Dialogue and diversity in the decade of evangelisation listening to the experience of wise and loving people

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Chapter 1


This book is as much about evangelization as it is about moral theology. That is because it is based on the belief that there is an intimate link between Christian morality and evangelization. Without denying the uniqueness and importance of Christian revelation, I believe that our most committed profession of faith in God is made not in words but in the way we live our lives. That is true equally of Christians and non-Christians. That is why the moral life is so important.
The moral life is not an invention of Judeo-Christian theologians. It is as old as the human family itself. It is about how human persons treat themselves and each other with respect. For respect to be real it needs to be translated into respectful behaviour. Yet deciding in a particular situation what is respectful behaviour is not always easy. Very often it can only be discovered by a wise and loving heart as it learns from experience, listening to other wise and loving hearts, and then making its own way as it lives its own unique and unrepeatable life and thus carves a new image of God, destined to live for eternity.
In the centuries following the Reformation up until Vatican II, Roman Catholics tended to see themselves as members of the 'only true church'. Whatever seed of truth was contained in that statement was distorted by its being given an exclusivist interpretation. This was commonly taken to imply that only Roman Catholics (and principally those who were church-goers, of course) were in a 'state of grace' and so had wise and loving hearts. Added to this, Roman Catholics had also been inclined to assume that their religious leaders, especially the Pope and the Bishops, were endowed with special gifts of wisdom and love. Hence, they drew their ideas about respectful living principally from this source. Authoritative teaching was given greater credence than what people had learnt from their own personal experience. And certainly no credence was given to the experience of those who were outside the church.
Vatican II reversed this trend. It brought back into focus God's invitation to all people to share in his goodness and holiness. It helped Catholics to see their fellow Christians and their churches through new and more appreciative eyes. It acknowledged the unique place of the Jews in God's saving plan and recognised the religious authenticity of non-Christian religions. It encouraged Catholics to see the Christian 'new creation' present and active in the lives of all people of good will and to believe that God's revelation and saving will is at work even outside Israel and Christianity. Along with this switch from a negative to a positive focus went a renewed emphasis on the dignity of the human person and the importance of listening to life and learning from experience.
Obviously, human experience itself is as old as the hills. It is not a new discovery that only came into existence after Vatican II. A wise medieval monk once said: "We see further than our forbears: we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants." As with the rest of the human family, down through the centuries the Roman Catholic church has built up a vast experience of loving and wise living. Teaching authority has seen one of its roles as preserving this tradition for us and making it available for our upbuilding as wise and loving persons. It would be a foolish person who discarded such a treasure or who claimed it had nothing to offer us today.
However, there is a shadow side to tradition within the Roman Catholic church as within the human family as a whole. As Karl Rahner has pointed out, although holiness is one of the marks of the church, we are also a church of sinners - and that means all of us, including Popes and bishops. Hence, mixed in with the lived experience of wisdom and love in our tradition there is also much un-wisdom and un-love. It was largely because he was keenly aware of this that Pope John XXIII felt the need to call the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Paul VI, in his opening address to the Second Session of the Council, showed his apprecation of this by stressing the reforming character of the Council:
"We have just spoken of the Bride of Christ looking upon Christ to discern in him her true likeness. If in doing so she were to discover some shadow, some defect, some stain upon her wedding garment, what should be her instinctive, courageous reaction? There can be no doubt that her primary duty would be to reform, correct and set herself aright in conformity with her divine model." (Yves Congar, Hans Küng and Daniel O'Hanlon editors, Council Speeches of Vatican II, Sheed & Ward, 1964, p.51)
John Paul II uses a similar image when he insists that this self-reforming exercise must be an on-going process if the church and individual Christians are to proclaim the gospel by the witness of their lives. This demands "a personal and communal examination of conscience in order to correct in their behaviour whatever is contrary to the Gospel and disfigures the face of Christ." (Redemptoris Missio, n.44)
One result of this on-going renewal in the Roman Catholic church is that the experience of wise and loving non-Catholic Christians, non-Christians and all women and men of good will is now seen as a rich Spirit-inspired source on which the church can draw in trying to understand what form respectful living should take in our own day and age.
