Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Exceptions and Anarchy

This passage from G.K. Chesterton's The Well and the Shallows (1935), is interesting in the light of recent debates in the Church. (The reference to "doing a bolt" is to Chesterton's previous membership of the Church of England.)
Any man with eyes in his head, whatever the ideas in his head, who looks at the world as it is to-day, must know that the whole social substance of marriage has changed; just as the whole social substance of Christianity changed with the divorce of Henry VIII. As in the other case, the externals remained for a time and some of them remain still. Some divorced persons, who can be married quite legally by a registrar, go on complaining bitterly that they cannot be married by a priest. They regard a church as a peculiarly suitable place in which to make and break the same vow at the same moment. And the Bishop of London, who was supposed to sympathise with the more sacramental party, recently submitted to such a demand on the ground that it was a very special case. As if every human being's case were not a special case. That decision was one of the occasions on which I should have done a bolt, if I had delayed it so long. But the general social atmosphere is much the most important matter. Numbers of normal people are getting married, thinking already that they may be divorced. The instant that idea enters, the whole conception of the old Protestant compromise vanishes. The sincere and innocent Victorian would never have married a woman reflecting that he could divorce her. He would as soon have married a woman reflecting that he could murder her. These things were not supposed to be among the daydreams of the honeymoon. The psychological substance of the whole thing has altered; the marble has turned to ice; and the ice has melted with most amazing rapidity. The Church was right to refuse even the exception. The world has admitted the exception; and the exception has become the rule.

To me, this is a debate about the integrity of doctrine, more than pastoral practice. Don't we all realise that a large proportion of the congregation at nearly any Catholic church are knowingly offending against the Church's sexual teaching, and also receiving Communion? How many people in the pews are using contraception, using pornography, having sexual relations outside of marriage, committing adultery, and so forth, with no intention of repentance?

Who sits in judgement on them-- not upon their actions, but on them? I don't. I don't think I'm any better than anyone else in the church begging forgiveness for their sins. God knows the pressures of modern life, of modern expectations, of the cultural messages we are all being bombarded with night and day, the hyper-sexualisation, the lack of guidance from bishops, the lack of clear signals on these matters from most pulpits. It's not that I think this situation is OK or that the sexual immorality of our age should not be addressed. It should, but that's an enormous project. I'm not going to make any presuppositions about any particular person's culpability.

But surely there is all the difference in the world between this situation, and the situation of a priest in confession telling laypeople that they can commit adultery if their conscience allows it? And indeed, the priest having his bishop's approval in this? A person might follow his conscience and do something contrary to a moral absolute, either through a misguided moral sense or through not understanding Church teaching. But how can he do so with the approval of a priest? Surely that should be where the buck stops, where an uninformed conscience becomes an informed conscience? The Church may forgive such behaviour, but how can it condone it?

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