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Transcripts of Local Talks

I include those transcripts of talks given to members and friends of WAACSA for which we have the author's permission to upload:

Talk under the auspices of WAACSA and the Rosebank Justice & Peace group

Where the Spirit is, there is freedom (2 Cor 3:17)

The theology of Creation

by Fr Albert Nolan OP
“Why should we as Christians be concerned about environmental issues like climate change?  The answer…is that we should be concerned because the first article of our faith is that God is the Creator of all that is. It stands at the head of all our creeds:  “We believe in God the Creator of heaven and earth”. Theologically, however, this has been the most neglected of all the articles of faith.”

Albert Nolan is a South African Dominican priest, widely known for his classic work Jesus Before Christianity, and his recent best-seller, Jesus Today.

ROSEBANK PARISH J&P GROUP is organising a series of events in the week  28 September – 6 October (during which we celebrate the feast day of St Francis of Assisi on 4 October), around the theme: St Francis: a saint for our times.

St Francis – a saint for our times : A rich man’s son, who embraced poverty, who chose to be a pauper for God, who loved the poor and most marginalised, who challenges us to examine our materialism and consumer culture; a peacemaker in a time of violence, who in the name of Christ renounced all violence; a lay person, who initiated a profound reformation of the church, recalling it to the radical simplicity of the gospel; who calls us to celebrate all of creation as a sacrament, in joy and freedom; patron saint of ecology.



Larry Kaufmann CSsR

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes is titled in English “The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”.  One of the contemporary critiques of Gaudium et Spes is that the ‘modern world’ it was talking about when it was written was typically “60s” – full of inordinate optimism – but the student revolts of 1968, and a dose of the harsher realities of recent history has tempered that optimism. This may well be true, but my concern in this lecture is more about the significance of Gaudium et Spes in two areas: (1) its methodology, and (2) its expanded vision of the Church’s catholicity.


It is not too difficult to concede that some of the points made in Gaudium et Spes are hardly relevant today. The world has moved on these past fifty years. The text of Gaudium et Spes was not typed on a laptop, for one thing. Laptops and indeed PCs in general were not around then. I can just imagine reams of paper being churned out by old Underwood type-writers, with maybe the occasional electric Italian-made Olivetti making life a little easier for the periti – or their typists – and then being ‘xeroxed’ or ‘roneo-ed’ for distribution among the 2000 council fathers (sic) who in those days would not have had email addresses to which drafts could have been sent as attachments. This is just one area where the world has moved on. My point is that it is unfair to criticise Gaudium et Spes for its 1960s content in the light of 21st Century scientific and technological developments. I hope to show that where Gaudium et Spes continues to remain relevant and even revolutionary is in its theological and pastoral method.

Gaudium et Spes is addressed to believers and non-believers alike as Christians ‘cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history’ (GS1). Already we hear in such language the pastoral tone that Gaudium et Spes seeks to adopt in its desire for dialogue between the Church and the world - of which the Church is part, NB title IN the world, not FOR or AGAINST - and indeed, part of the world in its ‘joy and hope, grief and anguish’. The fact that the Church identifies itself with these stated human emotions is a mark of the important quality of empathy which is necessary for any true dialogue to take place. It is only by entering into the others’ experience and expressing understanding and compassion that we begin to find a common language in which to converse. The document speaks of using ‘language intelligible to every generation’. (GS4)

[The evolution of JOHN’S GOSPEL - using a language intelligible to the Hellenistic world, adopting words like Logos etc.]

But solidarity with the human race and its history is more than mere conversation, as important as that is. It implies a willingness to share in all the ambiguities and tilted structures of our very fallen world, for as the document says right at the beginning, whatever affects people as a whole affects the followers of Christ as well. If people are troubled and perplexed about current trends then the Church is too, opting to sit down and dialogue as fellow-travellers, avoiding any hint of being patronising.

That does not mean that the Church cannot bring to the conversation its own perspective on the meaning of human existence. Dialogue entails an exchange of ideas, humbly listening to the other’s story and even more humbly sharing one’s own. Dialogue should not be monologue that merely pays lip-service to the occasional word of the other. It requires truly listening to another perspective. Then too it needs to avoid confrontation – an inordinately apologetic style – by realising the possibility of learning from others. Real dialogue flourishes when both sides are actively engaged in a two-way exchange, have something definite to contribute, and are willing to really listen to one another. If we’re honest in terms of the history of the Church, this probably does not come naturally to an institution that prides itself on having the truth ‘subsisting’ in it [LG]!

Gaudium et Spes marks a change of attitude from the days of the Holy Roman Empire, Trent and Vatican I when the Church’s perception of its knowledge of the truth was caught up with political power, to say nothing about being affected by the limitations of scientific knowledge then (for which people like Galileo paid a price.) Gaudium et Spes’s commitment to a spirit of dialogue with the modern world (and for me, that means whatever is contemporary) marks it as a revolutionary - or should I say 'prophetic' - document within the corpus of Church teaching.