Vatican II committed the Roman Catholic church to emerge from its ghetto. The Pastoral Constitution on The Church in the World of Today was a prime example of this renewal. It virtually takes the form of a dialogue with the contemporary world, listening to and sharing in "its hopes and joys, its sufferings and anxieties", as its very title, Gaudium et Spes, suggests. It attempts to listen to the movement of God's Spirit in the heart of the human family and through this listening tries to discern "the signs of the times". Moreover, it calls for dialogue with all men and women of good will. This dialogue is to be inclusive, embracing men and women of all faiths and even those who are professedly atheist. It is this Vatican II emphasis on dialogue which has inspired the basic thrust of this book.
Struggling to live a fully human life is the principal way in which the members of the human family profess their faith in God, whether they are aware of it or not. Hence, if we, as members of that family, are to come to understand what kind of moral living is most pleasing to God at this point in history, we must draw on all the riches of wise and loving human experience that are available to us. John Paul II expresses this very vividly in his 1990 encyclical letter, Redemptoris Missio, when he states: "(Dialogue) is demanded by deep respect for everything that has been brought about in human beings by the Spirit who blows where he wills." (n.56) This means that we must really listen to each other, trying to appreciate what values in life make each of us tick. That is not just a matter of listening to individuals. It also means listening to other communities, organisations or movements of committed people whose value systems may not be exactly the same as our own or who may order their priorities differently to ourselves.
In plumping for dialogue on such a wide scale Vatican II was implicitly admitting that in no way does the Roman Catholic church have all the answers. It was recognizing that Christian revelation involves a continuing common search as well as a privileged tradition. In fact, that privileged tradition would not be properly preserved and respected if this continuing common search was neglected or abandoned. In this Vatican II approach to the world even infallibility need not be seen as a conversation-stopper but merely as putting down a clear marker as we struggle forward on our journey of discovery.
The belief in moral dialogue which flows from Vatican II is based on a historically and culturally conscious approach to moral knowledge. It is to accept that human experience is an indispensable and fundamental source for our moral knowledge. Cardinal Hume more than hinted at this in his magnificent intervention at the 1983 Rome Synod on the Family. Through our experience we come to discover ways of living which really are wise and loving and we also learn to see how to distinguish these forms of behaviour from those which are unwise and unloving. However, the moral knowledge thus acquired, though true, is only partial. It still remains historically and culturally conditioned. Hence, it might not be an adequate guide for wise and loving living in another culture or at a different period in history. Nor does it exclude the possibility that there might be alternative ways of behaving which might be equally wise and loving.
However, as a precondition for moral dialogue, Vatican II presumes that there are certain basic values that are common to the whole human family and which flow from our common humanity. Theologically, the Council could be interpreted as saying that at this level we are on holy ground. Respect for these values has an element of reverence about it since here we are dealing with the image of God in each of us.
It is precisely because we share this basic humanity that we are able to dialogue in our diversity. It is our common humanity which enables us to appreciate the richness of our diversity. Dialogue, in fact, is the expression of this appreciation and involves a positive approach to the phenomenon of disagreement on moral issues. It can even be open to the possibility that basic human values can be lived out in radically different ways and can give rise to a plurality of moral stances. Dialogue with those who differ from us is an essential element in the way the methodology of moral theology is understood today. Nevertheless, in no way does this imply that contemporary moral theology subscribes to moral relativism, or denies the existence of any kind of objective moral truth or reduces morality to the level of personal preference.
Dialogue is also a pre-requisite for evangelization. As Paul VI put it so forcefully, evangelization is not simply about enabling others to hear the good news. It is equally about hearing the good news ourselves:
"The church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself...She needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe...She has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel...The church...is evangelized by constant conversion and renewal, in order to evangelize the world with credibility." (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.15)
John Paul II makes the same point even more briefly: "We cannot preach conversion unless we ourselves are converted anew every day." (Redemptoris Missio, n.47) In dialogue we are involved in the evangelization process - sharing with others the good news as we understand it and in turn listening to others sharing with us the good news as they understand it.
Belief in dialogue also has implications for moral teaching. Although a moral teacher may enjoy personal authority, due to his or her own wisdom or learning, nevertheless he or she is still teaching as a member of a wider learning community and so even his or her most authoritative teaching is still far from being the whole truth and can at most only be seen as the best expression of the truth as he or she understands it for the present. This obviously has important implications for those who exercise the office of moral teachers, especially the pope, the Roman curia and the bishops. Because their teaching authority is not based on their personal authority but on their official role in the learning community of the church, it is a pre-requisite for the responsible exercise of this office that the richest moral understanding in the community is listened to. Even when it is, this exercise of teaching authority is still subject to the same limitations as mentioned previously. It should be presented as the best way they can express the truth for the present. If official church teachers exercise their office in this way, they have the right to expect those they serve to give their teaching what Richard McCormick calls "the presumption of the truth". If they neglect this dialogue process or unduly limit its scope, they do a disservice to the credibility of their office and thereby forfeit the presumption of the truth for their teaching.
The evangelizing mission of the church is not to stand up in society and condemn the values according to which people are living their lives. Such a stance might have the superficial attraction of seeming to be 'counter-cultural' and so faithful to the prophetic mission of the Crucified One whose Gospel we proclaim. However, that is a false understanding of the counter-cultural character of the Gospel. To be counter-cultural should never be the direct aim of the church. Such an approach would be reminiscent of the negative way in which the Gospel recipe for life has sometimes been presented. Hugh Lavery gently parodies this in his inimitable way: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was NO!"
Before being counter-cultural, the church must first be pro-cultural. It must tune in carefully to the positive values according to which most people are trying to live good and committed lives. The church must evangelize itself by listening to and learning from those values. In a sense, evangelization in any society is about first of all absorbing the positive values which motivate people in their lives; and then, secondly, having absorbed those values, it is about standing up and celebrating them and giving thanks (eucharist) for them. It is implicitly saying of these values - "This is the Word of the Lord - for Today." This is the proper meaning of being Pro-Life. This is how the church should exercise its teaching authority in the area of morals. It should confirm people's faith by articulating and affirming the human values which are embodied in the lives of committed men and women, struggling to be true to that wisdom and love which we believe God has placed deep in their hearts.
The counter-cultural dimension comes in later. If the church tries to give people confidence to believe in their own goodness and in the goodness of their fellow men and women, it is embarking on a confrontation course. If people can be helped to believe that the world really can be an even better place than it is, if people can be encouraged to have the confidence to believe that they themselves, other people and human institutions are capable of living an even fuller human life than they are doing at present, a lot of vested interests will very soon come to be threatened. It is then that the 'voice of original sin', as Sebastian Moore calls it, will be heard. (cf. Let This Mind be in You, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985, chaps 24-26) That voice does not believe in our God-given dignity and responsibility. The voice of original sin refuses to accept the faith God has in us. "Be realistic", it says, "Things cannot really be changed. Life will always be as it is. That is just human nature. We will never be any different. You might as well settle for the mediocre or second-best." The Good News is that original sin is proclaiming an untruth. Original sin is urging us to live our lives according to a lie. The Gospel exposes that lie. "The truth will make you free."
One of the most powerful recent expositions of this is Václav Havel's brilliant essay, The Power of the Powerless. He is discussing the case of a shop-keeper to whom a Communist Party official gives his regular Party poster to be displayed in his shop window. The shop-keeper knows that no one will actually read what is written on the poster, just he himself will not read it. Nevertheless, by displaying the poster he plays his little part in maintaining the lie on which the whole system is built. He is living within that lie like everyone else. However, if the shop-keeper decides not to display the poster, the whole system is threatened. That is because, by refusing to live within the lie, he touches a raw nerve in everyone else. That nerve is the openness to truth that lies deep within everyone living the lie. His action, therefore, really is subversive. Building on this example he goes on to present, in completely non-theological language, what Sebastian Moore would prefer to call the untruth of original sin:
"The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity's rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his or her inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life. ...
Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence. Living the truth is thus woven directly into the texture of living a lie. It is the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response... Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth." (Living in Truth, Faber & Faber, 1989, pp. 54 & 57.)
In chapter 3, I shall try to explore these "essential aims of life" which Havel believes are naturally present in every person. However, prior to that it might be instructive to look at a contemporary example of disagreement both between Christians and also between other committed men and women in our society.
The day the House of Commons began debating the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, The Times (23/4/90) carried two items which presented readers with an extraordinary contrast of positions, made even more remarkable by the fact that they were on pages facing each other.
The first was a joint letter from the five Roman Catholic Archbishops of England and Wales (Cardinal Hume and Archbishops Worlock of Liverpool, Bowen of Southwark, Couve de Murville of Birmingham and Ward of Cardiff). It called for a clear rejection of destructive experimentation on embryos on the grounds that "from the beginning of the fertilisation process the embryo is new human life" and "this fact alone should govern its status, dignity and rights under the law." They asserted that "justice requires that an equality of respect be given to all human life as such, and not merely in virtue of its characteristics, attributes or achievement" and claimed that "it is precisely this principle which underpins the protection which should be extended by the law to all." They concluded that "if the moral principle of respect for human life is reduced to the level of a subjective preference, we further erode the foundations of our British system of justice." How deeply these convictions go was further evidenced by a very strong statement by Cardinal Hume, speaking on behalf of his fellow bishops. The statement followed the Commons vote in favour of permitting embryo experimentation during the first fourteen days. Part of it reads as follows:
"The importance which I and my fellow bishops attach to these developments in relation to embryo experimentation and abortion cannot be overstressed. What has emerged with stark clarity is the lack of a moral foundation for the formation of public policy in this most crucial area, that of human life and death.
In fact as a society we have abandoned fundamental aspects of Christian morality. Specifically we have dispensed with the traditional Christian vision of the sanctity of human life. We can no longer claim to be a truly Christian society." (Full text in Briefing, 4/5/90, pp.164-165)
The contrasting article on the opposite page of The Times was written by John Habgood, Archbishop of York. Archbishop Habgood had earlier, in the debate in the House of Lords on 7 December 1989, supported the Bill's clause favouring embryo research and had expressed the hope that "we can come through this stage of sharp confrontation towards a consensus which acknowledges the special quality of human embryonic life but which refuses nevertheless to make claims to it which are biologically, theologically and philosophically unsustainable, and which recognises a valid place for research in this delicate area." (Hansard, 7/12/89, col.1022) In his Times article, the Archbishop claimed that the embryo debate was not calling in question "basic principles on which all people of good will might expect to agree" but it was getting into difficulties on the fundamental issue as to what kind of enlightment we can expect from our Christian faith on such a question:
"The sanctity of human life, the need to give special protection to the weakest and most vulnerable, a consciousness of human limitations and of the dangers of arrogance and self-deception - all are moral starting points which to my mind are not in question. But I cannot accept the claims that the Scriptures and Christian tradition give us authoritative moral and theological guidance about the precise point at which the complex processes entailed in the beginnings of an individual human life give it unique moral status."
He is careful to note that many Christian opponents of embryo research "are careful not to make excessive claims, do admit large areas of uncertainty, and reach their conclusions on a balance of probabilities, with a general bias towards caution". He then proceeds to present the arguments in favour of "the morally significant dividing line" occuring either at 14 days or at implantation and notes that "moral arguments such as these rest on the interpretation of scientific evidence, and it should not be surprising if sincere and godly people disagree". His own belief is "that the balance of the argument is in favour of the 14-day rule" and hence he is prepared to argue that embryo research, under suitable safeguards, "opens the way to a reverential sharing in the mystery of God's creativity, as well as the relief of human suffering." He recognises that he differs from some fellow Christians on this matter but queries whether this should be a cause of scandal and bewilderment. In fact, he opens his article on this very note:
"Why should Christians believe that their faith gives them unique and authoritative insights into problems which are substantially new? A moral response which allows tentative exploration of new possibilities, with many checks and balances, may be nearer the mind of God, who knows both our strengths and our weaknesses, than outright acceptance or rejection."
