Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Love and Law

By Bishop B.C. Butler

In last week's article I argued that, since God is infinite love, his authority will normally be an authority not of constraint but of appeal, since it is aimed at a free (and therefore worthwhile) response. Nevertheless it is obvious that there is place for an authority of constraint - an authority, in other words, which operates by means of the threat of disadvantage.

Constraint has a necessary role in the nurture of young children by their parents. If a tiny child is so fascinated by sparkling coals that it runs towards the fire, it is not feasible to sit and argue the case for greater prudence; the father or the mother will overtake the child and forcibly remove him from the danger of the fire. Again, since young children have limited outlooks, parents will insist that these young ones go to bed at a reasonable hour - sometimes against the protests of the children themselves.

In other words, constraint has its function to the extent that responsible maturity has not yet been attained. But constraint can also become an excessive parental habit, so that as their children begin to realise, though obscurely, that they will have to learn to make their own decisions, there can be very painful disagreements in a family. While older children may be willing to listen to the advice of their parents they will often feel, and act on the feeling, that ultimately practical decisions must now be their own.

There is, however, a further function for the authority of constraint. It is based on the fact that we are social beings and that, with few exceptions, we need the support of social groups, whether they be our family, our nation or the Church. By accident or by choice we find ourselves members of a social group, a school, a village or a town, and a nation. Only a tiny minority can find satisfaction in a kind of eremitical solitude in such circumstances. Experience shows that most of us, at boarding school or in a local community, grow to feel a deep and satisfying link with the wider community. A boy who at first is repelled and alarmed by the strong esprit de corps of his boarding school will often, when the time comes for him to move into a wider world, feel a sense of loss and even bereavement. A school or village or town population is in fact what Christians call a koinonia - a bond of fellowship based on shared location, concerns and interests.

But individualism is a pervasive danger and therefore there will be constraints which militate against "apostasy". We may grumble about such constraints but, on the whole, we recognise their necessity and therefore their value. In the family, the school, the local community and the nations as a whole, there are "rules" to be observed and a constraint to back the rules. In fact the constraints, wisely selected and sensibly enforced, promote the bond of fellowship - the koinonia - and help to foster the freely-chosen loyalty and love that give meaning and value to the koinonia.                            

And so it is with the Church. The Church has its rules and regulations, with implicit or explicit penalties for those who rebel against them. There is an amusing passage in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11) in which he argues that women at church should have their beads veiled. He attempts a (hardly convincing) argument to support this judgement, but in the end falls back on an appeal to general Christian practice: "If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognise no other practice, nor do the churches of God.' There may, in this matter, be no threat of punishment, but there is an appeal to 'communion' with the universal Church.  But there has been much development since the time of St Paul, and there has been a perhaps excessive centralization. It was reported in The Tablet (10 March 1984, p.236) that Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told a meeting of bishops in Dallas that dissent (presumably from papal teaching in the realm of morals) cannot rightly extend to officially stated moral  norms. I think some clarification is called for here.

Popes make many statements, some doctrinal and some moral; but they rarely define ex cathedra. Perhaps the only ex cathedra definitions since the Council of Trent 400 years ago have been the two relating to the immaculate conception of Our Lady and her assumption into heaven. It would be difficult to show that infallibility has been exercised in moral teaching except where there are sacramental implications involved (as possibly in conjunction with the sacrament of marriage) Of course there are moral certainties (for example, the sinfulness of murder): certain truths do not need to be defined and have not been defined by a pope speaking ex cathedra.

On the other hand, popes can and do "teach" in the sphere of disputed moral questions; but if they abstain from settling such issues infallibly, we are left with duty (to use a Vatican II term) of religiosum obsequium : respect motivated by religious considerations. Religious respect, however, will not normally be equivalent to the assent of faith; we need only remember how the Church tolerated slavery for many centuries and how, on other hand, it condemned the practice of taking interest on loans. Both these moral attitudes and prescriptions have swept away.

It may well be true that an instinct of loyalty will encourage us to allow a presumption  of truth to non-infallible moral teaching. But it is surely difficult to exaggerate such respect to the level of a "norm" that shortcircuits  theological investigation.

About four years after Vatican I's definition of the infallibility (under certain conditions and within a certain sphere) of the Pope, Newman (shortly afterwards to made a cardinal) wrote in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk: "It is never lawful to go against our conscience ... The very moment when the Church ceases to speak [infallibly], then private judgement by necessity starts up. There is nothing to hinder [a Catholic] having his opinion and expressing it, whenever, and so far as, the Church, the oracle of Revelation, does not speak [sc. ex cathedra or by a doctrinal definition of an ecumenical council that has been endorsed by the pope].'

This whole passage, from which I have only extracted a part, is worth reading. The canonisation of Newman is now being  promoted and, so far as I am aware, his affirmation that "it is never lawful to go against your conscience', and that non-infallible teaching cannot invade the primacy of a seriously considered and expressed judgement of conscience has never been impugned. "Conscience must always be obeyed", the moral theologians teach us.

The fact remains that, just as a nuclear family that has no rules is likely to decline anarchy and the decay of love, so in Church universal there will be universal laws, and constraints to support the laws.

The principl—that whether in a nuclear family or a universal Church there are shared practices which may need the support of constraints—is undoubtedly sound; the alternative is chaos and the diminishment of fraternal charity, although as the Church becomes more conscious of its worldwide mission we are slowly learning the lesson of "inculturation" – the need to incarnate the Church in the culture of each particular society, and to accept wide local variations, to be determined within the locality by those who share the local life.

The laws, however, remain subordinate to the charity and, as already argued, charity (among the mature) is a matter of free reasonable choice. Ultimately this charity is the infinite love of God and it is inevitable that all constraints should be in service of, not in opposition to, the basic responsibility of accepting or rejecting divine love.

Perhaps if there had never been a "fall of man" there would be no need of constraints upon mature Christians. But we are all "fallen" and the temptation to individualist self-love is chronic. How many of us would practice self-denial in Lent if the Church did not advocate it? How many of us would go regularly to Sunday Mass (which was a bit of a problem already when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, and still a problem in the days St Ignatius of Antioch) unless the church put some constraint upon us to celebrate in this way the concrete reality of koinonia ?

Constraint can be exaggerated, and often is exaggerated. It can even, at an extreme point, lead to excommunication. But even at that extreme point the Church always resolutely maintains that, despite this exercise of a constraining authority, it passes no ultimate judgment on the interior dispositions of the victim: De internis non iudicat ecclesia.  Thus the Church remains conscious of the fact that the heart of religion is divine love and the personal response which this love invites and enkindles.