Louise Brown, the world's first "test tube
baby" with her parents and her child.
This questionnaire (which my pastor says he as not yet received as our Archbishop seems tied up with other things right now) has generated a fascinating and contradictory set of responses. The Neo-trads are waving their hands and saying—“nothing new, nothing new; been done before. Keep moving, nothing to look at. Nothing happening here. Keep moving along….” The Vatican II types are all enthused saying that “finally we are back on track with the Council—yeah, Francis.”
The neo-trads have a point. This is not the first time that the Holy See sent out questionnaires to ascertain the sensus fidelium. Previous synods were often preceded by questionnaires sent to the bishops to help prepare the lineamenta (agenda or working document). Pope Pius XII wrote the world’s bishops before defining the dogma of the Assumption in 1950. What is different this time, however, is that the bishops are to pass the questionnaires on to the parishes. In other words the fidelium are going to get to have some consensus in the consensus fidelium. Don’t get me wrong—nobody should expect that we are going to have magisterium by democratic vote. Don’t expect any radical change in Church teaching. When the dust settles, I don’t expect much to be different, but that isn’t important. What is important is the process. Change process will produce—in time—changed product.
Blessed John Henry Newman pointed out that in the ancient Church there were three requirements for a doctrine to be established. Doctrine took the reflection and study of the theologians; pronouncement of the bishops, and the consensus fidelium. Consensus fidelium might best be translated as the “harmony of God’s Faithful People.” It doesn’t mean everyone agrees or that the majority agree—it only means that the People of God, the priests, deacons, and laity (as differentiated from the magisterium: the bishops and from the theologians) have come to hold this doctrine in their collective heart.
Right now we as a Church are faced with the tremendous moral complexities of living in the twenty-first century. Scientific, Sociological, Medical, Anthropological, Psychological developments—note, I hesitate to say “advances” because—as a historian I believe the jury is still out on how “good” some of these developments are—have changed the ground rules of possibilities. At the same, the virtual disappearance of philosophy and theology from our educational systems has left most in our society unable to critically reflect on the moral implications of the choices facing us today.
Case in point. It is only in the last generation that it has been possible for a child to be conceived in vitro. Louise Brown, the first child so conceived was born in 1978. The various givers of the Law in Deuteronomy or Leviticus could not have imagined such a thing; nor could Saint Paul—or even Jesus. Neither Augustine nor Aquinas—or Bellarmine for that matter—could have imagined it. The understanding of embryology—or even a scientific appreciation of conception—was not in the realm of their intellectual universe. The “Tradition” doesn’t supply easy answers to this dilemma as it is beyond the minds of those whose writings convey our historic faith. This is not to say that there are not principles we can find in the scriptures or in the authors that can’t be applied to a solution, but it would be misleading to say that the Tradition supplies a moral resolution without a careful reexamination of precisely what the Tradition was meant to say and a dialogue of that Tradition with the insights of modern science. So here is the case. Martin and Susan, devout Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday in their parish—he being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and she teaching third-grade CCD—find themselves unable to have children. They married fairly late, tried Natural Family Planning for two years to conceive, and finally went to a fertility clinic where they were told in vitro was their only hope. Now despite their being good Catholics, the Church’s problems with in vitro is not on their radar screen. Sure they heard it in Pre-Cana, but it didn’t register—they never expected to have this problem. If they attended some adult education program they may have heard it, but even in the best parishes relatively few attend adult ed—especially when it is on reproductive morality. No, Father doesn’t preach against in vitro from the pulpit any more than he mentions masturbation, oral sex, or contraception from the pulpit. “Our commission for the pulpit is to preach the Gospel, not teach sex-ed” one priest said to me. Martin and Susan could have checked the catechism of the Catholic Church—but they never even suspected that something was wrong here. They wanted a child. They would love to have several children. There was nothing selfish in their decision—which is not to say that it was right, but their motives were generous. “I only heard about it after the course was chosen” said a priest friend of their families. “I suppose I would have said something if they had asked me beforehand, but frankly I knew their intentions were good and I wasn’t about to take away their happiness when they told me they were expecting. I think we need to find ways to raise this question in people’s consciences, but I honestly find that most people can’t grasp the problem and just saying that such and such is a sin doesn’t hold water anymore. You have to be able to explain to people just why it is morally wrong.”
Pope Francis’ inventory is going to discover that there is a wide breach between theory and practice, but it will also show us that we cannot rely on old answers to new questions. We need to restore philosophy to the academic curriculum—and not just some vague survey of thought but applied philosophy: ethics. We need to teach people to think critically and to anchor their thought in intellectual discipline. Science does not provide the ultimate answers to human existence. At the same time, moral theology requires a strong dialogue with science—and dialogue implies an equality of parties in the discussion—so that the moral conclusions are consistent with the scientific knowledge to which they are meant to respond. And in the meantime, we need to remember our task is not to judge but to absolve.