Let’s be Catholic: An Invitation to the Radical Centre

My Motivation…

When I look at the Catholic Church within which I live and move, what I see worries me.

I see that many in the current senior generation of working priests place great emphasis on love of neighbour and on building up community, but speak softly of the Great Commandment to love God first and foremost – sometimes failing to acknowledge that love of God demands something more than mere love of neighbour, friend and enemy.

I see that many in the younger generation of priests and of convert lay Catholics have, understandably, reacted by fleeing to the opposite end of the spectrum, embracing the form of liturgy current before Vatican II, and – in many, though by no means all cases – also embracing attitudes inconsistent with the current teaching of the Church concerning religious freedom, ecumenism and fraternal relations among Catholics generally.

The Breadth of Catholicism

The genius of the Catholic Faith is that it has great breadth, yet that breadth has limits. Sometimes doctrine is defined in a way which sets out a belief in a very precise way. But more often the Catholic faith says that you can believe or act according to one of several different shades of meaning.

For instance, as a Catholic, you can be a pacifist, or a serving member of the Armed Forces of a democratic state. But you cannot insist that armed resistance is forbidden to all Catholics under all circumstances; neither may you morally take part in an unjust war.

As a member of a religious order, you may be called to a ministry of the head (for instance, the depth of study of the Dominicans), or a ministry of the hands (consider the work of Franciscans among the poor), or the ministry of the heart (the work of spiritual direction, often guided by the deep mysticism of the Carmelites). All of these are organs of the body of Christ; none is the whole body.

The documents of Vatican II set out a wonderful vision of what the Church could and should be. But that vision has not yet been lived in its fullness, so it cannot be realised by imitating the saints or role models of the past. It must be brought into being by courageous Catholics treading a new path from the present to the future.

In this post, I am going to attempt to present a vision of the Catholic Faith according to the teaching of Vatican II. It is a vision not yet lived out in its fullness. It is a vision which can never be exemplified by any one role-model, but only ever by a community containing legitimate plurality, within the limits defined by the Church’s teaching.

What I have written above is merely my own motivation for this project. What appears below is…

The Charter of The Radical Catholic Centre

Revelation and Authority

Our faith is based on God’s revelation. This is found most clearly in the Bible. Modern scholarship legitimately asks what the human authors of scripture were trying to say to the readers and listeners of their own age. Sometimes scholarship rules out traditional and cherished ways of reading certain Bible stories according to its analytical rules. But we do not stop with our analysis of the human author. We believe that the Holy Spirit is behind every word of Holy Scripture, causing it to be written in just the way God intended that it should be. Our cherished readings may now be part of the spiritual, rather than literal, interpretation of the text. We trust the Bible – especially the fullness of revelation found in the New Testament – to teach us authoritatively about spiritual realities and the salvation of human beings, while allowing it to reflect the limited understanding of its own age on questions of history, geography and science. Apart from those relatively few passages for which the Popes, or those authorised by them, have set out a particular nuance of interpretation, we remain free to interpret the Bible within broad limits.

God also speaks through Tradition – practices dating back to the time of Christ and the Apostles – through the Book of Nature, and through the guiding hand of the Magisterium. Here also the Popes claim the ability to speak authoritatively – sometimes even infallibly – on matters of doctrine and morals, but not on history or science. Administrative decisions of the Magisterium are never beyond question. Doctrinal and moral declarations must be analysed and treated according to the implicit or explicit level of obedience which they require. As faithful Catholics we may petition the Magisterium privately to reconsider the expression of any teaching which is not infallible, while teaching and acting publicly on the presumption that the Magisterium is correct and our personal viewpoint will turn out to be flawed.

Where pious Catholics draw attention to private revelations, we are free to heed, or not, any claimed apparition, so long as it has not been ruled “not credible” by the Church; but we always treat the directions of visionaries as exhortations to works of piety over and above the necessities of the Catholic faith taught by the Magisterium. We strongly resist those who seek to impose a private revelation on the community at large, recognising that such revelations are invitations for those who choose to accept them.

The Blessed Trinity

We accept the great truths taught in the ancient Creeds, that God exists as one Nature present in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We confess that the Son took flesh in the womb of Blessed Mary, lived a life on earth subject to all the limitations of frail humanity, was crucified and died a criminal’s death. We acknowledge diverse viewpoints, present even in the Gospels, about the extent to which Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, had access to divine knowledge during his years of earthly ministry. We confess that Jesus appeared, risen and glorified, to the Apostles and many witnesses before ascending into heaven; on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled the Apostles with a new zeal, and the same Spirit continues to bestow gifts upon the Church today.

We acknowledge the Father as Creator, the Son as the one through whom all things were made, and the creative presence of the Holy Spirit as “Lord and Giver of Life”. We allow science its rightful autonomy to enquire about how the world and the cosmos came into being; we can allow more or less problematic readings of Scripture as long as we acknowledge inconsistencies with science as having the dignified status of “issues requiring future resolution”.

