Catholic leaders have been avoiding spelling out church teachings on the issue of sin, writes Emer O'Kelly
THE institutional Catholic Church exists to assist its members in increasing in sanctity in life, to be followed by eternal bliss in the presence of God after death. For more than 2,000 years it has preached and taught a way of life and sets of rules which it believes are divinely revealed as the wish of the Creator, and which will lead to that eternal reward.
It's a fairly simple philosophy, and entirely admirable. Nobody could argue with it, not even those who not merely don't believe in life after death, but who don't believe in a supreme being. Such people believe that we should not need a prop to justify a moral code: it should exist as the only reasonable option for life; but there is no condemnation of those who believe otherwise.
There are also quite a lot of believing and indeed practising Catholics who are secularists: they believe in following the teachings of their Church without having to have those teachings enshrined in civil law. It is enough for them to follow the remit of the Church of Rome and the Pope whom they believe to be the successor of St Peter, and divinely inspired when he speaks "ex cathedra" (as that successor).
But for some reason, most Roman Catholics get very hot under the collar when secularists or indeed Christians who are not Roman Catholics talk about faith in such simple terms. They accuse them of ranting hatred of the Church. This is particularly the case when simple statements of fact are made concerning commission and omission by the institutional Church and its senior clerics which are demonstrably not within the remit of either sanctity or life after death. In canonical terms, it's called "sin".
"Sin" is what the Church calls an act of grievous immorality which can only be forgiven in confession, and only after the penitent expresses a "firm purpose of amendment", that is, undertakes not to repeat the sin, as well as expressing sincere sorrow for having committed it. If that sorrow has an element of tongue-in-cheek about it, the sin is compounded: the penitent has committed the additional sin of sacrilege by defiling the sacrament of confession.
Of course, the teaching of the Church changes from time to time, which can be a bit embarrassing for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Most notoriously, in the days when the Congregation was known as the Holy Office (the Inquisition) you could get yourself into rather severe trouble for suggesting that the planet Earth was not the centre of the universe. Galileo barely escaped being burned at the stake, and spent his life under bleak house arrest, denied visits and the right to publish his work for committing such an egregious sin.
But the Fathers of the Church, even in the 21st Century, don't claim that matters of faith follow logic. That's the point of faith; you believe blindly and without bringing reason to bear. But for some reason nowadays, the Church avoids spelling out its teaching in simple terms of sin, sanctity and damnation. Indeed, Catholic apologists get horribly uncomfortable when other people spell it out. It sometimes seems they are embarrassed by the Church's teaching. Which is extremely unfair to church members: if they're not told what is expected of them, how can they know the risks they are taking when they commit sin?
Deliberate abortion of a pregnancy is one of the most grievous sins. The Church condemns it, in all circumstances, and for any reason. There is no get-out clause. If a Catholic woman deliberately terminates a pregnancy, she puts her eternal soul in danger of damnation. If the plane crashes when she is returning to Ireland, for instance, after terminating a pregnancy in Birmingham, and she is killed, she will go to hell for all eternity. It's that simple. She has committed a grave sin, and has not cleansed her soul of the sin.
So it's not surprising that Cardinal Sean Brady wants to help Catholic women avoid such a fate. Yet his statements last weekend make very little sense. He has said that bishops and priests will mount a full-scale campaign of protest against the Government if it tries to legislate to give effect to the Supreme Court judgment on interpretation of the constitutional amendment on abortion.
The cardinal said nothing about what will happen in churches every Sunday. He has not announced a campaign in which the priests of the Irish Church will be instructed to preach each and every Sunday, relentlessly, about abortion as a grievous sin which will condemn a woman to hell after death. He has merely said that government ministers will be targeted in an attempt to prevent them legislating on the basis of the Supreme Court judgment in the X case.
Except it is the sworn and solemn duty of the Government, any government, to do so, and previous governments have been not merely cowardly, but in breach of their constitutional duty, in failing to legislate. And the Church's planned campaign could be interpreted as subversive of both the Constitution itself and of the law.
What the cardinal's duty as a Catholic Church leader was, and remains, is something he did not even mention: that a Catholic woman who has an abortion is condemning herself to hell. That is church teaching, terrible, awesome and simple. If he is prepared to spell that out with sufficient force, and instruct his priests to do the same, then surely he has little to fear for the women members of the Irish Church? Even if abortion becomes available in every hospital in Ireland, on demand, the service will not be availed of by Catholic women who fear God and hope for eternal life.
The cardinal and his fellow bishops have said in the past that they have no desire to interfere in civic life and law: they do not want a theocracy, although Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte reacted very forcibly at the weekend to the cardinal's announcement of a lobbying campaign. Mr Rabbitte seems to imagine that the cardinal does want a theocracy.
What the minister is ignoring is the right of every group and individual in Ireland to make representations to Government. It would be ludicrous to imagine that the Church would not make representations on any issue pertaining to its teaching. (It's a pity that it so seldom does, as a matter of fact. It didn't make any representations, for instance, about the correct criminal procedures against its own priests found guilty of the crime/sin of child rape and other molestation.)
It's the Government's job to have the moral courage to ignore any representations which undermine judgements of the Supreme Court, and (desirably) the European Court of Human Rights.
There have been two referenda concerning the vexed issue of abortion provision within the State (thousands of Irish women have abortions outside the State each year, which doesn't seem to concern the Cardinal). The referendum wording has been accepted and inserted in the Constitution. Now it requires legislation.
And now the Catholic Church has to find the moral courage to state publicly and privately the issue of sin involved, remembering that the individual has free will under church teaching: if that free will leads people to ignore church teaching, thereby risking damnation, the Church still has no right to require civil law to help it impose its particular morality on society.