Page 4, 6th February 1976

6th February 1976
Page 4
Page 4, 6th February 1976 — The right of our readers to read the Herald

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Organisations: Catholic Church


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The right of our readers to read the Herald

I AM sorry that, as we learned from the correspondence page last week, that the first letter of Fr William O'Callaghan to a Catholic newspaper should be to announce that he had deprived his parishioners the week before of their chance to read the Catholic Herald because he disagreed with some of its contents.

The articles which gave offence were those by myself, Fr Michael Ingram, and Mr Quentin de las Bedoyere on the recent Vatican declaration on sexual ethics. What happens in a small parish in Gloucestershire may not he thought of any great moment, but in fact Fr O'Callaghan's action raises important issues of principle which should be discussed.

He declares that he could not "in conscience leave copies of your paper available in the church for parishioners." Fr O'Callaghan's conscience deserves respect, as indeed do the consciences of the offending writers, but since acting on that conscience has had the immediate effect of depriving readers of their paper it is pertinent to ask whether the conscience is acting on right principles or wrong ones.

The first point I would make is this. Fr O'Callaghan presumes that it is his duty to protect parishioners from reading articles which in his opinion may do them harm. This is surely a position which requires more justification than a simple assertion at this point in time, three-quarters of the way through the twentieth century in an age of universal literacy in a country which has rejected censorship as violating fundamental human rights and freedoms.

The basis of all freedom is the right to choose, and surely adult parishioners have a right to decide for themselves what they will and will not read?

If they disagree with the conclusions of an article they can discuss it with others, including their parish priest: if they feel sufficiently strongly they can give up the paper and cease to read it: if they wish they can write a letter for publication: but why should they be deprived of these freedoms and have a decision taken for them by their pastor? Such an action can only be justified in general by denying them adulthood. Life is a risk. One may be misled at any time on any day by newspapers, television broadcasts, radio transmissions, speeches, etc, etc. But in a free society the judgment has been made that the benefits that flow from freedom of publication outweigh the evils that come from censorship.

With all respect to Fr O'Callaghan, it appears to me that he has gone beyond his duties as a priest by — admittedly from good motives — interfering with his parishioners' freedom of choice.

My second point is this — a subsidiary but relevant one. The opinions I expressed were in a personal column. They do not commit the paper or the editor. Indeed, Fr O'Callaghan goes out of his way to praise the editorial. as being "helpful and balanced."

You cannot have a lively and interesting column if everything the columnist is going to write is censored by the editor.

In all othe years I have written (on and off) for the Catholic Herald I have only once been censored by the editor (not the present one) and then, through a technical inefficiency, the objectionable passage was left in anyhow! Oddly enough, not a single letter of protest was received.

As a columnist I have to exercise self-censorship. I must not write untruly, or irresponsibly or unfairly. I accept that the editor has the ultimate right to include or exclude matter.

Judgment has to be exercised and no infallibility is claimed, yet all journalism that is worthwhile must be contributed from a basis of freedom and therefore of responsibilities. Fr O'Callaghan seems to have overlooked this in passing judgment on the Catholic Herald.

My third point is perhaps the most important of all. Fr O'Callaghan presumes that on moral matters there can be only one Catholic view. This may have been the practical situation between the two Vatican Councils but it is certainly not true today.

On moral matters in particular there is a wide variety, of opinion within the Catholic Church and none can claim exclusive rights to truth. Before Fr O'Callaghan rises and bans this issue of the Catholic Herald as well, because he thinks I am setting up my judgment as equal to that of the Pope's, may 1 at once say that I am not.

The weight that must be attached to a Vatican declaration is clearly much greater than that to he attached to the effusions of a newspaper columnist. But the columnist has his rights too, and it is the glory of England that in the language of the seventeenth century "the rights of the smallest he are as great as the largest he".

The weight that must be given to Vatican declarations is a matter of lively debate among theologians. In the period between the Councils the predominant tendency within the Church was to accept without challenge any official statement on doctrinal or moral matters which came from the Holy See.

The Church was in the grip of a process of "creeping" infallibility. As George Tyrrell put it: "The Pope is the steam engine, the episcopate is the carriages: the faithful are the passengers." All that was left to the layman (or theologian) was "to pay his fare and take his seat as so much ballast in the Barque of Peter, while the clergy pull him across the ferry." 1 hat still seems to be the view of Fr O'Callaghan, but I suggest to him that he may be underestimating his parishioners. Surely they are able to evaluate matters for themselves — especially if they have had for any length of time the services of such a redoubtable pastor.

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