The self-examination of the Catholic Church, begun overtly and publicly with the election of Giuseppe Roncalli to the Papacy, is a wonderfully interesting process. Here is the oldest institution in western Europe, substantially unchanged in structure, in liturgy, and in theological language since the reform of the sixteenth century, now engaged in—it is no longer possible to doubt this—a radical criticism of all those things which separate Catholicism, as a religious cult and a way of life, from Orthodoxy and Protestantism on the one hand, agnostic and humanist culture on the other. It is possible to be disappointed, agonized, amused baffled before this spectacle.
It had been an article of faith among the philosophes that the Catholic Church was a sour conspiracy against the liberty and well-being of mankind. It was in the long run not to be taken too seriously simply because it was at bottom no more than the ideological expression of the old regime, and was pervaded by a nostalgia for the days when throne and altar were in alliance and when the spectacle of burning heretics delighted both secular and ecclesiastical eyes. Such an enemy of humanity might be malignant, for its powers where men were poor and superstitions were still great, but it must in the nature of things be finally ineffectual. The view of those “prophets of gloom” in the Curia—as they were characterized by John XXIII—is fundamentally the same as that of the philosophes. They, too, thought of the body of Catholicism as having precisely the shape of its historical carapace. To break the carapace would be to kill its tenant.
What is not perhaps sufficiently taken into account is that the present period of self-examination has long been in preparation. No one certainly could have anticipated that an aged papal diplomat who seemed to have been elected to the Chair of Peter as a stop-gap pontiff would be the man to inaugurate the period of open discussion. But it was fairly certain, once a Council had been called, that what had long been said among theologians and among educated layman would be said openly by at least some bishops, and would sooner or later produce institutional changes in the government of the Church. From Mohler and Newman in the nineteenth century to Congar, Rahner, and De Lubac in our own day, there has been a constant witness against reactionary tendencies in theology and in the conception of the Church’s social and political role. From time to time there has been virtually a reign of terror administered by the Holy Office and the other Roman congregations. Such was the repression of the scholarly study of the Bible in the pontificate of Pius X. Such, more recently, has been the attempted repression of the “new theology,” the secret proscription of works by Congar and De Lubac, the attempt to discipline the French Dominicans, the brutal treatment of the French bishops in the matter of the worker priests, the campaign against Father Courtney Murray’s theories on the regulations between Church and State. “Reign of terror” may seem an exaggerated locution when one considers that for the most part the officials of the Curia could impose no penal sanctions. But in a body with such a high degree of administrative centralization the ill will of Rome could be a virtual sentence of ecclesiastical death. The chief victims have always been the clergy. The laity have rarely been disciplined. Acton and Von Hügel, for example, never had to endure the harsh measures suffered by their ecclesiastical collaborators.
The contributors to Mr. de la Bedoyère’s symposium are, except for Archbishop Roberts, laymen. They take a natural satisfaction in the new atmosphere in the Church and don’t, perhaps, sufficiently recognize that the freedom of speech they now claim has not, at least outside official Catholic organs, been notably denied them in the past. Their attitudes are for the most part tinged with anticlericalism and they take a certain satisfaction, not without justification, in having been heralds of the new age, before the Council was convoked or even thought of. Mr. de la Bedoyère, who edits the symposium, can take a particular and legitimate satisfaction in this, for his editorship of the Catholic Herald was very influential in creating among English Catholics a receptivity to those doctrinal and moral issues now under discussion inside and outside the Council. Nevertheless, there is something presumptuous in his saying that “the writers of these essays are all writing in the spirit of Pope John.” Such a remark may be appropriate in a blurb but scarcely in the text. In any case, the standard of the essays collected varies a good deal. Mrs. Haughton’s “Freedom and the Individual” is outstandingly good. Mr. G. F. Pollard’s “Existential Reactions against Scholasticism,” on the other hand, is so disgracefully bad that it is hard to understand how Mr. de la Bedoyère could have included it in this collection. Mrs. Goffin’s “Some Reflections on Superstition and Credulity” is in many ways the most accomplished piece of writing in the book but raises peculiar problems to which we shall return later. Archbishop Roberts is characteristically honest, pungent, and rewarding. The others make their points competently.
