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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Original Letter but edited before publishing in local media newspaper (KZN)

The Primacy of Conscience makes best sense in smaller communities of faith

Our bishop, Cardinal Napier, well reiterates the position of the Catholic Church on the primacy of conscience, with regard to the matter of Robert Mugabe being accepted at the communion meal at the Vatican City (The Mercury, 5th May). This was one of the emphases at the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), which was called precisely to refresh the church, to bring it up to date, to move away from the legalistic thinking in terms of who’s in and who’s out, which had tended to dominate thinking since the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. That meant seeing the church not so much as a “perfect society” but as a communion (indeed a sign not only of union with God but “of the unity of mankind”), its unity coming not from the Pope (at any rate he is not in a position to go against a general Episcopal council) but from the eucharistic celebration. The existence of the Vatican as an independent state is pretty much of an historical anomaly, misleading people into thinking that the head of the Vatican defines the unity of the Catholic church, as the CEO of a multinational corporation but with the added burden of adhering to rules of international diplomacy, which resulted in Mugabe attending the beatification ceremony for John-Paul II.

It is clear from the response of ordinary Catholics in their letters to The Mercury that they agree something is wrong. The Vatican council gave priority to the church seen as “the people (laos) of God” over the church as a hierarchy of authority. Because of their faith all believers share in the priestly ministry of Jesus, as well as in his prophetic calling (called to criticize the bishops (“overseers”, in the original) when this is necessary), and also in the kingly role, sharing in the making of decisions. This was called the apostolate of the laity, the laos, the people. Of course the outdated rules (though at the time, quite sensible) regarding who can be ordained to the priesthood (celibate men, only) have prevented this new vision of how the church is structured coming into effect, although the Council’s acceptance of married clergy in the Eastern churches would seem to allow for this idea to apply to other local churches making similar rulings.

The centralization of authority in the church, made possible in the nineteenth century by increased means of communication – the railway, to begin with – is at odds with a much longer tradition. The churches, more authentically, are local, but form a universal, world-wide network. The integrity of the sacraments, defined as signs or symbols which effect what they signify (they really do have a real influence, a central role, in how things turn out), is always a matter of responsible discernment, of conscience – whether one is speaking about the eucharist, or marriage, for example. Such discernment can only properly take place when the community is small enough – the present state of the marriage tribunals and so on with sets of procedures and rules which need to be ticked off (something like “performance management” procedures which seldom are effective in making a better institution) is far removed from the vision of the Vatican Council. In line with this vision, and given the changed culture that we live in, and the drying up of the numbers of those who feel called to the celibate life (priests are now often “imported” from other areas and cultures, to counter this), as well as our greater appreciation of sexuality and marriage in integral human growth, and widespread education, including theological education, a rapid change in the rules for priesthood in the church is needed, to make these smaller parish communities feasible.

A large number of Catholics world-wide (beginning in Austria in 1996 in response to the sexual abuse scandals among clergy), including hundreds of university professors of Catholic theology, have committed themselves to bringing these ideas back to central place in the dialogue in the church. The South African branch of the international movement “We Are Church” was launched in November 2010 and the first meeting of the local branch was recently held at the Dominican Centre in Pietermaritzburg. Anyone interested to join, or to participate not as a member but would like to associate themselves with the movement, should contact Rosemary at or else myself at

Patrick Giddy
School of Philosophy and Ethics
Howard College

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