Page 4, 19th March 1971

19th March 1971
Page 4
Page 4, 19th March 1971 — Has the Church gone soft?

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Organisations: Christian Church


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Has the Church gone soft?

by Michael Simpson S.J.

PROPHETS of light are

rarely unaCcompan led by prophets of doom. This

was true of Jeremiah, it was true of Christ, it has also been true of John XXIII.. There are many .since the Council who still find hope in the prospect. yet to be realized, of a truly renewed and ecumenical Christian Church. There are others who cast a sad eye back to pre-conciliar days with the feeling that the Church has lost its vocation in adapting to a general permissiveness.

In one sense it is true that the Church has become more permissive. Despite litinzattae Vitae there is. on the whole, a greater reluctance to make detailed statements on the application of moral principles. Fewer practices of penance are enjoined upon all. Some things which once were regarded as 'mortal sins' are now scarcely adverted to by a penitent at all. There is much greater flexibility in the lit


With Ecumenism distinctions which once seemed allimportant are now often dismissed as irrelevant. There is a general atmosphere of selfcriticism in the Church that would scarcely have been possible twenty years ago. Theologians, and even bishops, can begin to express their Christian witness honestly without (too much) fear of upsetting the Vatican.

But in another and more fundamental sense the Church has not become less demanding but more demanding, and it is this that many of our prophets of doom have failed to recognise. This has largely come about through a change in our understanding of man and of the conditions needed for his true development.


The human person is fundamentally related by his very nature to the world. to other human persons (the community), and to God. To develop as a person he must allow these relationships to become an experienced part of his life and action. The first two, of course, cause no problem because a man can hardly avoid living in the world and communicating with other men, although we do know of damage to personality that can come from a distortion of these relationships.

But the same is true of his relationship with God. This too must become an experienced reality which is why

some form of religious awareness of the spiritual and transcendent Reality which underlies human existence is necessary to any fully integrated life. For the Christian his awareness of this divine Reality conies in a unique way through the person of Christ as made present to us through the written word and through the life and actions of the Christian community.

But a religious awareness of the divine Reality must evoke some personal response, either of acceptance and commitment or of rejection and withdrawal. There can be no neutral awareness of God. Religion is an intimately personal matter: it involves a total personal commitment, as does the closest relationship of human love. It cannot in any way be imposed from outside, but is the expression of what lies deepest in man's own personal experience.


If a small child brings a gift to his father on his birthday because his mother has told him to, that is well and good. But it is not the same as if the child had spontaneously brought die gift as the expression of his own love. And if, as the child grows up, he continues to act out of external dictate his gifts quickly lose any value because they fail to express his own spontaneous relationship with his father.

The same holds true of man's relationship with God. The expressions of this relationship whether in prayer, in the liturgy, or in the Christian moral life have value insofar as they express the individual's own most intimate and personal response to God present to his own conciousness.

Christianity has, of course, always recognised this. The law and ritual of the Church were always intended to express the Christian's personal religious awareness. But there is a danger, and this is true not only in Christianity but also in other religions, of identifying external law and ritual with the inner experience of God which they were intended to safeguard. And this is why from time to time prophets are needed: Jeremiah, Christ, John XXIII.

The two great commandments remain unchanged, but love is a human response and must always be free and creative. Free, because it is a giving of the person himself which can never be forced by external law; creative, because all love transforms a person's character and always seeks new ways of expressing itself.

To stress the inner reality of the Christian life is far from making the Christian moral life arbitary, a soft option. On the contrary it requires far more of a person. It is easy to observe rules: it is less easy to respond to the dent:Ands made upon one by the reality of another person. The former can be done without great cost; the latter requires a giving of oneself and this can cost a great deal.

Love issues in recognisable actions: this is true in a family. it is true of Christian love. This is why the Christian community can build up a moral wisdom about modes of behaviour compatible with 'Christian love. But revelation was not dependent of the Christian awareness of those who first received it, and equally the authority of the Church which serves to communicate her moral wisdom is not independent of the Christian awareness of those who accept that authority.

The Church must certainly proclaim her moral values, and the moral freedom of the individual Christian will normally be exercised in accepting and affirming those values in his life. But it must always be remembered that to obey a moral law simply for the sake of the law has no moral value at all. The teaching of the Church is always directed towards helping the individual to respond in a truly personal and free way to God's love.


It is not always easy to know what that love does require of us in a given situation: often there are conflicting forces and tensions. In these cases there is need of a moral discernment which 'can only come through an openness of the divine Spirit. This power of discernment is one which grows as we deepen our Christian awareness through prayer and self-discipline. It shows lack of faith to suppose that the Spirit is less present with us today than in former periods of the Church's history.

All this means that the Christian moral life, far from being eased by recent changes in emphasis, is in fact made more urgent and demanding. One can no longer take refuge in a literal observance of an external moral code. What is asked, and in fact this always has been asked but has at times been obscured by too much legalism, is that we give ourselves totally to God and in the service of our fellow men. Christ demands nothing less Of us. And it is in this selfgiving that we find our true human dignity before God and before our fellow-men.

In the world today there is a great need for truth: for truth not only as known, but as lived. There are many people who are searching for God in their lives, who seek some witness to the divine presence in the world. What they are looking for is not in the first place doctrines or claims of infallibility, however true these may he.


What they seek is depth of experience, truth as lived in the lives of men. Truth by word may follow, and indeed must follow in order to sustain a retif.._!ious awareness, but it is not what makes the first impact and it is not what remains of first importance.

One of the main temptations for the Catholic today is to remain too narrow and isolated in his perspectives. The

ecclesiastical controversies which so often characterise CathoIi.c discussion are a sad reminder of this danger. What the Church must witness to in the world is not primarily any particular ecclesiastical structure, it is not primarily any particular system of theology. which is not to say that we can do without ecclesiastical structures or without theological understanding.

But what the Church must bear witness to is the presence of God within it, to a human community based on the love and inspiration of Christ. It is only if men actually experience within the Christian community a true religious awareness of God, it is only if they find a community which is based on love and freedom, that they will he led to share in its commitment.

It is only in this light that one can usefully raise the question, 'Has the Church gone soft?' The real question is, 'Does the Church bear witness to the presence of God, to the presence of Christ, in the world?' And if it fails to bear this witness would it not be more honest to admit that the reason lies not in a failure of authority, but in the compromise and selfishness of our own lives?

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