But where to begin the dialogue? This is where Gaudium et Spes takes its cue from Pope John XXIII (of happy memory) whose encyclical Pacem in Terris gave much weight to ‘reading the signs of the times’. Interestingly, that sort of language, as well as the language of human rights also found in Pacem in Terris, had been frowned upon as ‘too worldly’ by previous popes in their social encyclicals. Pope John broke the ice and started using language ‘intelligible to [his] generation’ – to use the words of Gaudium et Spes quoted earlier.

One of the clearest indications of this approach in Gaudium et Spes is its paragraph 11. Here we can discern the influence of the ‘hermeneutical cycle’ in epistemological method. The starting point for dialogue, and indeed for growing in a common commitment to searching for truth, is to try ‘to discern in the events, the needs, and the longings which [the Church] shares with other people of our time, what may be genuine signs of the presence and purpose of God.’ Events, needs and longings … these are starting points for dialogue.

And it is to these realities the council wishes to bring the light of faith with the intention of engaging with ‘those values which are most highly prized today and to relate them to their divine source’. (GS11)

What follows are, of course, many paragraphs, pages and chapters of Gaudium et Spes setting out some of these values, commenting on other signs of the times (like scientific progress), listing areas of concern and so on. It is not the intention of this lecture to give a summary of the document. What interests me is revisiting Gaudium et Spes after many years of leaving it lying dormant on a shelf, and still finding in it a methodology relevant to dialogue between the Church and ‘the world’.  True, there are moments of discomfort as I try to dodge my way around the ever present sexist language.  Then at times I sense the document slipping back now and again into the curial default mode, adopting the very patronising tone it seeks to avoid. (Given that it was a redaction of many contributions, I suppose we should make allowances for 'the one that got away'!) I also wonder when and how the church will expand its desire for dialogue beyond people of ‘good will’ to include those who might not exactly be favourable towards the church. The sexual abuse of children by clergy has led to a new wave in history of hostility towards the church. Encounter with the media cannot be avoided, but what tone can we now bring to dialogue that is neither patronising nor inordinately defensive?

Gaudium et Spes as a church document should, I believe, be seen as an example of the Church’s fledgling attempts to speak a new language – with some of the stuttering that goes with such attempts. But it’s on the right track. It represents a shift in the Church’s consciousness and attitude in that it really tries to grapple with matters that are not exactly ecclesiastical. Naturally it is not always easy to avoid the kind of ‘church-speak’ which at times Gaudium et Spes falls into. Perhaps here is an example where, in the analysis of contemporary society, it would help to have greater lay participation and expertise in writing such a document. (Women? Eventually 29 women observers at Vatican II, but not allowed to receive communion at the council Masses! - Tina Beattie in The Tablet)  Could this have prevented the sometimes pejorative tone given to the term ‘the world’, with which ironically the church seeks dialogue? In a religious context (Rome, the Vatican, and Saint Peter’s Basilica where the council was held) the idea of ‘the world’ would have been something ‘out there’. After all, probably a majority of the council fathers, in following their vocations into priesthood and religious life, would have thought of themselves as having ‘left the world’. (‘Fuga mundi’ spirituality.)

So Gaudium et Spes tries to break the mould. It can thank the likes of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for being able to do so. For him the world is not something apart from the Church, nor the Church from the world. The two interpenetrate all the time. The strength of Gaudium et Spes is that it acknowledges this. Its sections, for example, on family, social and political problems indicate an acceptance that these are part of life and as such part of the realities faced by the people of God. This gives flesh to the insight expressed in the first paragraph of the document that ‘nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in our hearts.’ (GS1)

To appreciate the sincerity of this, we need to move to Chapter 4 of Gaudium et Spes where the document deals with the Church’s role in the world. Here we discern a deep concern for the full gamut of human life. Here the document shows itself to be more than simply a description of modern times. Instead, it looks at everything from the perspective of the history of salvation. Now strict theological language comes into play. One gets the sense that the council fathers are more at home in this kind of language, yet the irony is that it comes across as more intelligible than the document’s attempts at describing the secular world in ‘secular’ terms.

In many ways, Chapter IV of Gaudium et Spes captures key themes of the Second Vatican Council as a whole, for example, its ecclesiology, its views on religious liberty, the role of the laity, ecumenism, its attitude to world religions, and its understanding of mission ‘ad gentes’. It may be helpful to list the principal sub-sections of this chapter, which itself is entitled “The Role of the Church in the Modern World”. These are:

• Mutual relationship of Church and world • What the Church offers to individuals • What the Church offers to society • What the Church offers to human activity through its members • What the Church receives from the modern world • Christ: Alpha and Omega

Clearly the document, at least in this important chapter, is concerned with the Church’s mission. In its opening paragraph (40) it describes itself as coming into being through the action in history of the Trinity. Just as God in Christ is immersed in the temporal order of things, so too must the Church be involved in earthly human society. The following sentence is significant in terms of Augustine’s notions of ‘city of God’ and ‘city of the world. Where Augustine juxtaposes these, GS speaks of interpenetration:

