The Roman Catholic Church is a constant source of controversy, as the ongoing outrage over clerical sexual abuse shows. But the Church also inspires great devotion and loyalty. The Spectator recently hosted a very interesting debate under the title ‘England should be a Catholic Country again’ (The Spectator, 3 April 2010). I quote part of the passionate argument for the motion by Piers Paul Read:
‘A weak priest inspires contempt’, wrote Francois Renee de Chateaubriand in the early 19th century, ‘a vicious one excites abhorrence – but a good priest, meek, pious, without superstition, charitable, tolerant, is entitled to our love and respect’. As it was then, so it is now. There have been degenerate popes, corrupt bishops and, recently, paedophile priests. The abuse of children by priests excites a particular abhorrence, and the cover-up of these crimes by some bishops is as bad as anything that has occurred in the past.
However, the wickedness of a few priests should not obscure the selfless and often heroic ministry of the overwhelming majority who work tirelessly and with little recognition at the core business of the Catholic Church, the saving of souls, through the sacraments of baptism, confession and above all the Eucharist which lies at the heart of Catholic belief and worship. There are also the Church’s corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless. And when it comes to these tangible expressions of that love of God and one’s neighbor, the Catholic Church, both now and in the past, has a record second to none.
The Church’s teaching on sexual ethics is, I suspect, a big stumbling block in today’s permissive society. Jesus makes it crystal clear to his disciples, by referring them to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, that the heterosexual married couple is the aboriginal paradigm of humanity. ‘Have you not read’, he says to them, ‘that the creator from the beginning made them male and female, and that he said: This is why a man must leave father and mother, and cling to his wife, and the two become one body? They are no longer two, therefore, but one body’. How does this square up with today’s society? Clearly, not at all. We now have an institutionalization of sexual practices inimical to Catholic teaching – no fault divorce, gay adoption, same sex civil partnerships, etc., described by Pope Benedict as ‘pseudo forms of marriage that distort the Creator’s design and undermine the truth of our human nature’. The Catholic Church accepts that there is nothing sinful in being attracted to members of the same sex – it is involuntary. But a conflict arises when it comes to thoughts, words and deeds. Yet our politicians want to prevent Catholics from teaching an ethic on homosexuality which has existed since the beginning of history and is shared by all of the world’s religions. Nick Clegg has said that faith schools should be obliged by law to teach that there is nothing wrong with gay sex. Harriet Harman says that Catholic schools should be forced to employ teachers who reject Catholic teaching. David Cameron claims that ‘the Lord Jesus’ would favour the gay rights agenda. Elton John tells us that Jesus was in fact gay. How lucky we are to have so many Biblical scholars among our politicians and entertainers!
And there is birth control. People ridicule the Church’s teaching that every sexual act must be open to the transmission of life. At one time the Church of England shared that view but at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 it changed its mind. There are many church-going Catholics who refuse to accept it. Others assent to the teaching but find it difficult, if not impossible, to obey. But the dissociation of sex from procreation in the mindset of our culture has ramifications that extend far beyond the bedroom. It makes sex and end in itself. It raises expectations of sexual love that are rarely fulfilled. Partnerships are formed and then break up. There are fewer and fewer marriages and half of those that there are end in divorce. Recently the Conservative party has woken up to the damage done to England’s social fabric by the increasing number of broken homes. But think of what lies behind the cold statistics. Thing of the mute suffering of children when their parents part. There is much cant about protecting the rights of children but, as Pope John Paul II said, the right of a child to be brought up under one roof by its natural parents should be seen as one of the most fundamental of all human rights. And there is no doubt that it would be if children had the vote.
You may think that the link between people’s sex lives and the suffering of children is tenuous. Let me quote Matthew Parris, who so often puts things so well. ‘No man is an island’, he wrote. ‘There are ultimately no private acts. Everything we think, everything we say and do, however privately, shapes and influences us, our families and friends, and so touches the world outside. It is just fatuous to pretend that if a great many men are unashamedly making love to other men, however privately, that is without impact on the whole of society …’. What Matthew says about homosexuals applies equally to heterosexuals who embark on relationships where the love is tentative, probationary, conditional, not the wholehearted and fruitful giving of one’s entire person to the other which the Church teaches, and which we know in our hearts is the way love is meant to be.
The Catholic Church is not the preserve of the virtuous. A Catholic England would not be like Afghanistan under the Taleban. The Church is and has always been a refuge for sinners. We are a community of Prodigal Sons and Daughters. God loves the good and the bad alike. He understands human weakness. He forgives the sins of the repentant, and it is that confidence in God’s love, understanding and forgiveness, and the anticipation of an eternal destiny with God in heaven, that makes his yoke easy and his burden light.
There is no joy in the barren, selfish hedonistic individualism that defines our culture in the developed world today. It would greatly add to the sum of human happiness here in England if our country was Catholic once again.