Page 4, 7th August 1998

7th August 1998
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Page 4, 7th August 1998 — Is this man a threat to intellectual liberty?
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Is this man a threat to intellectual liberty?

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger is regarded by some as the Vatican's enforcer of increasingly restrictive Papal utterances. Where some see attempts at clarification others fear a bid for mind control. Are Catholics right to fear restrictions on their freedom of throught? SARA MAITLAND says Yes...

CLOSE your eyes. tight, and do not think about pink elephants for two and a half minutes.

Last week the Holy Father issued another pastoral letter Apostolos Suos outlining the relationship of the Bishops' Conferences to each other and to the Holy See. It demonstrates the same centralising tendency as much recent material from the Vatican, but its most important implication must be to emphasise that Ad Tuendam Fidem is not directed at the magisterium alone but at all of us.

To prove this is no abstract matter the Bishop of St Cloud requested a Benedictine publishing house to destroy all copies of Sr Lavinia Byme's book, Women at the Altar, and they complied.

As it happens I have read Sr Lavinia's book. Of course I can't tell you what I think about her arguments because that would mean discussing one of the forbidden topics. (But I think I can say that burning books is dangerous. and particularly unbecoming to Catholics who claim to have an understanding that sign and symbol have a power as great as words. Calling it "recycling" does not help.)

I read it, and talked about it with friends, when it was first published. I did not, but might well have, reviewed it. Should such reviews, even those that disagreed with Sr Lavinia. all be recycled?

These are not silly questions. Imagine the following scene: I am having supper with friends and the subject of the ordination of women comes up (not via me of course, I have been hoping to avoid this and various other specific topics). I keep changing the subject abruptly, but eventually someone says, "Sara, what do you think?"

Do I say "Catholics don't think"? Even if it were ever right to lie, saying "I am in complete agreement with the Pope" will not help. because someone will certainly ask "Why?" and I can't tell them because honestly I have no idea why the Pope is so absolutely certain that it is not possible to discuss the possibility of ordaining women.

Even if I tried to explain the official position I would still be discussing the subject and I am not supposed to. Perhaps the Pope, or members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, never have supper with curious non-Catholics. Their loss. I would say, but it does mean that they don't have to deal with these issues in quite the way that many of us do.

Of course there is an option. I could give up my circle of friends and a large section of my professional life. I could change my style of parenting, which involves encouraging children to use discussion to think through theological and intellectual issues for themselves. I could lie a lot and I could spend hours on end in the confessional.

To be frank, I don't think it would work: I would still find myself mulling over these issues, and luring confessors and theologians into spiritual danger by asking them about the issues.

I have thought a lot this week about my late father, who had a deep interest in the contact between authority and subject. He claimed that making rules that people were not able to keep was bad law.

Subjects should be able to go to bed at night having kept the law or broken it according to conscious choice: nothing impossible should be required of them (you can punish them for behaving in particular ways. but for feeling or thinking in particular things, because that is not necessarily in their control). This feels sound to me. I can obey a practical directive (or choose not to), but I cannot obey an instruction which tells me how to feel; tells me not to inform myself, not to be open to new ideas, not to listen to the questions of others. not to want anything to change ever (including myself), not to think.

Hence the pink elephants. Instructions not to think about an issue are nearly always counter-productive. I spent a ridiculous amount of time at Mass on Sunday, thinking about the ordination women. I also thought about the validity of Anglican Orders, a subject I haven't spent four minutes thinking about in the past three years. I thought about whether I could or should receive communion. I thought about whether or not my PP ought to give me communion; or if, in this state of mind I went to confession, whether he could absolve tne (and scruples are a new spiritual problem for me!) Above all I thought about this article how. while remaining within the disciplines of the Church, I could protest about the burning books and the silencing of peaceful and reasoned thought, and whether publishing this article might place our new editor in a position of error (a delicate and pleasing irony really, given his reputation.) Will it go on being possible to be a good Catholic and a thinking Catholic and how would one choose if one had to?




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