"That the earthly and the heavenly city penetrate one another is a fact open only to the eyes of faith; moreover it will remain the mystery of human history, which will be harassed by sin until the perfect revelation of the [children] of God." (GS 40)

Paragraph 41 is significant in terms of its endorsement of the contemporary emphasis on human rights, but it makes clear that in this regard the Church’s perspective is that of the human person made in the image of Christ, the ‘perfect human being’.  Still, it seems unprecedented for the Church in an official document such as Gaudium et Spes to approve of historical events such as the civil rights movement, as for example in the following quote which implies a massive shift from the timidity and defensiveness of nineteenth century church leaders:

 ‘In virtue of the Gospel entrusted to it the Church proclaims the rights of the human person: she acknowledges and holds in high esteem the dynamic approach of today which is fostering these rights all over the world.’ (GS 41)

While today we may well suggest that the Church in its official utterances is not quite as optimistic about historical events, nevertheless as I have said what interests me is Gaudium et Spes’s basic approach, or method, in trying to develop Church teaching in dialogue with the world in which we live.

More humbly, in article 42, Gaudium et Spes goes on to challenge the community of the disciples of Jesus, the Church, if it is to be a sign and instrument of the unity of the human family, to ‘start at home’. [Solzhenitsyn: ‘The battle line between good and evil does not run between people, it runs through the heart of every person.’]

The final paragraph of Gaudium et Spes 43 is perhaps the most humble of all as the Church acknowledges her failings, specifying that the failings of her members include both clerical and lay. The following extract is something that speaks to the contemporary crisis engendered by the many scandals:

"Today as well, the Church is not blind to the discrepancy between the message it proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted. Whatever is history’s judgment on these shortcomings, we cannot ignore them and we must combat them earnestly, lest they hinder the spread of the Gospel. The Church also realises how much it needs the maturing influence of centuries of past experience in order to work out its relationship to the world. Guided by the Holy Spirit the Church ceaselessly [and here Gaudium et Spes quotes directly from Lumen Gentium ch.2, n.15] “exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church.”

Re-reading this paragraph after removing the years of accumulated dust on my erstwhile dormant Documents of Vatican II, I must confess to being quite moved by the admission that the Church sees herself in need of the ‘maturing influence of centuries of past experience in order to work out its relationship to the world.’

Conclusion on Method

The abiding strength of Gaudium et Spes is its method of actively engaging with contemporary history, entering into genuine dialogue with all people of our time, reading the signs of the times, discerning the work of the Holy Spirit which blows where she wills, even outside the confines of the Church, and humbly offering the unique contribution the Church makes to the greater humanization of people by proclaiming the message of the perfect person, fully human and fully divine, Alpha and Omega: Jesus, the Christ.

But since then?

[Cardinal Martini’s last testament, some phrases: The Church is 'tired'... Liturgies and vestments are 'pompous'... We are like the rich young man who went away sad... The Church must recognise her 'own errors'... Who are the sacraments for?... 200 years behind the times. 'ARE WE AFRAID?']

And so I move on to ask whether Vatican II can be considered a new Council of Jerusalem. Does it also represent an expanded catholicity?

During the year I was ordained to the priesthood in 1979 I remember being inspired by an essay written by Karl Rahner in which he discussed the lasting effects of Vatican II and its newly recognized role as a world church. Rahner divided the history of Christianity into three periods. The first period was that of ‘Jewish Christianity’ during the Church’s infancy when the message of the Gospel was proclaimed only within the Jewish culture.  As we know from a study of the Acts of the Apostles, this led to enormous tensions as news came in of the ‘pagans’ also having received the Holy Spirit and also having accepted Christ – without first having passed through the rituals of becoming Jewish en route to becoming Christian. (More about this presently.)

In the second phase, thanks to the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem, the gospel was proclaimed not only in Jewish culture but expanded to include Roman-Hellenistic culture as well. (John’s Gospel) For Rahner this would have flourished even further in European and North American culture.  Christianity was well and truly a ‘western’ phenomenon.  During the period of colonisation, the Christian gospel, together with western ‘civilisation’, was exported to Africa, Latin America and the Far East.

But the strongest point Rahner made in his essay was that a completely new period has begun – in principle – with Vatican II when the Church defined itself as a ‘world church’, immersed in the modern world, and committed to finding ways to express the gospel within the traditions and customs of each world culture. For one thing, Rahner said, the Second Vatican Council was well represented by all the world's countries and cultures. One of its first decisions encouraged the vernacular in the liturgy.  It expressed desire for dialogue with the world (as we developed in more detail in the previous section).  It made positive statements about other religions and it produced a ground-breaking document on religious freedom. The more I think about the latter, the more I see it as the most revolutionary, on a par with the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem. [Amazing and positive email responses to recent CSsR Catholic Link articles on Dignitatis Humanae – more than we’ve ever received!]

Rahner warned, however, that despite the changes brought about by Vatican II the church still had to become less Roman and Euro-centric and more global in its self-understanding of the mark of catholicity. If the recent changes to the liturgy are anything to go by, then I fear that Rahner’s insight was more than a warning.

This statement deserves fuller explanation.

Among the many councils during the Church’s two millennia of history, I see the Second Vatican Council as most closely resembling the Council of Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15:1-35. During the Council of Jerusalem, as we know, it was decided by the Holy Spirit and council participants (in a wonderful divine-human communion) to expand the Church’s understanding of catholicity by seeing salvation in Christ as open to the pagans without having to first make a detour through the structures and rituals of Judaism. Jewish-centred Christianity no longer held the day. The Church ‘catholic’ was born! It is not difficult to imagine the intellectual, moral and religious conversion this would have entailed for early Jewish Christians who had become so schooled in notions of ritual purity. It implied a radical shift from being Christians who insisted on all followers of Jesus being also ‘circumcised in the tradition of Moses’ (Ac 15:1), to embracing this testimony of Peter: ‘In fact God, who can read everyone’s heart, showed his approval of them by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us.’ (Ac 15:8)

As a result of this early council, the Church broke through the boundaries and limits of its original Jewish identity to becoming a Church of the known Mediterranean world, gradually assimilating the diverse languages and cultures with which it came into contact, not least those of the Roman Empire which were to influence much of Church order. While Rahner would see this as the beginning of the westernised Church that developed as such for more than a millennium, I would want to suggest positively that we should not lose sight of the conversion to an expanded catholicity that this entailed at the time for the early Church. This is important, because the same kind of conversion and expanded view of catholicity is precisely what happened during Vatican II.  One of the main differences is geographical. We’re no longer talking of the Mediterranean world. We’re referring to the entire planet Earth, with all its languages, cultures, and customs. It is the Church in the modern world, the Church in the late twentieth and early twenty first century. Could we imagine that at Vatican II the council fathers were also able to say: It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and ourselves no longer to saddle you with a western church but to invite and challenge you from wherever you are in the world to enrich the Church with the very best of your languages, your styles of prayer, your rituals and customs.

[Elizabeth Johnson’s 'Quest for the Living God' draws on eight areas of  what I referred to above as "wherever you are": 1. Secular world (i.e. science, politics and philosophy/literature since WWII). 2. Suffering and God. 3. Poverty and liberation. 4. Women's experience. 5. Racism. 6. Latina, fiesta, popular religion. 7. Religious pluralism. 8. The evolving world.]

As I have agonised (and that is not too strong a word) over the changes to the liturgy and the move to return to a more Roman and ‘Latin’ way of doing and saying things, and as I have carefully studied the history and internal politics behind this move (I have to say, sometimes it appears to be disingenuous, e.g. the use of the word chalice and even changing the wording in the RSV translation of the Bible which we have adopted for the lectionary, when every translation including the RSV – and I have compared 9 of them – uses the word cup!) I am more and more convinced that we as a Church are grieving the Holy Spirit. I fear we have betrayed the Spirit of the multiple languages of Pentecost as shown, for example, in the verse: ‘How does it happen that each of us hears them in our own native language?’ Ac 2:8. Have we reneged on the nudge given us by the Holy Spirit during Vatican II to an expanded understanding of catholicity in the modern world? By continuing to implement the changes towards Latinate English, have we betrayed our very mark of being catholic? Do we trust the Holy Spirit to pray in believers in their own languages of intimacy? Have we suppressed the Spirit of every language, race, nation and culture (to borrow terms from the Book of Revelation), forcing people to think and pray in Roman and western ways? Is the Roman Catholic Church more Roman than Catholic?

[The psychological impact of spiritual stress between scriptural values and institutional norms takes a toll on people’s sense of commitment... Chittester]

These are painful questions to face, and no doubt some will take offence that they are even being asked. But Rahner’s warning is as relevant as ever as, with him, we try in our own way today to consider Vatican II and its achievement.

One of the amazing things about our annual Easter gospel texts is that the revelation of the resurrection is often given to those who were not one of the Eleven. Mary of Magdala, and Clopas and companion (probably his wife, Mary), are primary witnesses to the resurrection, and are sent to bring this revelation to the apostles. The knowledge of the truth, and the proclamation of the gospel, is not exclusive to the College of Apostles.

Then there is Luke 24 which these days speaks to me of Vatican II, and of our hope and joy, grief and anxiety about it, as the Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the start of the council in 1962. I find myself paraphrasing Luke, imagining modern disciples (perhaps myself among them) walking along the road talking about Vatican II. A stranger pulls up alongside and asks us what matters we are discussing. We stop short, our faces downcast. We tell him that our hope had been that Vatican II would have been the council to set the Church free from its shackles, from its preoccupation with ritual purity and the external appearance of  being a ‘perfect society’ through its emphasis on uniformity rather than through the more mysterious ‘unity of the Spirit’ (Eph 4:3). We share our seemingly dashed hopes as we observe the achievements of the council being dismantled by a curia distrustful of the Spirit’s presence and power in the local church. But we go on to say that nevertheless there are amazing signs of new life and hope in the Church. [Bishop Pfeifer OMI 'trusting' the Holy Spirit during a lively and spontaneous ordination ceremony I attended in Zambia. "We had the practice on Friday, we set out the order of service, but the rest we left to the Holy Spirit."]

In my imagination I allowed the Lord to speak to these dashed hopes, even calling me a ‘foolish man, slow to believe’. What he offers to my grief and anxiety about signs of post-Vatican II regression (some call it entropy!) in the Church, especially its fear of the Spirit’s nudge towards greater catholicity – towards truly being a world Church – is the same he offered to the disillusioned Emmaus disciples: Word and Sacrament. Jesus challenges us to a faith rooted in Scripture [MARTINI emphasised this in his final testament] and Eucharist. He shows us everything in the Scriptures which is about himself. More than that, he reminds us to put our faith in His person, and not overly much in Church councils, as hopeful and inspiring as they may be in their time. He opens our eyes to recognise him in the ‘breaking of the bread’, urging us to continue to worship the Father in spirit and in truth, trusting in his real presence in the mystery of the Eucharist itself and not in the accidental words we may use in its celebration. In our encounter with the Risen Christ, in his presence in Word and Sacrament, our hearts burn anew within us, and we are compelled to leave our small ‘Emmaus-es’, to ‘return to Jerusalem’, there to share our stories with our brothers and sisters, joined as we must be with the universal Church in continuing to witness to Christ.


{Transcript of talk given to WAACSA Western Cape - October 2012 by Fr Sean Wales}


In what seems like a final “testament” Cardinal Martini offered three vital elements in the renewal of tired old Church of Europe: Conversion, the Word of God and the Sacraments.  Speaking of the Sacraments he clothed his words in a vivid example:
            “A woman, for instance, is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion, who takes care of her and her three children.  This second love succeeds.  If this family is discriminated against, not only is the mother cut out [from the Church] but also her children.  If parents feel that they’re outside the church, and don’t feel its support, the Church will lose the future generation.

          Before Communion we pray, “Lord, I am not worthy….” We know we’re not worthy. Love is a grace.  Love is a gift. The question of whether the divorced can receive Communion ought to be turned around.  How can the Church reach people who have complicated family situations, bringing them help with the power of the Sacraments?”

Martini was one of those, like many of the early Fathers of the Church, gifted with academic brilliance, inspired ecclesial leadership and refined pastoral sensitivity.  That he could also communicate easily and freely with a world-wide audience and with the Press was not insignificant in his long life.  His final remarks in that last interview stand as a challenge for us (WAAC) today :

What can you do for the Church?

In this reflection perhaps we can deepen our appreciation of the question of Communion for the remarried divorced and see if it is in fact an achievable goal.


There  is no need to underscore the extent of the problem of Catholics in irregular marriage situations and the expectations of many  that some pastoral  approach can mitigate the spiritual hardships faced by so many. [example of Mission to the ‘Lapsed’ -Durban].

Before going into some of the strands which might produce some fruit it is perhaps best to be clear about the Church’s official position-expressed most clearly in Familiaris Consortio 1981 by Blessed John Paul II.

Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life.  They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favour of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.  Let the church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.

{You can judge how far this language is from the older style of describing such people as “living in sin}

However, the church affirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.  They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.  Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.


[Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective:  John Meyendorff.  St Vladimir’sSeminary Press, CrestwoodNew York 1984 edition)

Marriage is a Sacrament conferred on the partners in the Body of the Church through the blessing of the priest, it pertains to the eternal life in the Kingdom of God, it is therefore NOT DISSOLVED by the death of one of the partners “ but creates between them –if they so wish and if “it is given to them (Mt 19:11) an eternal bond.

Orthodox Christians understand marriage as a grace which, while offered,  may not be “received”,  may be received but neglected,  or may be lost through sin.  Hence the Orthodox tradition tolerates separation and allows remarriage.    While always encouraging fidelity and endurance of marriage the Orthodox praxis is based on the NT evidence of “exceptions”
a) Me epi porneia   (except for ‘fornication’)  Mt 19:9

b) 1Cor 7:  If the unbeliever leaves, let him (her) do so.  A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.  God has called us to live in peace.  (Pauline Privilege)

Orthodoxy never conceives the Gospel as a system of legal obligations/duties: it is commitment, a pledge of the Kingdom to come.

In the EAST the Holy Roman Empire continued on and remained the   focus of marriage legislation – with its provisions for divorce and
remarriage.  Marriages therefore were regulated by the State but celebrated by the Church.    The EAST was opposed to divorce –in principal as strongly as the WEST but lived with exceptions:  the belief (and practice) grew of acknowledging that marriage could be ended

by death  (or permanent insanity, disappearance or abandonment),

by adultery (secret abortion, endangerment of spouse’s life, forced prostitution).

The two significant EASTERN figures prominent in the exceptions-debate (which allowed divorce and remarriage)

          BASIL (330-379):  He interpreted PORNEIA as adultery and allowed the innocent partner to divorce and remarry;  his ‘pastoral compassion’ (?) led him to accept the adulterer back after a long period of penance without requiring the cessation of the second union or reconciliation with first spouse.   When husbands were abandoned by their wives (in Caesarea) St Basil allowed the husbands to remarry and treated leniently those already remarried “pardon will be granted to him to receive communion in the Church”.

CHRYSOSTOM (347-407):  He held that marriage is dissolved through adultery and that after fornication, the husband ceases to be the husband.

The influence of such Greek Fathers can be seen in the development of the Orthodox views of marriage (and its endurance).  Would it be a thinkable thought to apply the famous “Ratzinger formula” devised to deal with papal primacy to the Eastern theology of marriage:

Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than what had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium…Rome need not ask for more.  Reunion could take place in this context if, one the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium ….while on the other hand the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had” (1976).

In the WEST with the collapse of the Roman Empire and Roman Law, the Church filled the vacuum with Church Law and marriage law developed in a different direction from the East.

The dominant influence in the WEST was St Augustine(354-430).  Translating  MUSTERION as ‘sacrament’ rather than ‘mystery’ (Ephesians 5:32) help shape the development of understanding of marriage in the West:  “This is a great Sacrament”.  Augustine is often proposed as the unique voice in the shaping of the Western tradition of the exceptionless marriage norm.  But consider this quotation from De Fide et operibus:

“The man who puts away his wife taken in adultery and marries another should not, it seems, be equated with those who put away their wives and remarry outside the case of adultery.  In the divine scriptures, it is not at all clear whether the person who is permitted without any doubt to put away his adulterous wife is himself considered an adulterer if he marries another, and in my opinion he commits a pardonable error (venialiter)”.

After the Great Schism (1054) many traditions developed differently as between East and West.  What is significant for a catholic understanding of the question is that when the first massive attempt at reunion of EAST and WEST (The Council of Florence 1438) the Pope did not question the Eastern tradition concerning marriage.  In reply to his request that the East should abolish divorce (and therefore remarriage) the Eastern Father replied “marriages in the East are only dissolved with valid reasons”.

The same sensitivity to Eastern theology/praxis about marriage, divorce and remarriage was shown by the Council of Trent : the prohibition of divorce “for any reason” (proposed in canon 7 of Session XXIV “was submitted to a revision precisely because of the custom of the Greeks (which had long been practiced in the Venetian Republic)”.  The canon was adjusted to take account of the Greek practice –“thus respect was shown to an immemorial custom”.

So it has rested: the two lungs of the Church breathe slightly differently regarding the praxis of marriage: for both the very meaning of the sacrament entails (at least) life-long fidelity and commitment but the Eastern lung allows of exceptions though never recognising a second or third marriage as sacramental.

As well as relying on ‘immemorial custom’ the Greek lung stresses the role of OIKONOMIA  (oikonomia:‘ECONOMY’)

i.                 ‘oikonomia’: management, arrangement, running a household
ii.                Luke 16 (the crafty steward), I Cor 9:17 (a stewardship),
Eph 1:10 (a stewardship of the fullness of time), Eph 3:9 (stewardship of the mystery/administration  of the mystery, how the mystery is to be dispensed).
          iii        Eph 1:10 –the divine purpose
iv        In the Church of the East, oikonomia  came to refer to the way the sacraments were ordered, how penitents were to be received: the divine economy must be reflected in the Church’s economy.

One Western response: “We shall enter fully into the ecumenical dynamism of our own Church if both individually and as a community we make our own and internalize as much as possible the Orthodox Churches’ spirituality of economy, in our personal piety, in catechesis, in preaching, in our spirituality stamped by Eucharistic worship” (HaringNO WAY OUT, St Paul Publications 1989 p 53).

When Oikonomia is translated into canonical/moral contexts it can find expression in EPIKEIA.  THIS Greek word (“reasonableness”) has a very respectable history also in the Western tradition.  It refers to a benign interpretation of law which regards a law as not applying in a particular case because of circumstances unforeseen by the lawmaker.  The lawmaker cannot foresee all possible cases that may come under the law, and it is therefore reasonably presumed that,  were the present circumstances known to the lawmaker, the act would be permitted.   St Alphonsus Liguori adds “This EPIKEIA has its place not only in human laws but also in natural laws where, because of the circumstances, the action could be free from malice”.

It is also held that EPIKEIA holds good “in the case of a law or regulation being unreasonably harsh or even damaging if it were followed literally” (Haring).

The use of EPIKEIA in the Oikonomia of marriage is not uncontested.  A detailed critique of this approach was published in the Osservato Romano (26.11.1997) by Angel Rodriguez Luno.

The reason for starting with the strand of the Orthodox practice is that  it is a tradition “of immemorial standing” and a way of dealing with marriage which the Western Church already acknowledges.  There would therefore seem to be no insurmountable obstacle to including the same or similar approach in exceptional circumstances.