This striking contrast of Christian positions evokes memories of 1930 when the Lambeth Conference first began to query the long-standing Christian condemnation of contraception and opened the door slightly to its acceptance. This prompted Pius XI to issue his encyclical letter, Casti Connubii, in which, "gazing out upon the world from the watchtower of this Apostolic See", he raised "Our voice in warning to the flock committed to Our care, to keep them away from poisoned pastures" (n.3). And on the specific issue of contraception, he wrote that "the Catholic church, to whom God has committed the task of teaching and preserving morals and right conduct in their integrity, standing erect amidst this moral devastation, raises her voice in sight of her divine mission to keep the chastity of the marriage contract unsullied by this ugly stain...".
Many Christians will be wondering what on earth is going on here? They would find it hard to believe that Pius XI is suggesting that the Anglican bishops are leading their flock into "poisoned pastures" and that the Lambeth Conference is giving teaching which leads to "moral devastation"! L1kewise, they would find it equally hard to believe that the Roman Catholic bishops are implying that the Archbishop of York has "abandoned fundamental aspects of Christian morality" and "dispensed with the traditional Christian vision of the sanctity of human life"!
Clearly it is important to look at the issues which are raised by this kind of fundamental disagreement between Christian churches.
The kind of questions I am trying to wrestle with in this book are less personalised but perhaps even more important. They would include such questions as: Does disagreement on important moral issues imply mutual condemnation of the opposing position? Is diversity a scandal orr could it be a valuable stage along the road towards better understanding? Does moral pluralism need to be interpreted as based on a moral system of subjective preference? When interpretations of empirical data have to be made in order to arrive at a moral evaluation of an issue, how are disagreements about differing interpretations to be handled? Does the Christian faith offer privileged insights on moral issues? What are we to make of the statement of the Second Vatican Council that, "in fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of men (and women surely - my addition) - in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships"? (The Church in the World of Today, n.16.) Does it mean that we are all engaged in a common search as members of God's human family and, as such, are we obliged to respect the integrity and scientific or philosophical competence of committed men and women who do not share our Christian faith?
Faced with such radical disagreement on the issue of embryo research it is interesting to note the different reactions of the Roman Catholic Archbishops and Archbishop Habgood. Cardinal Hume and his fellow Roman Catholic Archbishops appeal to the "absolute" nature of fundamental moral criteria. They accuse the opposing position of "abandoning fundamental aspects of Christian morality" and "dispensing with the traditional Christian view of the sanctity of human life". They even goes so far as to say that a nation which rejects the position he represents "can no longer claim to be a truly Christian society".
Archbishop Habgood, on the other hand, does not find it "surprising if sincere and godly people disagree". His own belief does not claim absolute certainty but is based on "the balance of the argument". He even suggests that "a moral response which allows tentative exploration of new possibilities, with many checks and balances, may be nearer the mind of God, who knows both our strengths and our weaknesses, than outright acceptance or rejection."
Many people were probably shocked by such a public disagreement between moral teachers. What price ecumenism and united witness when there seems to exist such radical disagreement between the leaders of the two main Christian churches in the country!
There are two ways in which such an instance of disagreement between Christian moral teachers could be examined. The first would be to analyse in closer detail the issue of embryo research and see if the disagreement could be resolved or if perhaps it might not be as deep-rooted as might appear on the surface. That is the kind of approach I adopted in a previous book, Life and Love: Towards a Christian dialogue on bioethical questions, Collins, 1987, which dealt with the allied topic of in-vitro fertilization. The second way would be to prescind from this particular instance of disagreement and examine the more general question of disagreement about issues of morality and its implications for Christian moral teaching and witness. It is this second approach that will be followed in this book.

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