Page 13, 25th June 2010

25th June 2010
Page 13
Page 13, 25th June 2010 — In this time of crisis I feel deep gratitude to Newman and John XXIII

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Locations: Canterbury


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In this time of crisis I feel deep gratitude to Newman and John XXIII

From Mr John Wilkins SIR – I am grateful to the editor for inviting me to make a final contribution to the debate on John Henry Newman, conscience and Humanae Vitae.

Last week, Deacon Stephen Morgan alleged that Newman’s idea of conscience was so far apart from mine as to be on another planet. In fact all Catholics have at hand the remarkable statement about conscience in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes 16 which Newman himself could have written (“the most secret core and sanctuary” where people are “alone with God”). And all Catholics are only too aware that conscience has to be informed and, as Newman often pointed out when firing his barbed psychological darts, can be distorted and blinded by human self-will.

Moreover, all Catholics believe that the pope has a special duty to guide consciences. But popes are not oracles. Newman’s famous principle as to afterdinner toasts was that he would drink “to the pope by all means, but to conscience first”. The order cannot be reversed. Nor can one of the terms be swallowed up in the other. If we say “The Pope is my conscience” we are on the wrong track.

Very early in this debate the 1968 encyclical of Paul VI reasserting the ban on contraception, Humanae Vitae, made an entrance. Why Humanae Vitae touches such a nerve is that it was a test case of the rights of conscience in the Church. Were the Scandinavian bishops, for example, justified in telling their people that “for grave and carefully considered reasons” they were “entitled to entertain other views than those put forward in a non-infallible declaration of the Church”? Was the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, John Heenan, justified in asserting on television that couples must follow their consciences and in such cases their priest should say to them: “God bless you”?

Fr Thomas Crean has no doubt that the encyclical has taught the whole Church that “contraception is a sin” and “that should be enough for us”. But it is not enough, that is the trouble. The central command of the encyclical, that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life”, has not been accepted by a very significant number of the married couples to whom it was addressed.

Such reception is not a condition of the truth of a teaching. But at the very least its non-arrival throws doubt upon the formulation. When the dogma of infallibility (which he thought inopportune) was defined, Newman fell silent for a space. He was waiting for the people’s accepting “echo”. When he heard it, he got to work to mark out the boundaries. But for more than 40 years Humanae Vitae has not aroused the requisite echo. I do not understand how, in the face of the evidence, it can be maintained that Humanae Vitae was infallible. A condition of an infallible statement is that the Pope should make it clear he has spoken ex cathedra, and Paul VI did the opposite. And if the encyclical is not infallible, it is reformable. The “continual reformation” that the Church needs, says Vatican II’s decree on ecumenism, extends even to “the formulation of doctrine”.

May I add a word about Hans Küng’s “pastoral primacy”. Contrary to what Fr Ker and Deacon Morgan infer, what Küng wants to promote as a pastoral model is not, of course, “that benighted figure”, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but John XXIII. I remember vividly the revelation when that “caretaker Pope” began to take such care of the Church and world as no one had remotely envisaged. You could almost see Peter the fisherman throwing out his nets. So this is what it meant to have “full, supreme and universal power over the Church”. If one great influence on me was Newman, another was Pope John. At a time of crisis over sexual abuse by clergy, which underlines the need for a less clericalist authority and more robust consciences, I can feel nothing but gratitude for these two wonderful men of the Church.

Yours faithfully, JOHN WILKINS London SW1

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