Liberal Grace

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Catholic dogma vs the confessional booth

An Italian exposé has the Vatican fuming but I find it rather encouraging.

First, let me say that Catholics the right to be steamed over a sting operation on the confessional booth. It's the ultimate violation of trust and simply slimy.

However, I'm encouraged by what the sting revealed -- a clergy that understands the tension between ethics and grace which is central to Christianity.

Priests leave Pope's doctrines outside confessional

John Hooper in Rome
Wednesday January 31, 2007
The Guardian

A yawning gulf between the stern doctrines preached by Pope Benedict and the advice offered by ordinary Roman Catholic priests has been exposed by an Italian magazine which dispatched reporters to 24 churches around Italy where, in the confessional, they sought rulings on various moral dilemmas.

One reporter for L'espresso claimed to have let a doctor switch off the respirator that kept her father alive. "Don't think any more about it," she was told by a friar in Naples. "I myself, if I had a father, a wife or a child who had lived for years only because of artificial means, would pull out [the plug]."

Article continues
Another journalist posed as a researcher who had received a lucrative offer to work abroad on embryonic stem cells. With the extra cash, he said, he and his wife could think about starting a family. So should he take up the post?

"Yes. Yes. Of course," came the reply.

The church's official teaching is that homosexuality is "disordered" and that homosexual behaviour is wrong. Yet a practising gay man in Rome was told: "Generally, the best attitude is to be yourself - what in English is called 'coming out'."

On one issue alone - abortion - the priests all stuck firmly to official doctrine. A reporter who said his wife had discovered their child would be born with Down's Syndrome, and that they were preparing to terminate her pregnancy, was told: "I swear to God: if you do it, you'll be a murderer."

But on other issues, that "moral relativism" so detested by Pope Benedict was the order of the day.

A journalist who said he was HIV-positive and used condoms to protect his partner was told it was "more of a personal problem, one of conscience".
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It might surprise my conservative Christian friends to know that I value dogmas and doctrines. They play an important role as an ethical anchor which protects us from slipping into total moral relativism. Even more than dogma, I value the example of Jesus Christ which provides an even higher standard for us to live by.

As Christians we aim high, knowing we're going to miss. This is where a high view of grace is essential.

Another major problem with ethical dogma is that changing social context erodes its relevance. This is why the church must constantly be in a state of reform to stay morally relevant.

It seems to me that this is what the Italian priests are doing in the confessional booth where they encounter real-life ethical dilemmas. I find this an encouraging sign that the Catholic church might not slip into total irrelevancy because their church leadership is so bound by conservatism.

Apparently, their priests are reforming the church one confession at a time.

PS: Conservative Evangelicals shouldn't cluck-cluck too much over this story. This kind of ethical accommodation happens all the time -- even in some of our most conservative churches.

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