Tuesday, July 26, 2022


A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column


COLUMNIST David Quinn of the Iona Institute argued strongly in his Sunday Times column (July 10) that surrendering to liberal fashions won’t revive the Church. He warns that if we follow the agenda set by liberal reformers in the Church and by the media (for example ordaining women, ending the celibacy rule and pressing for developments in the doctrine on sexuality) we are simply pandering to liberal secular opinion. He says that we risk losing our core Christian identity and risk precipitating schism in the Church: “The last thing the Church should do is to shackle itself to an ideology whose time will pass.” He claims that plenty of Protestant Churches have tried this and it has never worked.

David Quinn has consistently and rather vehemently argued over the years that the Church should remain faithful to its traditional teaching and resist any temptation to change. I think his argument is fundamentally flawed and actually quite dangerous.


‘The Christian community, as it journeys on its pilgrim way towards the fullness of the truth of Christ, must travel with humility and openness’


The core identity of the Church is based on the Good News of Jesus Christ who for Christians is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The doctrines of the Church attempt to articulate the truth, which signposts the Christian way of life. But we cannot claim that doctrinal formulations are set in stone and valid for all time. It is possible for doctrines to develop as history evolves and scientific research produces new insights into the working of our world. I will argue strongly that the Church is bound in justice to develop its doctrines. It is not a question of surrendering to liberal fashions. I cite the examples of doctrinal teaching on women, slavery, marriage, and homosexuality.

That women were inferior to men was the official teaching of the Church up until Vatican II. A scripture scholar in the 17th century, commenting on the admonition of St Paul that women should not teach in Church, added that “the prohibition is absolute and universal”: because “silence in the presence of men agrees better with a woman’s inferior status and a man’s intelligence, judgement and discretion surpass that of a woman.” This reflected the official teaching of the time. It was reiterated in 1930 by Pope Pius XI who insisted on the ready subjection of the wife to the husband and her willing obedience.

This doctrine has been challenged and significantly developed since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II was quite explicit in his insistence on the equality of women in his encyclical on work and in later writings. He points out that both men and women were created in the image and likeness of God. He reminds us about Christ’s attitude to women in the gospels; “this confirms and clarifies in the Holy Spirit the truth about the equality of man and woman…”

John Paul radically reinterprets the admonition of St Paul that “wives must be subject to their husbands… for the husband is head of the wife…” He teaches that this is profoundly rooted in the customs and religious traditions of St Paul’s time: now, he claims, “it must be understood and carried out in a new way… it must be understood in the sense of a mutual subjection of both out of reverence for Christ.”

He went on to offer a conditional apology to women for being relegated to the margins of society, and said that: “If objective blame has belonged to not just a few members of the Church for this I am truly sorry.”

In hindsight, we can see clearly that the traditional teaching was grossly unjust to women and must have caused them great distress and pain down through the centuries. Refusal to countenance doctrinal development recognising the equality of women on the premise that it was surrendering to a liberal agenda would simply erode the credibility of the Church.

The same argument applies to the teaching on slavery. As late as 1866, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was asked if slavery was in harmony with Catholic doctrine, they said, yes. By this time slavery was abolished in the USA, in Great Britain, France, and in most civilized countries.

The Congregation claimed that: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery” (i.e. slavery was justified).

And yet in 1888, Pope Leo XIII officially proclaimed that, “(I) have taken every occasion to openly condemn this gloomy plague of slavery.” He refers to his own letter to the bishops of Brazil where he showed how much slavery opposes religion and human dignity. He claimed to be deeply moved by the plight of those who are subject to the mastery of another.

The (belated) condemnation of slavery was not a surrendering to liberal fashions but an honest recognition that the doctrine on slavery was profoundly unjust to slaves, and certainly not faithful to the liberating gospel message of Jesus who condemned all forms of oppression. A radical development in doctrine was called for if the Church were to remain faithful to Jesus.

Similarly, the theology of marriage was significantly transformed at Vatican II; the values of sexual intimacy, pleasure and companionship were lauded as important elements in Christian marriage. This meant that procreation was no longer regarded as the primary justification for marital intimacy. The traditional teaching was often a cause of great anxiety to married couples and again failure to develop this doctrine in light of the modern appreciation of the meaning of sexuality would have been unjust to Christian spouses.

The traditional teaching on gay relationships as intrinsically disordered is being challenged today. Catholic ethicist Margaret Farley claims that it is not possible to draw from the tradition an absolute prohibition on same-sex relationships. Again, if this is true, it is an injustice to exclude gay couples from full communion with the Church.

The identity of the faith community must be grounded in the truth and in fidelity to justice, not to outmoded norms. The Church will always challenge dimensions of the liberal agenda, which are inimical to human flourishing. In particular, recent popes have offered trenchant criticisms of the capitalist system. But the Christian community, as it journeys on its pilgrim way towards the fullness of the truth of Christ, must travel with humility and openness. Failure to do so will result in institutional fossilisation and loss of credibility.

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By Fr Liam Power
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