Faith and Reason: An encyclical made for one: Our series of articles on the question 'why have sex' is continued by Christopher Hardwick, who believes this is a matter in which conscience has more authority than Popes.

FIFTY years ago an Austrian peasant called Franz Jagerstatter was beheaded because his opposition to the Nazis had led him to refuse to join Hitler's army. His bishop had told him he should join up. But Jagerstatter was a devout Catholic who viewed service to Christ and service to the Fuhrer as irreconcilable. Many feel his heroic life and death make him worthy of canonisation. But 50 years on what chance of becoming a saint has a man who gave his conscience primacy over the guidance of his bishop? For his church's current line is that even in matters as intimate and variable as sexuality conscience must always cede to the imperatives of the Pope and his magisterium.

Humanae Vitae was symptomatic of a compulsive need to legislate when it comes to sexuality which pervades the Catholic Church in particular and, to a degree, church hierarchies in general.

Instead of stepping back in awe at the mystery of sex there is a tendency to rush in with prescriptions as to exactly who can do what with whom when. This results in what Thomas Merton called 'a dreadful atomisation of sex'.

It may be that even to ask the question, what is the purpose of sex? - let alone providing as narrow an answer as Humanae Vitae did - is reductive. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe has memorably described prayer as 'wasting time with God'. And wasting time is the one thing a neurotically functional individual or society cannot do. Following McCabe, we can view sex as, among other things, a lovely way of wasting time with someone else.

In papal encyclical and pornographic magazine sex is functional, whether the function be to make money through titillation or babies through conception. But, as everybody knows, there are multiple forms of sexual companionship. Lovers are at play and do not confine sex by interrogating it any more than children playing 'tig' stop to ask what the purpose of their play is.

Christianity's continuing mistrust of sex is all the stranger given that it is the most materialistic and fleshly of religions. Jesus's miracles provide bread, fish, and good wine. The eucharist is a shared meal. Through the incarnation God refuses to be seen as proposition or abstraction and instead becomes a human being; a physical and sexual being experiencing bodily pleasures, pains, and needs.

Authentic Christianity savours matter. As the book of Wisdom puts it: 'Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence' (xi, 25). Ironically enough it sometimes seems that the Church's assent to this affirmation is qualified with the phrase 'except the genitals'.

The Vatican's directives on social issues outline broad principles, leaving us to colour in the detail as appropriate to circumstance. In contrast, in the sexual sphere we are invited to believe that there are no variables and contingencies but only norms. This is bizarre given that in no other area of human activity are the currents of motive and action so deep and subtle. If the incarnation is a reality Christianity is not anti-humanist but humanism amplified to the full. Therefore its critique of human behaviour should take into account nuance of context and motive. It is de-humanising to reduce people to moral ciphers whose behaviour can be evaluated as right or wrong in a contextual vacuum.

What is alarming about the leaked drafts of Veritatis Splendor is that they seem to render conscience redundant. If the Church is supported by 'the charism of infallibility' in its proclamations on matters of morals as well as matters of faith then all the faithful need do is read and digest moral instruction manuals issued by Rome. In this scheme of things unity is uniformity and questioning is subversion. If there is any place for conscience and intellect its with the prams and the jumble-sale notices . . . outside the church door. If that sounds like rhetorical over-statement it is hard to see what else we are to infer from statements such as the following in the draft of the encyclical: 'We cannot indeed see in opposition to the magisterium of the pastors of the Church a legitimate form of Christian freedom and the diversity of gifts of the Spirit.' Which is to say that once the magisterium has spoken any divergent or qualifying view is illegitimate.

Yet every couple and every family know from daily experience that conflict, though destructive when covert, can be creative and tractable to resolution when openly aired. But the draft of the new encyclical prohibits dissent, viewing conflict not as potentially cathartic and creative but as necessarily fragmenting:

'Dissent through lack of agreement or because of a different opinion stands in opposition to the unity of the Church and the demands of its hierarchical constitution as the people of God.'

So on this reading the dissenter may be sincere, but is always in error. Authority is right simply by virtue of being in authority. Authority is right when it tells you not to use a contraceptive. Authority is right when it tells Franz Jagerstatter he has an overriding duty to fight for Hitler.

Jagerstatter was no free-thinker. Sexton in his parish church, he was conventionally pious with a devotion to the saints. So he went to see the Bishop of Linz when prompted by his conscience to refuse to join Hitler s army. And the bishop was unambiguous. He said that Franz's conscience was erroneous because his responsibility to his family must take precedence over wider political considerations. He said that he should join up.

It should be acknowledged that on the particular issue of birth control Jagerstatter would probably side with John Paul II. Certainly he would dismiss any idea that the Pope should think again simply because so many disagree with him. And in one of his letters written from prison he asserts that God created marriage 'to assure the perpetuation of the human race'.

But the draft form of Veritatis Splendor is not explicitly about birth control. It is far more radically conservative than Humanae Vitae because it is about the need to render unquestioning obedience to the Pope and his hierarchy whatever the specific issue.

This is where Jagerstatter's example becomes a challenge. Jagerstatter thought, prayed, and consulted about his stance. And his wife, pastor, and bishop all at various times urged him to join up. But in the end he stuck to his refusal to do so, deciding that his conscience was sovereign.

Opinion will divide as to whether he was right given that he left a wife and three young children. But nobody can call his following of conscience lazy moral relativism when it had such drastic consequences.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam