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What British Catholics Believe, vs Vatican Doctrine.

Once again, two opinion polls (for ITV, and for the BBC) have demonstrated what we all know, but pay insufficient attention to: the enormous chasm that divides Catholic belief as it is, and what Vatican doctrine proclaims it ought to be.

On the ministry itself, whether it is priestly celibacy or women’s ministry, and especially on all matters of sexual ethics, what British Catholics in fact believe is very different from what the Vatican functionaries proclaim it ought to be. This is no surprise – exactly the same pattern is found the world over – only the detailed numbers change, not the basic fact of divergence.

On one side, we have Vatican doctrine that insists the female ordination is beyond even discussion and the mere attempt to assist in such ordinations is tantamount to self-excommunication – on the other, the majority of catholics who believe that women need either ordination, or at least a greater role and more authority in the Church.

The Vatican insists that the priesthood must retain the rule on compulsory celibacy for priests (at least, those who are not in the Eastern rite churches, or were not previously married and ordained in other denominations) – on the other, ordinary British Catholics do not buy into this inconsistency and two-thirds believe priests should be allowed to marry.

Humanae Vitae prohibits all forms of artificial contraception. Only 4% of British Catholics agree – while 71% believed that condoms should be used more often.

Abortion is always wrong, in all circumstance, says the institutional Church – and declared that a religious sister and professional ethicist who consented to an abortion to save a mother’s life had excommunicated herself. 30 % of British Catholics believe that abortion should “always” be permitted, and a further 44% that it should be permitted in cases of rape, incest and a severe disability to the child. Only 6% accept the Vatican doctrine as it stands.

Homosexualitatis Problema” proclaims that the “homosexual condition” is gravely disordered, and that homosexual “acts” are a grave sin. Ordinary Catholics do not agree, with 44% saying that homosexual relationships should be celebrated (along with heterosexual ones).

Secularist and non-Catholic Christians are appalled at the attempts to control political decision by Church leaders who are not supported even by the people of their own Church.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “Pope Benedict says he wants a smaller, purer church. With so many of his flock out of step with his social teachings, it looks like he’s going to get his wish.

“It is sobering to reflect that the immense political power exerted by the Church at the UN and in Brussels reflects the views of a few elderly men, not even of the Church they purport to represent.”

Daily Telegraph

Catholics should be equally angry, and outspoken, that Vatican doctrine is too easily and too frequently incorrectly presented as “Catholic belief”. It quite patently is nothing of the sort.

I fully accept that formulation of Catholic teaching cannot be done by simply counting votes in a referendum or opinion poll, and that Church leadership cannot be determined by some form of parliamentary type election. However, it is equally untenable to ignore the important concept of the sensus fidelium, which teaches that unless a doctrine has the support of the “whole church”, it is simply not valid. Quite how we determine the sense of the “whole church” is not clear – but it cannot be left simply to a bunch of celibate men in Vatican ivory towers, totally removed from what ordinary Catholics believe.

It is critical that a broader range of Catholics, religious women and  married and single laity, heterosexual and homosexual alike, should all have their voices heard and considered – and given some formal status in decision –making processes.

A start has been made in this direction with the recent theological council in Trent – this process must go much further, until we have a third Vatican Council that more truly reflects the church “as a whole”.

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4 Responses

  1. Terence,

    So, how does a Catholic, wishing to be a faithful Catholic, Christian, and human, go about determining a methodology for discerning how to infom one’s conscience?

    As I understand Catholic teaching, a person should rely upon the Holy Scripture first and foremost. The teachings of the Magisterium in interpreting the Holy Scripture provides additional guidance for the person. Ultimately the final arbiter of decision-making is the individual person.

    In that sense, the people do not have a “whole church” or official teaching because individual consciences may vary. Thus, while sensus fidelium may be useful to assist the Magisterium by offering data for our lived experience, it is not particularly useful for my individual conscience; in fact, unless I am careful it could be misleading.

    For example, 30% of Brits believe that abortion should be permitted in all cases. That does not give me any useful information to inform my conscience. It may mean that 30% of Brits actually believe, (sincerely, deeply, and validly) that abortion is morally permissible or it may mean that 30% don’t want anyone to tell them what to do, or it could mean that they simply don’t care about morality.

    Here’s another example. 77% of the American Congress and about 80% of the American people thought the U.S.A. was justified in invading Iraq. (Now the numbers are substantially less.) The sensus fidelium of the people reflected the fear, ignorance, and vengence of the people. It wasn’t a thoughtful reflection of the principles of just war. (I think we all know where the Vatican stood on the matter.)

    I would be interested to hear if you have any particular thoughts about how to resolve the first question posed above.

    • David, once again you have put to me some important questions, which are worth careful thought before replying. I am about to go up to London for much of the day, and will be out this evening.

      I hope to have a response up some time tomorrow.

  2. No long post this time…

    The question of sensus fidelium has come up.

    I suggest a re-reading of Tielhard de Chardin for those who wish some insights here.

    We are well on our way to a ‘noosphere’. This is de Chardin’s concept as to a possible the outcome of the evolution of the sensus fidelium.

    I see it the same way… we are right now, right here collaboratively constructing something recognizable as Tielhard’s noosphere here in the ‘interweb’.

    I don’t know about you… but that gets me pretty jazzed up 🙂

    You want to know the future of the sensus fidelium? Well congratulations… you are reading it right here in these blogs and blogs like them all over the world.

    Oh… one other observation… the sensus fidelium I sense emerging is very much a post-christian phenomena.

    The place of Christ in the sensus fidelium is really now in all our hands.

    Conrad J. Noll.

    • Thanks, Conrad for a most helpful observation. Revisiting de Chardin is a sound recommendation.

      I certainly agree with you that blogs like this one and all the others, contribute in a small way to the creation of a meaningful sensus fidelium. That was very much part of the thinking behind setting up the project – and will continue to be important as we look to expand the scope, which we hope to do later.

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