The idea behind this book (and behind its predecessor, Objections to Christian Belief) is that in a world in which the objections to the truth and relevance of Christianity are well known, Christians should show themselves to be as sensitive to these objections as unbelievers; should show themselves capable of making these objections, so far as they have substance, their own; and should explain why, despite the objections and such validity as they have, they nevertheless remain Christians. Mrs. Goffin is perhaps the only writer here who attempts to follow this idea. Her essay is a very amusing critical account, somewhat in the manner of Voltaire, of Catholic superstition and credulity and of the curious rubrics and doctrinal speculations that have attached themselves to the administration of the sacraments (what she aptly calls “this worm’s eye view of the mystery of faith”). She manages nevertheless to convey her own personal devotion and—something lacking in most of the other essays—some impression of the historical weight of Catholicism as a concrete institution, of the extent to which what is depraved and trivial in so much of Catholic practice is organically connected with what is great. “For it is Rome’s very conservatism and fidelity to Christian orthodoxy, her determination to hold on at any cost to doctrines which form part of the original belief and practice of Christians, that so often lays her open to the charges which have accumulated against her.” An important part of her essay is an attack upon the doctrine of Hell as it is commonly presented—that is, as a place or state of devised torments—and perhaps also an attack, tout court, upon the doctrine of Hell considered as a doctrine that the permanent loss of fellowship with God is a possibility for free beings. Whether she wishes to attack the doctrine in this latter sense it is difficult to say, for on this point she is uncharacteristically obscure. To maintain that this doctrine is false would of course be to maintain that Catholicism is false.
Mrs. Haughton’s essay is a penetrating study of the topic of freedom within the Church She faces the question all non-Catholics ask themselves (though they sometimes suppress it out of politeness): whether the new line on civil and religious freedom that is certain to be formally approved at the next session of the Council represents no more than a tactical retreat. She admits the possibility of retrogression in this matter, but she argues that authoritarianism is correlative with spiritual immaturity, and a consequence of a Catholicism imperfectly grasped and realized. Archbishop Roberts exercises his freedom—a freedom, in virtue of his being an archbishop and a Jesuit, much greater than can prudently be claimed by most of the Catholic clergy—to call into question the current view of contraception among Catholic theologians and the morality of the policy of nuclear deterrence. Standard attitudes among Catholics on both these issues are certainly among the possible objections to Catholicism, though it is not clear how many citizens in either the West or in the socialist countries are morally in a strong position to make the latter objection.
The central problem presented by the common Catholic teaching on contraception is often misunderstood and it is worth trying to clarify it. This teaching is that contraception is against “the natural law”—a slightly cumbersome way of saying that contraception is as wrong as lying or murder or wanton cruelty or gluttony, and that this is evident to any reasonable man. Lying and murder are evidently wrong and most people can say why they are wrong. Any defense of them would rightly be dismissed out of hand as a sophistry. Can this really be the case, Archbishop Roberts asks, with contraception? The objection can be shown to be wrong quite independently of the Church’s teaching. But what are these arguments that cannot fail to convince a reasonable man? Archbishop Roberts is a reasonable man and he is not convinced by any arguments so far produced. This is why one cannot say that the denial of the common teaching on contraception is a denial of the truth of Catholicism the way a denial of the dogmatic teaching on Hell would be. No Catholic would wish, presumably, to deny the authority of the Church to teach the truth about moral questions. But there is a vast area of uncertainty in the application of moral principles to the changing phenomena of human society. Archbishop Roberts indicates an outstanding example of this, and one he wishes to suggest is analogous to that of contraception, in the case of the teaching on usury. This teaching, authoritative if not always observed in the Middle Ages, was tied both to the facts of a given society and to a particular view of the economic role of money. With the obsolescence of both, the teaching was changed without abandoning the moral principle involved, that of justice. From the principle that one of the ends of marriage is procreation, it is not possible to conclude, he argues, that it is always and in all circumstances an end it would be wrong to frustrate by mechanical or biochemical means. In particular, it is not possible so to argue in a world where the increase of population is likely to have catastrophic consequences. The debate continues. One prelate is reported to have said in a session of the Council that in the matter of family limitation the Church cannot afford to have another Galileo case.
It is necessary to substantiate what has already been said about Mr. Pollard’s essay. This can best be done by quotation; and perhaps one quotation will be enough.
And so although, for purposes of practical politics, Aristotle chose to rescind from the imaginative and contemplative aspects of the human psyche and to banish the poet from his “Ideal Republic,” this does not justify Aquinas in virtually identifying the soul—this time, it would seem, for purposes of ecclesiastical politics—with the rational mind alone.
The thought is obscure. His ignorance of the texts of Aristotle and Aquinas, an ignorance that recurs throughout the essay, is remarkable in one who sets himself up as a corrector of the kind of philosophy taught in Roman Catholic seminaries. This philosophy may be bad enough but it is a model of clarity and good sense compared with the Jungian mish-mash that Mr. Pollard takes philosophy to be.
April 8, 1965