The Virgin Mary

We acknowledge that the Holy Mother of God was conceived without Original Sin, remained a virgin throughout her earthly life, and when that life ended, whether or not she was spared the experience of bodily death, she was assumed body and soul into heaven. There she has the power to intercede for all humanity. Unless the Church should choose to define it, we are free to believe that she is in fact mediatrix of all graces, or only of much grace. We acknowledge the excellence of the spiritual path of total entrustment to Jesus through Mary,without requiring that all Catholics should walk this path.

The Eternal Destiny of the Human Person

We acknowledge that humans are made in God’s image and that those who attain moral maturity will be judged by God according to their actions. A moral action is only virtuous if both the act itself and the motive are morally good, though we allow that a foreseen, undesirable consequence does not invalidate the goodness of an act. Different texts in Scripture present morality, or faith in Jesus Christ, as criteria which will determine a person’s fate when judged by God.

We believe that some souls will go to Heaven even though they never professed Christ during their lifetime: those who followed the conscience the unknown God had planted in them, and – we hope can but cannot definitively affirm – the souls of unbaptised infants. But we also recognise that Jesus spoke of the very real possibility of those hearing and rejecting his message entering eternal damnation. We know that God’s fundamental desire is that all souls should be saved, yet God has entrusted us with the duty of spreading the Gospel. Faith only takes root where God Himself has granted the grace of believing, yet the work of proclaiming the message is ours. We might hope that all souls will be saved, but recognise that this is not clearly guaranteed by God’s Word, while the duty to proclaim the Gospel is unambiguous.

When a person dies, our working assumption is that the person is in God’s hands, on the way to Heaven, but in need of our prayers to ease the passage through Purgatory. Only when the church canonises a Servant of God can we freely declare that the soul has reached Heaven; and it is not the church’s practice to proclaim that notorious souls are possibly in Hell, even though such persons might be denied a church funeral.

We accept that in the fullness of time, this earthly life as we know it will pass away, and Purgatory will also come to an end; the souls of all who have lived will be raised into everlasting bodies, and enter the new life which awaits us – together with, or cut off from, the presence of God.

Religious Freedom, Ecumenism and Dialogue

We are under a general obligation to make Christ known. We are to evangelise people of no religion and of any non-Christian religion. But we do so with respect for the right of other people to reconsider their religious beliefs without undue pressure or harassment; and we acknowledge that in certain circumstances, we may set aside the motive of converting others for the sake of creating a forum where we and members of other faiths can listen to each other’s beliefs with mutual respect, to foster mutual understanding.

We are under a solemn duty to work with other Christians for the sake of the Gospel. We do not deny that in the Catholic faith is the fullness of the means of grace; we rejoice if another Christian enters the full communion of the Catholic faith. But we also recognize that what we hold in common with every baptized Christian is greater than that which divides us, and that Catholics must spearhead ecumenical co-operation whenever other Christians are not already taking an initiative.

We stand firmly on our belief that the Catholic faith is true, and that part of that truth can only be known through a gift of revelation from God. We support religious freedom not because we believe that other religious viewpoints are of equal validity – far from it – but because we acknowledge that all human beings have a right to be wrong and to come to faith at their own pace. We believe that democratic societies must allow Catholics and other religious believers enough space to live out their beliefs in all ways which do not intrinsically compromise the freedom of other citizens, and we consider it praiseworthy when states require religious beliefs to be accommodated within work situations where believers would otherwise be forced to compromise or quit.

Human Dignity and Sexuality

The Human Person has a fundamental dignity which attracts certain rights. A human life should always be conceived within the loving embrace of a married couple, without technology interfering in the moment of conception. The unborn child may not be wilfully harmed. The disabled person must be supported by society, through both personal and governmental initiatives. The quality of life of the lonely must be supported by Christians who freely give of their time to love the unloved. The one who is terminally ill must be granted the dignity of food and water, and may be offered analgesia, whatever its foreseeable side-effects, but not wilfully terminated. The organs of one who has died may not be taken for transplant except by express wish of the donor given during their lifetime.

The Church’s sexual teaching is challenging but clear: the only appropriate context for seeking sexual arousal and consummating intercourse is between a man and a woman who have vowed to be with each other in a lifelong and exclusive relationship, in which childbearing will not be deliberately prevented by the couple’s actions. Within marriage, each spouse must be selfless in their concern for loving their partner rather than seeking self-gratification. A couple who might enter such a marriage may, while dating, express physical and emotional affection in ways intended to communicate exclusive intimacy rather than sexual arousal. All other human relationships must refrain from these levels of expression – this is called chastity. Some Catholics will be called to make a deliberate and public declaration that they will never seek marriage, devoting their energies instead to the worship and work of God: celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Human Society and the Global Environment

The fundamental commandment for Christians in society is to love your neighbour and forgive your enemy. The neighbour is first and foremost the one your daily duties bring you into contact with, but in an unbalanced global economy, we must also have a special concern for the poorest of the poor. Further, a willingness to forgive others is a basic Christian orientation, one which the Lord’s Prayer makes a condition of our own forgiveness being received from God. There is also a special duty on members of a local Christian community to care for one another’s spiritual, emotional and practical needs which makes real the spiritual truth that we are members of one family under God.