It is incontestable that Catholic Church teaches both the unity and the indissolubility of marriage.  The CCC talks about the “unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond” (1615).  Under the rubric of “The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love” we read:

“The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons which embraces their entire life: ‘so they are no longer two, but one flesh’ (1644).

“The deepest reason is found in the fidelity of God to his covenant, in that of Christ to his Church” (1647)

The history of marriage –even in the West- is not quite so absolute:

Pauline Privilege; the right to remarry of persons who are already married, convert to Christianity and find that their non-Christian marriage partner either wishes to separate or will not let them practice their religion in peace (1Cor 7:12-15).

*one spouse entering a monastery frees the other to remarry (7th/8th centuries)

a married slave gained freedom and was permitted to remarry if the other spouse remained enslaved

*the spouse of a person held hostage (or taken as plunder) was free to remarry if the missing person was unlikely to return

*Pope Gregory II advised St Boniface that in dealing with a man whose wife was no longer well enough to engage in sexual intercourse, it was permissible for him to remarry as long as he did not neglect to provide material support for his first wife.

Petrine Privilege:
  Pius XI: an unbaptized man divorced from Episcopalian wife and who wished to be baptized was given permission to marry a Catholic woman. (1924)
Pius XII: A baptized man  and an unbaptized woman got a dispensation (disparity of cult) to marry.  Then divorced.  The unbaptized woman became a Catholic and got permission to marry a Catholic man. (1947)
John XXIII:  An unbaptized man married to a Protestant woman.  Divorced.  The unbaptized man wants to remain unbaptized but got permission to marry a Catholic woman (1959).

In the light of this diversity/development  the Church in the West uses two approaches:

#        Instead of talking about divorce/remarriage  (as in the East), it explores the validity of the first marriage and has put in place elaborate canonical rules and structures (Marriage tribunals, Roman Rota) to deal with “hard cases”.

#        It also redefines the absolute indissolubility of marriage in terms of “ratum et consummatum”.   However this does not solve all the problems as what constitutes “ratum” is still in dispute (marriage between baptized and non-baptized?).


What is it that is declared to be indissoluble?   From Trent to Vatican 2 the simple answer was the marriage BOND and the Bond was understood as a life-long contract, irrespective of the emotions, circumstances etc of the partners.  The language of contract leans heavily towards the legalistic, financial, dynastic aspects of a union.

Even so, as we have seen, the mere fact of making a contract did not remove the possibility of sin, of breaking the contract or  of setting it aside (short-hand: Pauline & Petrine Privileges).

With Vatican 2 there is a substantive shift in the Western theology of marriage: (short-hand): from CONTRACT TO COVENANT.
Whereas a contract is a minimalist legal device, a covenant is a maximalist union in love “intimate partnership of Life and Love” (G & S 85).

Whereas a contract is focussed on rights & obligations (“rendering the debt”), a covenant of love is personalistic and focuses on gifting one another.

It has been suggested that the Western Church has not yet fully worked through the implications of the paradigm shift in Vatian 2’s insights into Christian marriage.  Both Familiaris Consortio (1981) and the new Code of Canon law (1983) have elements of both the contractual aspect of marriage and of the covenantal vision.

The case for revisiting the absolute indissolubility of marriage is set out in an article by Kenneth Himes and James Coriden (in Theological Studies 65, 2004) and rebutted rather vigorously by Peter Ryan and Germain Grisez in the same journal vol 72  2011).


 1972  Fr Ratzinger was Professor of dogmatics and the history of Dogma at the University of Regensburg. In that year he published an article ON THE QUESTION OF THE INDISSOLUBILITY OF MARRIAGE  in which he examined the Patristic tradition, the Decree of Gratian, Luther and Trent on the question of indissolubility of marriage and offered some conclusions.

He sets the standard high: “The Fathers in East and West are from the very beginning in complete agreement on the total impossibility of the separation of a Christian marriage that could lead to remarriage  during the lifetime of the spouses”.

But then he immediately introduces another level –below the threshold of the classical teaching- recognising “a concrete pastoral application,  a more elastic practice which was not indeed seen as entirely in conformity with the true faith of the Church, but which also could not be absolutely excluded”.  In this regard he quotes Origen (185-254) “Now contrary to what is written, even some of the rulers of the Church have permitted a woman to marry while her husband was living.  In this they act contrary to Scripture, not indeed altogether senselessly –unreasonably- for we may suppose that this procedure was order to avoid worse things”

He also quotes Basil who prescribes a longer Church penance for a second marriage and then tolerates it.

By the 12th century  there was a movement to codify Church law (Gratian: father of Canon law) and to balance the high standards of Augustine against the wide permissiveness of Pope Gregory II, who allowed husbands  with wives who were unable ‘to render the debt’ to remarry, or even with partners who were unfaithful (especially in cases of incest).    Gratian described some of the aberrations of the Pope as “temporary permission” or “a missionary temporary arrangement” in the context of gradual transformation from paganism to Christianity.
Ratizinger’s conclusion at this stage is significant “emergency solutions in the concrete pastoral practice cannot be entirely excluded”.  Such emergency solutions remain “below the threshold of the dogmatic statement, which remains untouched”.

