Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

the acid test

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jun 12, 2006

Writing in The Tablet, condom fan Clifford Longley harks back wistfully to the halcyon days of 1968.

I was disappointed to find the reference to contraception in the cardinal's statement concerning the St John and St Elizabeth hospital. I hoped we had long since got over that hurdle. Indeed, we seemed to get over it the day in 1968 that Bishop Derek Worlock pronounced his famous remark: "birth control is not the acid test of Christianity". He was trying to calm down a substantial rebellion against Humanae Vitae among the Catholic laity.

Trying to calm down the rebellion? On the contrary, he was abetting it. The late Archbishop of Liverpool was reassuring dissenters that they need not adhere to Catholic teaching to be Catholic and reassuring the orthodox that, however the controversy might be settled, nothing essential was at risk.

Teachings that forbid contraception, like those that forbid the defenestration of bishops, may seem peripheral to the Christian kerygma. In some senses this is true: they were not mentioned when the Church drew her first breath to proclaim the urgent truths of the New Testament, and within the grand architecture of moral doctrine they would occupy subordinate positions, as a tree's branches are subordinate to the trunk. Yet no (solemnly defined) teaching is peripheral in the sense that it is dispensable, as if it could be pruned without destroying the whole. For the Church claims to speak with the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16), and if this claim is false when she invokes it to teach about contraception, it is false when she invokes it to teach about the Resurrection -- in fact, about anything at all. Every doctrine is an "acid test" for the Church, for if on any occasion she fails the test she isn't, and never was, what she claims to be.

Think of the way in which, throughout the history of the Church, battle lines have formed around disputes that, peripheral in themselves, crystalize deeper antagonisms and precipitate a crisis of authority. Think of the hangings, burnings, axeing of heads -- and ultimately schism and "regime change" -- that attended the technical canonical dispute about whether Catherine of Aragon had ever been married to Henry VIII's elder brother. The criteria for conjugal consummation, in and of themselves, are hardly the focus of the Good News, and yet, when the accidents of history made it expedient that they be ignored, they too became an acid test of discipleship.

Of course there have always been collaborationist bishops like Worlock to try to josh us out of the faith, whence the step into apostasy seems so trivial as to be scarcely noticeable. I've long been struck by John Finnis's account of Thomas More's refusal, in 1534, to swear the oath pledging acceptance of the Act of Succession:

After morning Mass he said goodbye to his family and went to Lambeth Palace, then as now the Archbishop of Canterbury's residence. The Commissioners for the administration of the Oath had summoned, that Monday morning, a large number of London clergy and one layman, More. And it was More who was called in first. He silently read through the Act of Succession, and the Oath drawn up under the Great Seal, and refused to swear that oath. After failing to get him to state his reasons, the Commissioners sent him from the room to reflect.

Out of the windows of another room in the Palace, looking into the garden below, he could see -- as "doubtless he was meant to -- the clergy of London passing through the garden; most were cheerful enough, slapping each other on the back and calling for beer at the Archbishop's buttery". All took the oath, save one who was hurried through the garden on his way to the Tower, where he would languish for three years until he accepted the Reformed and Protestant order.

Put yourself in the place of these priests -- not scholars, not canonists -- just good natured, ordinarily timid clergymen who didn't want to get into trouble over an abstruse point of doctrine. When they offered Mass that Monday morning they were Catholics; when they said Vespers the same evening they were Protestants, yet the moment of decision passed with a laugh and a shrug, the kind that Worlock and Longley invite us to share with the jest about birth control. To all but a few of the lay faithful, things looked much as they had before: they came to church the following Sunday to find same pastors with the same smiles and the same reassuring jokes. And in fact it was some years before the flocks that followed their priests into schism clearly realized what had happened, realized that they were no longer in union with Peter (for many it wasn't until their priests married that they understood things were under new management).

Longley maintains that Worlock was trying to "calm down" the rebellion consequent on Humanae vitae. In reality, he wanted to distract attention from it. Apostasy administered under anaesthetic has a better chance of success than an open and honest debate about authority, where the lines to be crossed are made clear, when the orthodox know what needs to be defended and dissenters know what they are leaving behind. When grinning bishops, and the theologians who love them, assure us that proposed innovations in Catholic life such as condoms or prietesses or same-sex unions are No Big Deal, that opposition is pedantic and morbidly scrupulous, that after all no mention is made in the New Testament of these issues, whose cause is furthered, Catholic or revolutionary?

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