Friday, March 02, 2007

Two Sides of Soho

The recent agreement struck by the archdiocese of Westminster with a group of gay Catholics to merge rival liturgies in London's West End had garnered a significant amount of attention on both sides of the Pond since its publication last month.

The pact reached between the top see of England and Wales and the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, which had sponsored a renegade Mass in an Anglican church, garnered a higher profile after a story in the Telegraph reported that the decision to hold a twice-monthly, officially-sanctioned liturgy for the community had "upset traditionalists" in the church. With the deal, the archdiocese released a statement on "outreach and ministry" to homosexuals in the church that had reportedly received heavy input from and, ultimately, the sanction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Reflecting the development's prominence in British circles, today's edition of The Tablet has two takes on the agreement as its marquee articles.

Opposing the plan is the Scottish philosopher, Prof John Haldane:
Many of those involved in the SMPC seem to me to be participating in the sacramental life of the Church on their own terms and not in respectful fidelity to its teachings. Bidding prayers used in the Soho Masses celebrate and seek blessing for same-sex unions following their civil partnerships. They are remembered on the third Sunday of each month. This is an example of a recent bidding prayer used at St Anne's: "For all who have entered into civil partnerships during this past month, and for all who are keeping their first anniversaries around this time: that God will preserve them in love and faithfulness."

It is said by internal critics of church teaching that there is a diversity of theological reflection on the matter of human sexuality, in particular in relation to sexually expressed same-sex attraction. It is also said that the authority of church teaching depends on its reception and on the sensus fidelium. These claims seem often to be advanced either in ignorance or with the intention of undermining traditional understandings.

From the Council of Jerusalem, the Church has promulgated essentially the same teaching on matters of sexual practice, and there simply is no other body of conciliar, catechetical or magisterial teaching at odds with this (see the historical references to the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, 1975). Also the sensus and consensus fidelium are not like the responses to a political opinion poll or social survey trend. They presuppose faithful participation in the life of the Church and have to be considered not in one time and place but across all times and all places.

The question, therefore, is not "what do secularised Catholics living in Britain or Western Europe, and deeply immersed in its values, think?" but "what have the faithful over the centuries and across the continents thought and lived?". Some of the recent critical commentary cites the name of Newman as if in support of change, but this only shows their ignorance of what Newman said and wrote (most relevantly in On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine).

The risks of confusing and giving scandal to the faithful, and of exploitation of the gift of the Mass, are obvious enough, but equally important is the seeming failure to give explicit support for groups that do seek to live in accordance with church teaching, groups such as Courage and Encourage. The aims of Courage are defined by its five goals: chastity (live chaste lives in accordance with the Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality); prayer and dedication (dedicate one's life to Christ through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass and the frequent reception of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist); fellowship (foster a spirit of fellowship in which all may share thoughts and experiences and so ensure that no one will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone); support (be mindful of the truth that chaste relationships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste encouragement to one another in forming and sustaining them); good example (live lives that may serve as good examples to others).

These noble Christian goals are heroically pursued by members of Courage and others, and it was a missed opportunity in a statement on outreach and ministry to homosexual persons not to express explicit appreciation of those who seek to live in accord with the Church's teachings, and not to acknowledge the good work of organisations such as Courage. It must be saddening for members of these to see groups hostile and unfaithful to the Church's teachings given attention while they who strive to live in accord with the only teaching that has ever been promulgated by the Church go unacknowledged, let alone praised.
...and writing in favour is the noted English theologian James Alison:
In February 2006 Pope Benedict addressed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Setting out the vision that should inspire their work and the permissions necessary to do that work, he spoke with the deftness that enables remarkable things to pass largely unremarked by the media. Among his points was this:

The Church welcomes with joy the authentic breakthroughs of human knowledge and recognises that evangelisation also demands a proper grasp of the horizons and the challenges that modern knowledge is unfolding. In fact, the great progress of scientific knowledge that we saw during the last century has helped us understand the mystery of Creation better and has profoundly marked the awareness of all peoples.

However, scientific advances have sometimes been so rapid as to make it very difficult to discern whether they are compatible with the truths about man and the world that God has revealed. At times, certain assertions of scientific knowledge have even been opposed to these truths. This may have given rise to a certain confusion among the faithful and may also have made the proclamation and acceptance of the Gospel difficult.

Consequently, every study that aims to deepen the knowledge of the truths discovered by reason is vitally important, in the certainty that there is no "competition of any kind between reason and faith".

There is no reference to indicate which scientific advances or authentic breakthroughs he was referring to. But the parameters are established for dealing with such matters: new understandings emerge; some are authentic, some are not. The process of discernment is difficult; during the process of discernment, confusion does arise among the faithful, and this does have consequences for spreading the Gospel. We should not be afraid of pursuing truth, because ultimately whatever is true will be shown to have come from God....

he first time a football player picked up a ball and ran with it, we were clearly talking about a disobedient football player, since it is intrinsic to football that only the goalie under tightly regulated circumstances can handle the ball. But over time it did become possible to talk about the game of rugby as something where the overall purposes of sports playing, shared with football, are faithfully maintained within a different set of practices. My point is that for the referee to blow the whistle on a ball-handler in a football game is very proper. And for as long as it is clear that there is only football, he is right. However, as it becomes clear that there may also be a game called rugby, he must learn to be very careful indeed, since attempting to referee a rugby match as though it were football being played by perverse rule breakers would degenerate into insanity.

Mercifully, the Catholic faith does offer us the possibility of living through the working out of whether being gay is to be characterised as either a form of viciousness or a pathology as has traditionally been taught, or as a normal and non-pathological variant in nature. The distinction between orders of teaching such that "third order" teachings are not Communion breakers is not purely an intellectual tool, but an ecclesial one as well. Because of it, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, can in good faith both put forward the traditional teaching and invite a group of people many of whom do not agree with it to take an active part in the construction of the life of the Church as long as they agree not to make of the sacraments an ideological issue. He offers cover to the consciences of those for whom the lens of the pathological characterisation of the homosexual condition is vital for their faith not to be scandalised, and yet signals that the belief of some that they are dealing with a non-pathological way of being may turn out to be true over time.

For me, this ecclesial fleshing out of a third-order teaching offers a challenge to two equal and opposed forms of Donatism: those who do not wish to be in communion with impure self-professed sodomites, and those who do not wish to be in communion with a Church whose official teaching goes counter to what they are finding to be the truth concerning being gay, and yet so many of whose clergy are closeted gay men. Both these forms of ideological purity have roiled other ecclesial communities throughout the world, precisely because those communities do not seem to have a way of ecclesially enfleshing living together while we work out what is true over time.

Professor Haldane's tone of constructive suggestion suggests that like me, he is fighting any temptation to Donatism. Unlike him, I think it was right that the cardinal should not mention the SMPC, Courage or any of the other groups that may have been involved in discussions with diocesan representatives. Where none is mentioned, all can fit in on on their own terms. Of course there will always be a place in any Catholic structure for a group of people who wish to encourage each other in the pursuit of a celibate lifestyle. Such a group can flourish better only if that pursuit is a matter of a gift to them, rather than an obligation derived from an erroneous characterisation of their starting point. But what is true, the reality of Our Lord's giving himself to us through the Mass, and building us up as Church, is more important than these matters, and to be rejoiced in by all.
It doesn't seem we've heard the last on this yet -- and not just because the newly-merged liturgy at Our Lady of the Assumption on Warwick Street has its first go this weekend.