Eric Hodgens. A new moral compass

Apr 1, 2014

The Church is not the best guide to moral values. That is the response of some Catholics to the questionnaire which the Vatican sent out in preparation for the October Synod of Bishops. Many practising Catholics do not agree with the official opinions of the Pope on moral rules associated with marriage and sexuality.

The disagreement list is long:

  • No living together before marriage;
  • No sexual activity except between a man and a woman officially married in the Church;
  • No contraception;
  • No masturbation;
  • No civil marriages or partnerships;
  • No re-marriage after divorce;
  • No sexual activity by homosexuals;
  • No homosexual partnerships, let alone marriage;
  • No IVF;
  • No refusal of sex to a reasonable request from a marriage partner;

Many Catholics would say that they used to believe everything on the list was wrong; but not now. The times have changed. Implicit in this is the judgement that what is right and wrong is determined not by the Church but by the surrounding culture. That’s why it changes.

On reflection we were effectively taught that in the seminary. Doctrinal statements could be infallible; but moral rules (laws) could not. They were too dependent on outside circumstances. Yet Catholic leaders like John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Cardinal Pell insisted that these were God’s law, and not open to question. They even tried to have Humanae Vitae accepted as infallible. They would say that the Church teaches these rules. But all the while the real Church – that is rank and file Mass-going Catholics – did not believe them. Reception by serious believers is necessary for doctrine or rules to be binding – the sensus fidelium.

Meanwhile the immorality of bishops and popes has been embarrassingly displayed by their cover up of paedophilia by some of their priests. They knew it was happening and made it worse by moving offenders to other posts – thus spreading the offence. They were trying to protect the good name of the institution. In so doing they were harming the people entrusted to them. Basic human rights took second place to the institution’s appearance. Their moral compass was badly wrong. Many of them still do not get it. Nor do their superiors who refuse to sack them. The superior officials’ moral compasses are wrong too.

Looking at it from a distance the preoccupation with personal, sexual morality as sinful is doing a disservice to sin. Real sin is a big thing. Exploitation, sectarianism, warfare, greed-induced poverty, manipulation of power, domination of the powerless by the powerful are the real sins of today. Sex can be an area of sin, too – but when and because it is exploitative, whether systemic, as in white slavery, or individual. Margaret Farley gets this one right in “Just Love – A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.” But personal consensual sexual activity cannot be in the Big Sin category despite papal obsession with it.

On the other hand Pontifical Secrecy is central to all Vatican official business. Diocesan curias also work in secrecy. What happened to transparency and accountability? Some secrecy is necessary, but it is more nuanced than that. Too much is accepted as secret when it should not be. What do you know about diocesan finances? Dare you ask? Yet diocesan spending should be transparent if its authorities are to be accountable. At some levels church secrecy is thwarting transparency and accountability. The moral presumptions are back to front. The secular world is moral and the Church is immoral.

Some big sins of the past – so often sexual – are not really sinful. Some things which were OK in the past are really seriously wrong. Changing cultural values can be confusing but they are part of living in a changing world. Our challenge is to be part of the debate and to admit when we are wrong. This can be hard when we are emerging from an authoritarian, monist culture to a pluralist one. Meanwhile we cannot claim moral superiority unless we observe the ethics of the society in which we live.

F. X. Harriott – The Tablet’s renowned voice of common sense – suggested in one of his last articles that the Vatican should take a decision to say nothing about sex for the next 50 years. Since its voice as a guide to personal morality is so thin, maybe it is time to extend that to all personal moral issues. The Ethics Committees advising governments and research institutions seem more aware of basic human rights and are in touch with the prevailing values of society. Should we take note of them, use our own common sense and make this our new moral compass?

Eric Hodgens is a retired priest who ‘writes a bit’.

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