CT Friday September 20th2019
Standing out from the crowd can be very difficult. We are approaching the canonization date of a great Victorian Englishman, John Henry Cardinal Newman. His decision in conscience to leave the community of his early years in favour of Rome was painful but he made it in faith. That rain-swept October night when Dominic Barbieri arrived in Oxford, marked a parting of ways and a loss of friendships. A lonely and difficult path lay ahead of this apostle of faith.
It is a story often repeated over many years, the story of individuals who follow their conscience at a personal cost. One such man in our own times has been Professor Hans Kung. Writing in the Tablet some years ago in 2012, Kung reflected on his years as a theologian and catholic teacher, a title he held up to 1979 when John Paul II removed his accreditation to claim that position.
His life has been one of scholarship and genuine enquiry, ever anxious to explore our Christian faith with an open mind and honest personal reflection. His writings have been copious and his public lectures, quite apart from his university teaching, extensive and world-wide. He has challenged us to think from the time immediately before the Council to the present day..
The questions he has asked in his lifetime remain for others to continue the discussion he started. But however we might feel about their validity and the tentative answers he offered, let us recognise the honest endeavour of his life’s work and the sincerity of his exploration of Christian faith. The restoration of his teaching accreditation by Francis would be a significant gesture of reconciliation.
When families become divided on fundamental issues the consequences can be painful and long-lasting. The community of Christians we call Church is after all a family. A divided Christendom is a real sadness. How different might the last four hundred years have been, had Luther’s questions been addressed rather than the man condemned? Recent times have seen a substantial movement towards healing division, but we are not there yet.
The UK is presently divided in a manner that we have not experienced in many decades. The issue of Europe has created stress within families, a harsh division of opinion in the work place and has further fractured our political exchange. How do we put things right, get back on an even keel, respect the opinions of those with whom we disagree? Not an easy task.
There is a stridency in the public forum that destroys reasoned debate, creating an uneasy tension. We are not alone. Other European countries have seen the emergence of far-Right groups, their chants and flags echoing an earlier time. Just when our national voice at the table is needed more than ever, we are packing our bags and walking away. It defies logic.
Our next parliamentary election, when it comes, will be like no other. The old divisions, Right and Left, are fading, with the party structures riven by internal argument. We have now heard the Resignation intentions of the Speaker. We must hope that his successor shows as great a leadership from the Chair as that given in recent years to the House by Speaker Bercow.
We presume, when our day to day life is settled and stable, that it will always be so. We hear of civil disturbance in other ages and in other countries, but presume that it will not affect us. Now it is closer to home and anxiety is an uncomfortable thread in our daily lives. The shouted protests outside the House have become the normal background to media interviews on College Green, with the Union flag and the European stars a constant visual reminder of lines that have been drawn. With the prorogation of Parliament, the voice of the people must be heard elsewhere.
Returning to division within our Catholic community of the West, our journey remains difficult. Those who, in conscience, raise their voices on issues that affect us all, are at best ignored and at worst condemned. Nothing is solved by such peremptory action, only a long-standing frustration when those who speak from an informed conscience are set aside.
The negative comments made by four Cardinals when the Agenda of the Amazon Synod was announced, are symptomatic of this fear of change. The issue of a celibate priesthood is not a matter of faith but of discipline. In many parts of the world, the lack of priests is a denial of the Eucharist. It is a discipline that can and must be changed.
Conscience cannot be denied, whether it concerns opinion in the public forum or within the Church that is our home. Listen, talk and listen again before taking action that solves nothing and only leads to regret.