Standing firm in his time warp

The Catholic Church has revised key doctrines in the past. But not this Pope, says Paul Vallely
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If it is not true, it ought to be. A Catholic journalist from England was travelling in a car in Italy with three English priests. It was siesta time and there was nothing on the road; even so, they stopped at some red traffic lights. The few Italian drivers who followed slowed at the junction, peered left and right, and moved across. The English waited. Eventually, the lights changed and they pulled away. "Now do you understand the Italian attitude to Humanae Vitae?" one priest asked.

Humanae Vitae was the 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI which surprised the world by proscribing contraception, overturning the recommendation of a painstaking pontifical commission of theologians and scientists which had concluded that the Church's traditional teaching was outdated and based on bad science. It came not long after the Second Vatican Council, which had turned the Roman Catholic world upside down, abolishing the Latin Mass and seeking to take the faith out of the cloisters and into the real world in which its founder had moved 2,000 years before. Humanae Vitae seemed a throwback to a pre-conciliar epoch.

The throwing back has continued ever since. Yesterday's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, focused on abortion and euthanasia. But by reiterating the ban on contraception yet again as part of a "seamless web" of the inviolability of human life, the Pope dug the Catholic Church still deeper into a position that perplexes many in the Church and secular society. Few people think abortion is an unreservedly good thing; most of those who advocate it regard it as merely the lesser of evils. On euthanasia, most people can see both sides of a difficult argument. But they cannot square the ban on contraception with what they see around them in the real world.

It is a world which Pope John Paul II sees differently. All around, he sees a "veritable culture of death". He writes: "This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency ... it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak ... A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way, a kind of conspiracy against life is unleashed."

It is a dark world-view: apocalyptic, millenarian and almost Manichaean in its insistence on the polarity of good and evil. Not for the Pope much talk of "reading the signs of the times", through which Vatican II saw the manifestations of God at work in the positive phenomena of contemporary society. It is a view that compounds the difficulties of the past two decades, which have seen an erosion of the authority of the papacy among Catholics and of the Church in the secular world.

It is not, of course, the first time that the Church has found itself in such a position. For centuries it persisted, albeit with increasing embarrassment, with the view that interest rates were a bad thing and slavery was quite acceptable.

The Church's dislike of the business of money-lending had its roots in the notion of usury. To the Church, it meant not the levying of excessive interest rates, but any interest rates at all. The prohibition stemmed from the Old Testament injunctions that it was a sin to oppress the poor by charging interest on a loan.

The philosophy was clear. Money, said Aristotle, is barren; it can't breed more money. It was, said Aquinas, a fungible, something which is destroyed in the process of using it. You could not use it for any other purpose than a means of exchange. Along came capitalism - when money was used for investment, rather than simply for subsistence - but the Church could not find the philosophical framework to adapt.

Eventually, according to Fr Jack Mahoney, professor of business ethics at the London Business School, the scholastics and casuists came up with an answer, of sorts. "They said: you can't charge interest, but you can charge a fee equivalent to interest for the risk involved in the loan and for the loss of alternative opportunities for using the money. The Church never said: `We were wrong.' But it began to say, eventually, that conditions are different."

Something similar happened with slavery. The Gospels say nothing about slavery, but St Paul had seen no need to challenge it and the Church was defending it as late as 1866.

There were those who thought we would need only to endure a similar fallow period for the ban on contraception to evaporate. Paul VI had seemed embarrassed by his own decision, prompted largely by a fear of the conservative backlash that would follow if he lifted the ancient ban on contraception. The subsequent insistence that contraception and abortion are indivisible contains lots of hidden agendas. The science of the subject - which now reveals conception, fertilisation, implantation and genetic encodement as a process, rather than a single event - is more complex than the Pope's black-and-white statements allow. But John Paul II's decrees, though never pronounced as infallible, have been more concerned with papal authority than with science. There is much talk that he is trying to establish a "creeping infallibility" by sheer repetition. He has striven for an ethics of control, as opposed to an ethics of responsibility.

For some, this has had a favourable effect. "Many Catholics no longer accept papal pronouncements as being automatically right. People are making more mature moral judgements themselves," says John Marshall, emeritus professor of neurology at London University, who was a member of Paul VI's original commission.

Others are less happy. Ian Linden, of the Catholic Institute for International Relations, says: "The Church is seen as so demonstrably out of touch on this that people do not take seriously what it has to say about arms control, business ethics or the unfair distribution of resources in the world."

What are the options for the Church? Casuistry, the strategy adopted over usury, and the "dead letter" approach over slavery, both seem increasingly impossible with every new statement of the present incumbent of St Peter's chair. A straightforward shift in policy on contraception is unthinkable.

"What we need," said one of Europe's most prominent moral theologians yesterday, diplomatically asking not to be named, "is a simple and humble acknowledgement from the Pope: `Brothers and sisters, I have erred.' It would be a most beneficial conclusion."

A third option might be, in the words of another wary eminent churchman, "to kick it into eschatological touch by saying this is a counsel of perfection - like saying, sell all you have and give it to the poor. It's an ideal that normal people might aspire to, but not attain. But we won't get that until we have a Pope who does not view the world in such a negative way." Which is the ecclesiological equivalent, of course, of waiting for the traffic lights to change.