I A compassionate
EE statement this week by the Bishops of
England and Wales on Humanae Vitae is
= by no means a perfect piece of work. It is vague in many instances, its reasoning will = hardly satisfy some modern theologians and it does not attempt to answer some of the criti
cisms made at the time of the publication of I the encyclical.
Yet, for all this, it is a hopeful, sane, adult and compassionate document. Perhaps even the vagueness is a point in its favour. At a lime of stress and anguish the fewer boundaries drawn on the map of conscience the better.
One of the best ways of judging the bishops' statement is to imagine the effect it would have had if it had been issued two days after Humanae Vitae had been published instead of nearly two months after the appearance of the encyclical. What trouble and what ignoble incidents the Church in this country would have been spared ! There were those who claimed that there was no conflict over birth control. There were those who claimed that discussion of the merits of the encyclical was tantamount to treachery. And there were those who claimed that conscience and its exercise was a superfluous luxury that the Church could not afford.
What, then, does this week's statement say about these matters? The bishops state quite bluntly that Huntanae Vitae was bound to arouse strong feelings and whatever the Pope's decision on birth control had been it was bound to be a test of faith. Furthermore, they call on Catholics to carry on discussions of the encyclical in "a responsible and temperate manner and in a mutually charitable spirit." So much for the debate being closed.
The bishops are confident that the Holy Spirit will guide Catholics to understand the truth of the principle of the encyclical, but they add: "In working out these principles bishops, priests and laymen must co-operate in a Christian spirit." No sign of ecclesiastical knuckle-duster there.
a And what of conscience—as dirty a word in some quarters as authority is in others? Admittedly the stater. ment is not without ambiguity, but it is a great advance on what has already been said previously: It must be stressed that primacy of conscience is not in dispute. 7 The Pope, bishops, clergy and faithful must all be true to conscience. But we are bound to do all in our power F to make sure that our conscience is truly informed.
Neither this encyclical nor any other document of the 7 Church takes away from us our right and duty to follow ; our conscience. But if we were to neglect the guidance = of the Church. morality could easily become merely -7 subjective. That would be disastrous." Even the whisper 142 of such a sentiment by all the bishops a few days after Humanae Vitae would have cooled some passions and 2 prevented sorrow and pain to many.
= The bishops give full support to the encyclical, and ; anyone who expected otherwise is either living in a theological vacuum or is prepared to accept the unin spired speculation of the Sunday Times. But while 7 supporting the Pope to the hilt the statement candidly E recognises the doubts and fears that beset many t Catholics in England and Wales. It also recognises how the conflicts of conscience have arisen and does not 11 condemn out of hand those who have practised and are E practising contraception.
If the bishops then are vague on some points, particularly over the role of priests who cannot accept 3 Humanae Vitae, they are compassionate on every point where compassion is needed. And compassion and prayer were never more needed than they are today in the crisis gripping the Church.
aMuch study and thought needs to be given to the statement. Despite sonic confusing aspects the bishops = have tried to build a bridge, and any bridge today is E preferable to a well that divides the faithful.