The Church endorses neither state-controlled communism nor unbridled capitalism. The Catholic “Third Way” is one where those who possess wealth freely choose to give generously of what they have, for the sake of those who have not. To some extent this may be administered through taxation, in which case the Catholic has a civic duty to pay tax; but more must be given, according to one’s means, to support the Church and the poor.

The dignity of the human person absolutely rules out any legitimate use of weapons of mass destruction or deliberate genocide. The Church has principles which sometimes allow that war might be conducted in the name of justice, but respects also the conscience of those who would choose the path of non-violence even in extreme circumstances. Capital punishment is theoretically permissible, but not to be carried out in practice in today’s global society when humane alternatives always exist.

Humanity has been entrusted with the role of stewardship of the planet on which we live. As Catholics, we are not commanded explicitly to preserve biodiversity or to avoid genetic engineering of non-human species; but the duty to love our neighbour requires us to use our best judgment about ecological and economical consequences for the human race and especially the poorest of the poor. Such considerations should also affect our daily decisions as consumers.

Worship, Liturgy and Charisms

We believe that Baptism makes Christians children of God in a way which is not true of other human beings. Only baptised Christians have the right to stand before God in prayer, addressing Him as Father. As baptised Christians we are profoundly united to Christ, who prays constantly at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We acknowledge that there is a common pattern of growth in the spiritual life, from awareness of sin, to knowledge of God, ultimately reaching a lived experience of union with God, though not all souls complete the journey in a human lifetime; this journey is punctuated by dark nights – episodes of the apparent absence of God. We rejoice in the rich heritage of different kinds of prayer in the Catholic tradition, though no prayer other than Sunday Mass is mandatory for any member of the Church.

We believe that as Catholics we are called to worship God by taking part in the formal liturgy of the church and in personal prayer. We acknowledge that ordained clergy are icons of Christ among us and are set apart to preside at worship; and because of the God-given symbol of Christ as bridegroom of the Church, the sacramental sign requires that the ordained minister be male. We accept the official position that the Catholic Church has no authority (because it is not entrusted to the Church by God) to ordain women. On the other hand we acknowledge that rules about whether or not married persons may serve as clergy have changed over time, and there is room for legitimate debate about the circumstances under which married men might be admitted to priesthood.

We acknowledge the presence of seven sacraments and acknowledge the duty of Catholics to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days whenever they are able to do so. We recognise a legitimate diversity of liturgical rites: contemporary, extraordinary form, Anglican Usage and Eastern Rite; we do not proclaim that any of these is intrinsically more excellent than any other, though personal taste or past experience may draw worshippers in one direction or another. We acknowledge the principle that the Latin language ought to be used widely wherever the Latin (Western) Rite is used, but also the practical reality that using anything other than the vernacular is difficult once fluency in Latin has been lost. We observe the Lord’s Day as a day for worship, and for resting from whatever laborious work can reasonably be left until another day. We observe the days of fasting and of abstinence from meat as prescribed by the Church, whether or not we view this discipline as helpful to the spiritual growth of ourself or of others.

We acknowledge legitimate diversity of sacramental practice: confession at least once a year for those conscious of serious sin, but often monthly by the devout; holy communion not more than twice a day, but at least once a week at Sunday Mass for those in a state of grace. We acknowledge the freedom of the communicant to partake of, or refrain from, communion in the hand and communion from the chalice, where these options are offered. We recognise the Church’s rule that lay ministers must only assist with the distribution of communion at Mass when this is truly necessary, while allowing that there are vastly different interpretations of when such assistance is unnecessary. We acknowledge that liturgical rubrics often allow great latitude for interpretation, while agreeing that clergy are not to innovate in any matter liturgical for which the rubrics provide clear norms. We note that we are free to celebrate paraliturgies, which are relatively unconstrained compared to formal liturgy.

We recognise that God offers charismatic gifts to members of the Church. All are called to acknowledge them. Some are called to receive them. Those who do receive them have a right and duty to exercise them for the benefit of the wider church, which in return is duty-bound to welcome these charisms and to affirm those members of the Church touched by them, with appropriate pastoral care. Mindful of Vatican norms, healing services relying on charismatic gifts are not to be integrated with Mass or the Anointing of the Sick.

Some members of the Church will be called to embrace poverty, chastity and obedience within religious orders. Others may be called to lay movements which enrich the church. Every authentic call of God should be welcomed, and lay movements should be presumed to be a gift to the church and offered appropriate pastoral care. It may be historically true that lay movements cause tension between their members and non-members in the parish, but new movements should not be judged in the light of old difficulties.

What now?

If you feel that your spiritual home is in the Radical Catholic Centre described above, you are invited to be part of an ongoing conversation on Facebook.