Sean O’Conaill © The Irish News 21 Nov 2013
Most unfortunately the verb ‘to teach’ is ambiguous. The Oxford dictionary assures us that it can mean either merely to propose an idea or practice to someone, or, in contrast, to succeed in persuading someone to adopt that idea or practice.
The importance of this distinction for someone ‘teaching’ civil engineering will be obvious. Here the teacher’s success will be judged not on mere presentation, but by whether the bridges and other structures designed by his students can be relied upon not to collapse.
So when Catholic church documents speak of ‘Church teaching’, which meaning of the word is intended? Irish Catholics pondering the preparatory document for upcoming synods may well reflect on this conundrum, especially in the context of question 7a:
“What knowledge do Christians have today of the teachings of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood?”
For people of my generation the major ‘teaching’ of Humanae Vitae is fairly well known. It proposed that use of the contraceptive pill for the purpose of regulating births is gravely sinful and therefore to be abjured. That much I certainly know. However, do I know that this ‘teaching’ was sincerely and consistently supposed by Irish Catholic bishops to be capable of convincing Irish Catholics that they must actually adopt it in their conjugal lives, under pain of possible damnation if they did not?
On considered reflection, as a parent of four children conceived in Ireland after 1968, I must answer definitely not.
This conclusion is not based primarily upon my own view of the inherent persuasiveness of Humanae Vitae itself. It derives from the complete failure of the Irish Catholic magisterium, in the decades after 1968, to commune directly with their married flock, to convince us of the moral danger of ignoring it.
Had Irish bridges and other such structures been routinely collapsing in those decades, the teachers of civil engineering in our universities would surely have been vastly upset. A national engineering emergency must then have been declared – and all failing engineers convened for intensive remedial education. The highest engineering magisterium would surely have sat down directly with former students and patiently asked: “What was it exactly about not doing x, y and z that you didn’t understand”.
In contrast, though knowing well for decades that their priests were not even attempting to convince us of the moral and eternal dangers of ignoring Humanae Vitae, our Irish bishops preserved an astonishing and persuasive calm. Very soon, even though everyone knew that they had been appointed partly for their own assent to Humanae Vitae, they conspicuously lost all interest in interfacing directly with their people on that issue (or on any other that might trigger awkward questions!)
It followed inevitably not only that their ‘teaching’ on Humanae Vitae came to appear merely theoretical, but that their aloofness on all other issues could be understood in that light also. True, some of them muttered darkly about ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ but they also continued to play bridge and golf, and to take foreign holidays. If the supposed threat to our eternal salvation was causing them sleepless nights they kept this to themselves.
In 1994 our education in the authority of magisterial teaching on the family became complete. In that year we learned for the very first time from infuriated Belfast families of the havoc wrought by clerical sexual abuse of children. Our bishops subsequently told us they had been on a ‘learning curve’ in dealing with it. Why this ‘learning curve’ should have been continuing since the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century – without bishops ever learning that this abuse is deeply dangerous to children, or ever getting around to warning us about the problem themselves – has never been explained.
That most Catholic parents have grown increasingly concerned about the remoteness of their bishops since 1968, about the radical transformation of our society during those decades, and about the virtually complete absence of opportunities for learning together as Catholic adults how to cope with all that, goes without saying. That the separation between priests and people caused by that same remoteness now imperils the survival of the Irish priesthood and thereby the future of the Irish church itself, also troubles us all.
So now that we are – at last – consulted on how much Catholic magisterial ‘teaching’ on the family since 1968 has gotten through to us, some of us are as taken aback as those shepherds surely were by the appearance of angels in the heavens at the first Christmas in Bethlehem. ‘How’, we ask, ‘can this be? Were we supposed to be taking e.g. Humanae Vitae seriously all along?’
The essence of my response will simply be that our Irish magisterium has assiduously been teaching us since 1968 to rely for moral guidance more on prayer, on the Gospels, and on truly honest priests, than on themselves. By their own studied behaviour they have made themselves as persuasive and indispensable as that long forgotten brotherhood, the Keepers of the King’s Whippets.
However, if, on the other hand, I am now to understand that Catholic bishops are not only ready to receive this news, but to challenge this state of affairs, I can assure them that they still have enormous latent power to do that. All they need do is exorcise their own petrifying fear of learning about these matters directly from their married flock – and realise that God, having designed us all to be sexual, does not become remotely as paralytic and incoherent as they do when we conscientiously exercise that privilege.
My honest recollection is that we stopped freely discussing everything together in about 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae. Who knows, if the upcoming synods can change that we may soon be able to attend to what our bishops say they want to teach us with all the unaccustomed fascination of those ancient ancestors who once sat on grassy banks to listen, for the first time, to St Patrick.