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?

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 17 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Jun. 15, 2006 9:48 AM ET USA

    On the same note, it only takes one happy ecumenical interreligious prayer meeting with smiling people all around to cause Catholics to wake up the next morning doubting dogmas, apostatizing from the Truth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and headed for Hell. Be careful, Catholics!

  • Posted by: Cupertino - Jun. 14, 2006 8:15 PM ET USA

    The faithful did not want to be fooled; but they needed to be taught with authority by Paul VI. The issue was hanging in the balance; everyone knew the commission was divided. It is not sinful, per se, to limit the size of a family but could it be done artificially? HV said no, of course. We who accepted HV did so because it affirmed what the Church had always taught not because it was given as an infallible teaching. The Pope fell short here with dreadful consequences.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 14, 2006 10:26 AM ET USA

    A read of Piers Paul Read's recently published book of essays called "Hell and other destinations " is worthwhile.He deals with the "Catholicism" of both Clifford Longley and Archbishop Worlock in masterful fashion.He also provides a panoramic view of the wretched state of the teaching of Catholicism in The UK.Its no different to what obtains in Ireland and ,I suspect, at least parts of the US and most of Canada.Oh for a St John Fisher.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 14, 2006 10:11 AM ET USA

    This item truly deserves a very wide distribution. Please consider its publication as a booklet. We have lived with this damnable contradiction of Faith for far too long. It is rotting the fruits of the Church. If you do print it, make sure you re-print the article from the Tablet with it. The comparison is devastating. Good show Di ! Scunoology, try scratching the surface of an Ethics book. Cup. and Cent., the Faithful wanted to be fooled. No excuses, they knew better. It wasn't Pope Paul.

  • Posted by: Cupertino - Jun. 13, 2006 3:05 PM ET USA

    Centurion, you have touched a raw nerve! The sad fact is that Paul VI set himself and the rest of the faithful up for disaster by the manner in which he handled this essential moral issue. If, as the hard core faithful maintained, the Church had always taught against contraception why "study" it? The Pope appealed to dire consequences and natural law reasoning in HV. A ringing assertion of Papal teaching authority was required and we did not get it. We still need it!

  • Posted by: - Jun. 13, 2006 12:00 PM ET USA

    Pope Paul was too indulgent of the liberals when he appointed the commission to study the issue. There was representation from many areas. The feeling leaked to the public was that birth control would be permitted. When the Pope issued his document, the commission responded in shocked disbelief, according to some. The biggest problem seemed to be theologians who took out full page ads in newspapers telling the faithful that they did not have to follow the Pope--it was optional. Surprise?

  • Posted by: Joseph Paul - Jun. 13, 2006 8:20 AM ET USA

    One of your very best, Uncle Di. And to "scunoology", the Church's teaching on usury hasn't changed - it is the economic system that has changed, together with the way in which money is used now as opposed to then.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2006 8:09 PM ET USA

    A very eloquent, logical, and honest essay. How sad too many of our leaders aren't equally capable and faithful. The current version of Catholicism Lite follows the educational decline of our country over the past 40 years--keep on "dumbing it down" until the lowest minds can understand it. I was always urged to take the extra time to give to those who needed the additional instruction to understand at an acceptably high standard. Where Peter is, there is the Church.

  • Posted by: scunoology - Jun. 12, 2006 6:03 PM ET USA

    Whatever happened to the concept that usury is a serious sin? I would say that many interest rates if not all fall into that catagory. Did the church change moral teaching on this matter? My understanding is that in early Christendom lending money at interest was universally condemned. Yet how common is it today? What's up with consistancy in the Church's moral teaching. Do matters of money not count, just matters of sexuality. I would really like some clarification on this.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2006 4:48 PM ET USA

    I am not claiming original insight, but when debating the clueless who think that Humanae Vitae is optional or that no magisterial teaching is binding unless it comes with a wax seal, sealed in blood and an affidavit from both the Pope and the Publisher of the New York Times, I cut to the chase by asking: "If those clowns botched Humanae Vitae, why do you believe that they got Christ's resurrection correct?" That usually shuts down the debate. The same happens with the sacraments.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2006 4:22 PM ET USA

    A brilliant defense - that shows us again that the Faith is whole, indisivible and sacred. Why? Because the center of the failth isn't a thing (things can be divided and reassembled) but a PERSON- the divine person of our Lord - Indivisible and Sacred.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jun. 12, 2006 2:46 PM ET USA

    Once again, Diogenes gets off a brilliant comment. Sparkling; shining; all but emitting light.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2006 1:25 PM ET USA

    Chalk another one up to the "Summa Theolodiogenes".

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2006 1:21 PM ET USA

    Thank you so much for reminding us, not only of the magnificence of St. Thomas More, but for the following description of how others then- and now- can so easily fail to see what the real issue is, the primacy of Peter. It is worth dying for. We can never be told that enough. Thanks again.

  • Posted by: Fr T (UK) - Jun. 12, 2006 12:09 PM ET USA

    Worlock seems to have passed into history now, buried under a concrete slab in his cathedral. No cries of "Canonise him" Alas, his spawn carry on propagating his vile ways.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2006 9:27 AM ET USA

    You have it right, Di. Catholics are being anaesthetized into heresy and apostasy en masse. We must be charitably vigilant. Recall the Scriptures: "Therefore God shall send them the operation of error, to believe a lie. That all may be judged, who have not believed the truth, but have consented to iniquity." (2 Thess. 2:10-11)

  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Jun. 12, 2006 8:47 AM ET USA

    That is the best brief article in support of Humanae Vitae I have read. thanks