Everything Flows. Heraclitus’s dictum sums up his philosophy. Essence versus Existence. Heraclitus was on the side of existence. As we reflect on experience we create a pattern of meaning which we superimpose on reality. The alternative is that the inbuilt nature of things pre-determines the existential outcome? Is life a flowing river or a static mountain?
If the Catholic Church is in the headlines these days the odds are that it is a moral issue: abortion, contraception, IVF, gay marriage assisted dying, divorce - with bishops holding firm against change and declaring their view to be the teaching of the Church.
The trouble is that many committed Catholics hold different opinions on these matters. And the gap is between them and the bishops is constantly widening. Whatever about the teaching of the Church, the bishops’ claims are not the belief of the Church. Is there room for discussion?
It is instructive to trace the pattern by which Christians came to determine what is morally right or wrong.
Kyle Harper, a well-known historian of Late Antiquity, has written a book on the development of ethics during the earliest days of the Christian movement.[i] The starting point was the ethics of the Greco-Roman world. Christians generally accepted them. Then they developed values specific to their movement. A major development was the veneration of sexual renunciation and the idealisation of virginity. See also Peter Brown’s “The Body and Society”.[ii]
The pattern of development was:
- Adopt the best ethical standards prevailing in society;
- Develop values specific to your movement;
- Develop an overall philosophy justifying the new way of life from Scripture.
- Canonise the resulting rules as Church Teaching and attribute them to God.
- Thereby making shameful behaviour sinful.
And so a moral theology developed out of the Christian movement’s way of life. It changed as the movement changed - especially when it became the religion of the Empire and the bishops gained power. The values espoused by this newly powerful institution were sometimes a long way from the values of the simple prophet of inclusion, mercy and wariness of power who inspired the movement.
In Christendom bishops were major players but in today’s pluralistic world they are just another voice. They must engage in contemporary debate on the strength of their argument, not their authority. But they tend to hold fast to old answers to old questions rather than discuss issues anew.
Bishops are not alone in this. Societies tend to be slow to adopt new standards. But as circumstances change, rules developed to meet past circumstances may become inappropriate – even counter-productive. Let’s take an example.
The rule forbidding sex outside of marriage makes sense in a society that disapproves of extra-marital co-habitation and offspring. The advent of reliable contraception alters the argument. The waning of social disapproval of couples living together without being married also affects the argument. It is simplistic to say that extra-marital sex or contraception are always intrinsically evil without re-visiting the whole debate. But in an argument theology can become ideology - more entrenched and less negotiable.
The last fifty years have brought big changes of social attitudes. Homosexuality used to be reviled. Today most people accept gay marriage. Unmarried couples living together used to meet disapproval. Today it is routine. Contraception is no longer an issue. Divorce is on the cusp of becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Society first disapproves, then accepts, then changes social regulations to accommodate new arrangements.
As committed Catholics accept society’s changing values it becomes harder for bishops to claim that their opposition is expressing the teaching of the Church. Worse, their hard-line inflexibility further deauthorises them, aligning them with the far right of the culture wars. The can end up with strange bed-fellows. Meanwhile, you get more credible ethical guidance from secular ethical committees.
Pope Francis has disturbed the culture wars. His saying: the reality if more important than the idea is existentialist. The long-standing attitude of many bishops and cardinals is solidly essentialist. The rules they defend are set in concrete and their pre-judgement looks more like ideology than theology.
The world’s bishops are disproportionately of this view because for 35 years they were chosen with this mind-set as a precondition. The Catholic Church has two opposing camps. On one side are the bishops and a small but vocal group of supporters; on the other side is a large group of laity along with their priests. Is it really a matter of essence as the bishops claim, or is it more an existential matter about how you arrive at a conclusion? And where does that leave the real teaching of the Church?
History shows us that Christian morality is always in flux as is the society itself. Only time will tell the outcome of the present stand-off within the Catholic Church.
[i] Kyle Harper: From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity.
[ii] Peter Brown: The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in early Christianity.