Comment on the Comments
Comment on the Comments

Comment on the Comments

William Oddie FAITH Magazine May-June 2007

Unpalatable truths?

What is the particular relevance of Pope Benedict XVI’s first ‘Apostolic exhortation’, Sacramentum Caritatis – (issued on March 13 as the concluding act of the Synod of Bishops held in Rome in October of 2005) – to the political career of Ruth Kelly, since May 2006 Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? I repeat, the particular relevance; for this wonderful document is directly and powerfully relevant to us all – though I am not holding my breath as I await in hope an enthusiastic response from the English and Welsh Bishops (of this genteel aspiration, more later).

The answer (as a contributor to Fr Timothy Finigan’s indispensable blog, ‘The Hermeneutic of Continuity’ has pointed out) is to be found by bringing together para 83 of Sacramentum Caritatis and the statement by Ms. Kelly introducing the new Sexual Orientation Regulations, made in the House of Commons only the week before. To put it crudely, para 83 says unambiguously that a politician who professes the Catholic religion cannot just go to Mass and then behave as though it makes no difference to their political behaviour. It is important, says the document, to consider ‘what the Synod described as eucharistic consistency, a quality which our lives are objectively called to embody. Worship pleasing toGod can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith.’ The document specifies certain values on which decisions have to be made in the public sphere, including respect for human life, and for the family built on marriage between a man and a woman. ‘These values’, says Sacramentum Caritatis, ‘are not negotiable. Consequently, Catholic politicians and legislators, conscious of their grave responsibility before society, must feel particularly bound, on the basis of a properly formed conscience, to introduce and support laws inspired by values grounded in human nature. There is an objective connection here with the Eucharist‘ (my italics).

Now consider the statement issued by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor some hours before Ms. Kelly rose at the despatch box to introduce the Sexual Orientation Regulations in the Commons. It was not the first time he had made the Catholic position clear. ‘Noting the fact that the Sexual Orientation Regulations are being voted on in the House of Commons today,’ said the Cardinal, ‘I again express our concern at their impact, not only on adoption services, but on cooperation between faith-based voluntary agencies and public authorities in public funded services…. Our society’s understanding of the pattern of family life and of the role of conscience and religious belief in public life remains a very important part of the political agenda.’ The English Church, then, of which Ms. Kelly is sucha prominent member, had made it very clear that the SORs are a threat to ‘the pattern of family life’, to what Sacramentum Caritatis calls ‘the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman’. The Catholic position had become so clear, indeed, that there had been calls from anti-Catholic quarters for Ms. Kelly to resign, on the basis of rumours that she had been trying to weaken or delay the regulations: as Toby Helm, the Telegraph’s chief political correspondent had reported the previous October, under the headline ‘Kelly “must resign over delay to gay rights law”’, ‘A fierce Cabinet battle has broken out over gay rights after Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, delayed plans that would penalise organisations – such as hotels – for denying their services tohomosexuals. Ms. Kelly, a Roman Catholic and member of the Opus Dei sect, has clashed with Alan Johnson, her successor as Education Secretary, who is concerned that she is trying to water down the plans because of her religious beliefs.’ Not only that: the Liberal Democrats, as Helm recorded, had ‘called for Ms. Kelly… to resign on the grounds that her personal beliefs are incompatible with advancing gay rights.’

From their point of view, of course, those who were calling for Ruth Kelly’s resignation on these grounds had a point – always assuming that she was indeed trying in some way to moderate or delay the legislation. But when it became clear that she had failed to do so, particularly over the question of her supposed efforts to negotiate an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies, it was not the Lib Dems but her fellow Catholics who were beginning to wonder how she managed to reconcile her ‘personal beliefs’ with her position as the Secretary of State whose job it was to steer the regulations through Parliament. But if Catholics were confused by her behaviour, she will have been reassured by the unequivocal support of the National Secular Society, who welcomed ‘Ms Kelly’s statement thatthere will be no scope for religious groups to discriminate if they are given welfare services to run.’ She will also, no doubt have the support of Clifford Longley, who in The Tablet in January strongly attacked the Church’s position on Civil partnerships and gay adoption. These are strange bedfellows, all the same, for a reputedly traditionalist Catholic.

