this move even though the questionnaire had been amateurishly constructed and was therefore not at all academically respectable. But the bishops – unlike their counterparts in Germany and Austria – suppressed the responses to the questionnaire, leaving many Catholics with the impression that our answers were not as our bishops would have wished them to be.
Reading the recent interview of bishops’ conference president Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ with The Tablet’s acting editor, Elena Curti, I found it difficult to understand whether the bishops are going to follow their initial procedure of wide consultation or just rely on parish clergy without speaking to parishioners. Blessed John Henry Newman suggested that consulting the laity is a branch of evidence that needs to be taken into account in matters of doctrine.
I am concerned at this possible lack of consultation “at all levels” in England and Wales. We know from the failure of the majority of the lay faithful to “receive” the teaching of Humanae Vitae how important it is that the teaching of the Church needs to be exercised by the People of God as a whole, as set out in Vatican II – that is by the Pope, bishops, clergy, and lay faithful. As we know, Pope Paul VI had removed the debate on responsible parenthood and contraception, married priests, and women priests from the Second Vatican Council agenda. He then went against the decision of the committee that had been set up by his predecessor and himself on responsible parenthood and
which through prayer and the Eucharist came to disagree with the Church’s position on artificial contraception.
Although Humanae Vitae was good in parts, its promulgation damaged the standing of the magisterium when it was not “received” fully by the laity. Surveys have shown that large numbers of practising Catholics ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception, and remarriage.
Pope Francis has brought out Christ’s loving message of mercy and forgiveness and in Evangelii Gaudium has offered pastors guidance on
interpreting traditional teaching on marriage and family life.
The need to consult with the laity on family matters is more important than on other questions of doctrine and morals, because it is lay Catholics who have families, not celibate bishops and clergy. Modern IT and broadcasting give the Church every opportunity to be collegial in consulting with the faithful in matters of doctrine, particularly on the family.
Many Catholics are well aware of the developments in church teaching over the centuries on slavery, usury, just war, sexual activity in marriage not being just for procreation, and capital punishment. I hope that our English and Welsh ordinary synod bishops, Vincent Nichols and Peter Doyle, will bear in mind God’s compassion, forgiveness and mercy when looking at family life for the forthcoming synod.
“Blessed John Henry Newman suggested that consulting the laity is a branch of evidence that needs to be taken into account in matters of doctrine.”
In the light of this observation, in this blog article by Michael Phelan in the latest issue of The Tablet’, it may well be thought – at least by the Titular Head of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Pope Francis, that, on matters of the human family, families themselves need to have the most wide-spread input into any doctrinal discussion in the future on this vital subject. Celibate bishops and clergy have little practical experience of what it might be like to live out the moral imperatives of being a normal family.
Let’s hope that the English Bishops of the R.C. Church will be more forthcoming in allowing, not only clergy, but also the faithful laity, to have some input into the expected discussion that lead up to the next Ordinary Synod of Bishop at the Vatican next year.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand