Truth, Compassion and the Secularisation of the People of God

Editorial FAITH Magazine January-February 2006


"But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life." (Jude 20-21).
“We have adopted a fashionable but false dichotomy between truth and compassion. A wholly legitimate concern to show gentleness in our pastoral approach has become confused with compromising the content of the faith itself.”

Misleading Headlines

The recent Synod of Bishops in Rome was about the Eucharist in all its aspects, so maybe it was inevitable that pastoral problems surrounding marriage and Holy Communion should have been raised again, among many other questions. Yet reading parts of the Catholic press in the UK, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the Church was on the brink of relaxing her prohibition on the divorced and re-married receiving Holy Communion, even that this was a central issue at the Synod.

In the event this proposition was turned down - it seems by a very large majority of Bishops - and the unchanging Catholic tradition taught in paragraph 650 of the Catechism was upheld. Even so, at least one banner headline displayed prominently at the back of parish churches up and down the country on the following Sunday clearly suggested that a change of discipline might still be on the cards.

The impression could all too easily be prompted in the minds of thoughtful parishioners that a long awaited gesture of compassion towards a downtrodden group had been blocked, yet again, by the outdated ideas of a few crusty clerics, and that it is only a matter of time before such conservatism crumbles in the face of popular opinion. As ever, this interpretation of events has been happily reinforced by the secular media.

The tragedy is that there is so little material available to the ordinary parishioner and so little guidance from the pulpit capable of correcting this false impression. So much of the basic outlook of even our Catholic press is subconsciously informed by secularism. On so many issues the Catholic community has been led to expect, even to hope, that today’s “unchanging tradition” might change tomorrow and once “infallible” positions will eventually shift in the face of sufficient social pressure.

The Impact of a Secular Mentality

This outlook of doubt and relativism comes from the mindset of secularism not of Catholicism. "Relativism" in this context means that all principles are seen as provisional and questionable, because “truth” is entirely subjective and negotiable. The undermining of the sense of objective truth in Western culture over the last century and a half is now reflected in the steady undermining of assent to the teaching of the Magisterium within the Western Church over the last forty years. It seems that secularism is inexorably evangelizing Catholicism rather than the other way around.

In which case, can we really blame those Catholics in irregular canonical and sacramental states who shop around for a priest who will give them absolution and/ or Holy Communion? We all know it happens. The priestly supply is there to meet the lay demand for a wide range of moral and doctrinal tastes. In fact, the pervasive ignorance and the all too frequent misguidance received may well significantly reduce the culpability of those who defy the Church’s teaching.

Such ‘invincible ignorance’ - itself a cause for pastoral sadness and compassion - then further fuels the widespread impression that the Magisterium is lacking in pastoral compassion. Even loyal priests can begin to feel that the spiral of confusion is unstoppable and are tempted to give up their lonely stand for something that makes them resented and unpopular.

A Cause For Compassion

The sensitive pastor’s heart naturally goes out to the abandoned spouse who has been left holding the broken ends of a relationship by an unfaithful partner. We all know that this is made much harder by living in a culture which takes it for granted that in such circumstances they will actively seek a new “relationship”, and this attitude is found among fellow Catholics too, as often as not.

The emotional and sometimes the financial circumstances can be very difficult and the temptation to “go with the flow” of society can be very great. If people weaken and break the command of Christ in these situations, it would surely be true to say that “those who abandoned you have the greater sin”. We can all sympathise and say “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Of course we wish to treat people with compassion and encouragement, even when they are in objectively sinful or irregular states of life, but this does not mean that we can blithely set aside the law of God and change the Lord’s own doctrine on marriage. For that is what the Church is being asked to do.

The Holy Father’s spontaneous answer on this point to the priests of Aosta diocese during his first summer vacation (see page 7) is full of compassion and understanding. He suggests, although very cautiously, that there might be a case for further study of the grounds for nullity in the light of new pastoral realities. However, he is very clear that the objective indissolubility of sacramentally valid marriage can never be compromised. If there are grounds for objective annulment, then that is another matter of course. And here we come to the crux of the issue – it is above all a question of objectivity.
The popular view of marriage, as in so many things now, is that it is a subjective union of wills, a reality created purely from mutual feelings. The Catholic view of matrimony, on the other hand, is that it is an objective bond, sealed with public vows that are ratified and completed by the private union of the flesh of a man and a woman who are members of the Body of Christ. It is this union of spirit and flesh in a mutual covenant of life and commitment to a shared vocation in Christ that creates the sacrament of matrimony, which can only be dissolved by bodily death.

Truth or Compassion: A False Dichotomy

Upholding this reality in the modern world is not easy. Widespread breakdown and dissent has led to an inevitable clamour for compromise. Now even in very high places in the Church it seems that some of us are no longer sure that Catholic teaching on marriage is really a compassionate teaching. Yet the implications are much wider than the issue of marriage alone. What is being doubted is whether the fullness of revelation given in Christ’s Church really does point the way to personal and social fulfilment in this world and the next, even though it may bring some pain in the short term.

We have adopted a fashionable but false dichotomy between truth and compassion. A wholly legitimate concern to show gentleness in our pastoral approach has become confused with compromising the content of the faith itself. The ability to empathise and listen in love is not incompatible with communicating the truth. Are we no longer convinced that the truth will set us free?

On the question of marriage, it was the most compassionate and gentle Lord Jesus himself who specifically revoked the Mosaic provision of divorce. He said that he had come to restore the original economy of love on earth. Was he unaware of the burdens and difficulties fallen human beings struggle with? Of course not, but his compassion for fallen human beings saw beyond the easier answer that he might have given and insisted on the truth, precisely out of authentic pastoral love.

Somehow we must lead our culture to hear the voice of Christ in His Church once again as the voice of authentic compassion. In his recent ad limina address to the Austrian Bishops (see page 15), Pope Benedict pointed out that it is this humble acceptance of reality, and indeed the pain that comes with it, that leads to true spiritual growth, maturity and joy.

Embracing The Way of the Cross

It is not Christian compassion simply to try to wave a magic wand over the realities that have led people into difficulties and pretend they do not exist. By asking for communion for the divorced and remarried are we not asking for the Church to be complicit in the pretence that the first marriage never took place as a sacramental reality in Christ?

Trusting in Christ and his teaching is at the very heart of the virtue of faith. The great spiritual writers all tell us that such a trustful attitude brings resolution, healing and growth, even in complex and seemingly intractable situations. The Gospel tells us that there is a way forward when lives are broken through sin and failure, but it must be through faithfulness to the Way of the Cross. We cannot do this by trying to make reality otherwise than it is. Left to our own instincts, we will always try to avoid the road that leads to Calvary. Reality can be painful. Jesus Christ is not unmindful of it, but he gives great consolation and help unlooked for to those who sincerely try to keep his words and follow in his footsteps, no matter what failures lie in their past.

The compassion of Christ towards the woman at the well in Samaria - who had been married several times and was currently with another live-in “partner”- was based on honesty not sentiment. He did not pretend that the Gospel means compromise with the world and its ways. He told her the truth, out of compassionate desire for her good. Truth is essential to goodness. If something is true it will work for the good of all, for the community as well as for the individual.

Catholicism: A Foreign Language to Most of the Laity

e are well aware that such a way of speaking is largely a foreign language to most of our people today. The sad fact is that many Catholic couples no longer see their marriage as a permanent commitment given to God through one another. No longer do they view their lives as consecrated together in Christ and for his glory. This is surely a basic reason for the deep crisis in marriage and family life in the Western Church. A similar defect in Christian formation lies behind the drop in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

There are some couples who do think with the mind of the Church, but they are highly likely to be people who have been catechised and spiritually formed through one of the new movements or evangelical communities. These are not immune from failure and temptation, of course, but they do stand a much better chance of staying the course and at least they have the intention to stand firm with Christ should the worst happen. The key here is not just that they have been exposed to a Catholic vision of marriage as such, but that they will instinctively accept an objective order of truth, goodness and fulfilment across the whole of life.

These precious few have been equipped to stand against the tide of subjectivism that has overwhelmed our society - what the Holy Father, on the eve of his election, called the tyranny of “relativism”. Relativism means that there is no point of reference beyond the immediate present. Reality is constantly measured in terms of self, of personal feelings and desires, which, as soap opera script writers never tire of telling us, will not, must not, cannot be denied.

Relativism runs through the whole of our modern world-view: the assessment of nature as a directionless flux of chance events, the erosion of the absolute value of human life, the dismissal of historic religious authority as ‘out of date’, and the ever shifting sands of personal and social morality. Rather than leading to a great blossoming of humanity and compassion, it has produced the mobs of binge drinking, drug addled, lecherous and often violent youth who explode onto the streets of our towns and cities every weekend.

The Real Causes of Social Chaos

any are concerned about this rapid descent into social chaos, but few assess the deep causes of it all. These young people have been told since they were toddlers that they are the measure of their own happiness, each the centre of their own little worlds. They have been given no vision of truth or ambition beyond their own random thoughts and feelings, so there is nothing to tell them about their purpose and place in the wider scheme of existence. Ultimately it is the loss of objective truth in both our thinking and our acting that has brought us to this sad pass.

All too often in the Anglo-Saxon world we dismiss intellectual concerns as merely academic. We fail to appreciate that the pen is always mightier than the sword. Yet 150 years ago it was Cardinal Newman who foresaw the triumph of unbelief in a post-Christian world and with typical prescience he identified the heart of the matter at the outset of the crisis:

The assailants of dogmatic truth have got the start of its adherents of whatever Creed, philosophy is completing what criticism has begun; and apprehensions are not unreasonably excited lest we should have a new world to conquer before we have weapons for the warfare. Already infidelity has its views and conjectures, on which it arranges the facts of ecclesiastical history; and it is sure to consider the absence of any antagonist theory as an evidence of the reality of its own.(from the Introduction to The Development of Christian Doctrine)

He knew that just railing against unfaithfulness will not win men back for God. Neither will simply criticising the internal contradictions of secular relativism convince them of the truth of Christ. We need intellectual tools adequate for the challenge that faces us.

The Need for a New Synthesis

In our new world of scientific insight it is no good relying on the unmodified philosophy of the ancient Greeks with its abstract notion of truth and static concept of nature. Merely asserting authority and invoking the Magisterium is not adequate either, especially in our cultural context. This is why in Faith magazine we call for a new synthesis of Catholic orthodoxy and scientific reason. We need a new grounding of the very concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘nature’ as objective realities in the dynamic and inter-relative cosmos uncovered by modern science. It can be done. From the purposeful relationships within matter, we can demonstrate objective meaning and purpose in evolving life, and argue from the interlocking laws of the cosmos that the whole Unity of Creationis relative directly to the Living and Transcendent Mind of God.

We can then go on to show the objective laws and meanings within human nature. All human desires and reactions are focused through the spiritual soul that is distinct from, but intrinsically ordered towards, the body. From this we also point out that human beings find wholeness and happiness uniquely in relationship to God, whose loving intervention we must expect and look for throughout history.

We will be able to show objective meanings and unchanging moral principles in the unfolding revelation of God through priest and prophet, tradition and scripture. We will find it all culminating in the existential fact of the Incarnation of the Living and Truly Divine Word of God, who created the Cosmos and who made human nature for fulfilment in his own relationship to the Father. It is He, Jesus Christ, who lives, speaks and acts personally in his Church through the ages.

All of this can be presented to the world once again as a seamless vision of truth, understood all the more deeply and beautifully against the backdrop of a modern understanding of science and history.

Truth and Compassion Meet in Christ

It is only through such a vision of objective truth and living authority that we will be able to reclaim the scattered children of God. It is only through the same solidly grounded vision that we can hope to gather all the peoples of the world into a familial communion of justice and peace. As the Pope pointed out to the Austrian Bishops, what we need now is not a weakening and lessening of the impact of Christian truth, but integral and renewed catechesis at every level.

It will take time. We will need patience. And yes, there will be much chaos and many hard cases to deal with in the meantime, but we are not free to compromise the teaching of Christ for the weakness of human beings. In the end that is no compassion.

Such compromise can only convince the forces of rationalist relativism that they are in fact right and the Church is just playing catch up. It is only through a new vision of creation, salvation and ecclesial sanctification, as one wisdom of God in the Logos made flesh, that we can revindicate Christian revelation. We believe that Divine Revelation is the ultimate act of compassion, for it is the life-giving outreach of God, whose very identity is Love, and who knows the path to human fulfilment and lasting joy far better than we do.

The People of God have a right to be told this Good News in all its fullness. It must be proclaimed and explained unashamedly as the only true Way of Life; the only truly compassionate pastoral policy.

New Voices, New Initiatives

With this in mind, we are very pleased to publish in this issue an article by William Oddie, who was recently editor of The Catholic Herald. Reflecting on comments about religious issues made recently in the media, he also highlights, in his own incisive style, the effects of creeping secularism inside the Church.

We are also delighted to welcome William Oddie on board as a regular contributor. In the following issue of Faith, he will begin a new column called "Comment on The Comments", in which he will further survey and reflect on topics which have been discussed in the comments sections of current Catholic and national publications.

In our March/April issue we will also be introducing another new column entitled “The Truth Will Set You Free.” This will draw together the experience of many of the young priests associated with Faith movement who work in parish life. It is our experience that, contrary to widely held prejudice, Church teaching sheds a truly compassionate light on the complexities and tragedies of people’s lives.
We hope to demonstrate this through down to earth discussion of real life issues where the secular consensus, both inside and outside the Church, departs from magisterial teaching. We are confident that there will be no shortage of copy for such a column.

Faith Magazine