The teaching of Benedict XVI on such matters is now clearer than it ever was. This column has several times commented on the extended honeymoon the present Holy Father has enjoyed in liberal circles; as Piers Paul Read commented in The Spectator, traditionalist Catholics had begun to be ‘dismayed’ at this: ‘Had Pope Benedict forgotten what he had said in his address at the funeral of his predecessor… about the danger posed by moral relativism?…. Was their Rottweiler now an old spaniel, happy to doze in front of the fire?’. Well, no. As Read goes on to point out, Sacramentum Caritatis clearly ‘rejects most of the items on the liberals’ wish-list. Conjugal acts must be open to the transmission of human life; marriage and the family must be defended ‘from every possiblemisrepresentation of their true nature’ (i.e.civil partnerships)…’. And so on. The document also calls for the Mass to be celebrated in Latin at all international celebrations, discourages banal ditties and recommends Gregorian chant. ‘If, as expected,’ comments Piers Read, ‘Pope Benedict is to allow the saying of the Mass in the Tridentine rite, one can envisage a revival of a liturgy not seen since Vatican II’. Read goes on to comment that ‘This revival of Latin and the return of the Tridentine rite, together with unambiguous restatement of traditional Catholic teaching on contentious issues, will no doubt dismay not just liberal Catholics but many of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales: certainly the muted response by the Bishops’ Conference to Sacramentum Caritatis hascaused indignation in some Catholic circles.’

This ‘muted response’, certainly, has not gone unnoticed; the week after the exhortation’s publication, indeed, it inspired a leading article in The Catholic Herald under the headline ‘A Bewildering Silence’. Imagine, the Herald suggested, ‘that Benedict XVI is a conductor and the Church an orchestra. Last Tuesday, the Pope took to the podium to lead us in a hymn of praise to the Eucharist through his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis. When he raised the baton, the Herald began to play at full volume, devoting pages to the new document and hailing it as a masterpiece. But we were bewildered when we looked up and saw that great sections of the orchestra were sitting in silence. There has been a lot of speculation about why the bishops of England andWales did not join their counterparts in Ireland and America in immediately welcoming the document. Some have suggested that it was to ensure that Benedict XVI’s firm liturgical injunctions would

Well, who knows? But there certainly seems to be something impeding clear communications between the Holy Father and the man and woman in the English-speaking pew; could there be a conspiracy? I don’t wish to seem paranoid, but there have also been suggestions that the English translation of Sacramentum Caritatis has considerably weakened the force of the text, so as to make it much easier to ignore. Father John Boyle, on his blog ‘South Ashford Priest’ (the sudden rise of these excellent clergy blogs seems to be a sign of the times), reports that he has discovered contrasting translations of Sacramentum Caritatis, which lead him to comment that he will ‘have to re-read the apostolic exhortation in a completely different light... Where, in the English, the Pope might be saying“It would be awfully decent of you chaps to...” I shall have to interpret it as: “What I want/command from now on is that...”.’ For instance:



62. ….. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.


62. … In general, We require that future priests, from the time of Seminary onward, be trained to understand and celebrate Holy Mass in Latin as well as to employ Latin texts and use Gregorian chant; nor should great effort be neglected in regard to the faithful themselves, so that they learn thoroughly the commonly known prayers in the Latin language and in an equal degree that they should learn the Gregorian chant of those parts of the liturgy which are sung.

What with the dual effects of weak translation and Episcopal obstruction, it will not be astonishing if the effects of Sacramentum Caritatis are neutered in this country, just as the effects of so much potentially inspiring papal leadership has been neutered over the last thirty years. Luke Coppen ends his Catholic Herald leader with a question: ‘could all the parts of the Church – bishops, priests, the Catholic press, bloggers and committed lay people – find a new way to work together to ensure that the Pope’s message is heard not only by all Catholics but also by those outside the Church who are anxious to receive it?’. The Bishops are busy men and may not have time for such matters. The Catholic Press is hardly unanimous on the desirability of getting the Pope’smessage heard. But bloggers and committed lay people may be another matter. Who knows? Perhaps the internet will get the message out where all else has failed.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2007