In any event history is unanimous that no second marriage (East/West) while a spouse is still alive can be sacramental.  It is a “tolerated marriage” and admission to the other sacraments is permitted by way of oikonomia.

In his reflection on Trent Ratzinger follows Fransen (the expert on the Council of Trent) in acknowledging that Trent did not condemn the eastern practice or theology of marriage.  Ratzinger has no problem in proclaiming the “reality” (the ideal?) while allowing “a certain marginal unclarity” to coexist just below the radar.

In his conclusions Ratzinger rejects Phenomenologism (which reduces a person to consciousness) with its implication that a marriage can die if the love dies or the consent dies.

But he also recognises that the “hardness of heart” of the Old covenant remains unchanged.  He argues that the Church cannot stop preaching the faith of the New Covenant “but it must often enough begin its concrete life a bit below the threshold of the scriptural word.  Thus it can, in clear emergency situations, allow limited exceptions in order to avoid worse things.  He makes a concrete proposal at the end of the article:

“Where a first marriage broke up a long time ago and in a mutually irreparable way, and where, conversely, a marriage consequently entered into has proven itself over a longer period  as a moral reality and has been filled with the spirit of the faith, especially in the education of the children (so that the destruction of this second marriage would destroy a moral greatness and cause moral harm), the possibility should be granted, in a non-judicial way, based on the testimony  of the pastor and church members, for the admission to Communion of those who live in such a second marriage”.

The next year (1973) Cardinal Seper (head of CDF), speaking about people in irregular unions, drew attention to “the Church’s approved practice in the internal forum”.

In 1991, in an exchange in the Tablet with Fr Theodore Davery on the internal forum  the now Cardinal Ratzinger distances himself from his 1972 article in the light of Familiaris Consortio (1981).  The implementation of his proposals in pastoral practice “would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the Magisterium to whose judgement I would submit”.   But the use of the internal forum and/or epikeia precisely envisons a situation which the magisterium has not/cannot take into account.

The famous intervention of the three German bishops (Kaspar, Lehman and Saier) in 1993 involved Cardinal Ratzinger as head of CDF and despite differences of opinion the matter was allowed to rest.  Working from the principle that neither exaggerated strictness nor weak flexibility are appropriate, the German bishops argued that  the general principles of Church law (Canon Law) can only remain general and cannot address often very complex individual cases.   They argued that “ a pastoral dialogue can help those involved to reach a personal and responsible decision according to the judgment  of their own conscience that must be respected by the Church and the congregation”.   The German bishops  also distinguished between admission to the Eucharist and approach to the Eucharist:   while they saw little possibility (then) of official admission, they strongly encouraged individual approaches by those who had made a serious and conscientious decision.     After a serious dialogue with the CDF, both the bishops and the Vatican seemed to be content with the understanding that “beneath the threshold of the binding teaching” there remains room for pastoral flexibility.  (The documentation for the German bishops stance can be found in ORIGINS vol 23, & 24,  1994)

In 1998 the CDF published a book SULLA PASTORALE DEI DIVORZIATI RISPOSATI which contains several very closely argued articles on many of the issues concerning indissolubility, admission of the divorced and remarried to the other sacraments.  It also contains an introduction by Cardinal Ratzinger in which he treats many of the current issues with great care.

a)   on NT passages which seem to hint at exceptions:: “magisterial documents do not intend to present the biblical foundations  of the teachings on marriage in a complete and exhaustive way……the teaching of the Church on indissolubility of marriage is faithful to the words of Jesus….Jesus’ words on the indissolubility of marriage overcome the old order of the Law with the new order of Faith and Grace”.   He admits that “Later theological reflection has clarified that only marriages between baptized persons are a sacrament in the strict sense of the word and that absolute indissolubility hold only for those marriages falling within the scope of Christian faith”.

b)   Concerning the PORNEIA clauses Ratzinger acknowledges “There is no unanimity among exegetes on this point. Many maintain that it refers to invalid marital unions (“I’m not talking about people just living together”), not to an exception to the indissolubility.  In any case, the Church cannot construct her doctrine and praxis on uncertain exegetical hypotheses”.

c)    Acknowledging the ambiguity of patristic tradition, the same point is suggested:  if the patristic examples are conflicted and obscure how can we build on that?  He admits “individual Fathers, Leo the Great among them, sought pastoral solutions for rare borderline cases”.  He is rather critical of the Greek development which has become more and more liberal (even to talking about a ‘theology of divorce’).  He relies on the overwhelming tendency among the Fathers, towards accepting the indissolubility of marriage.

d)   Dealing with the question of EPIKEIA he argues that it cannot be applied to divine law.  What then of the Pauline and Petrine Privileges?  These are presented as clarifications of the conditions required for absolute indissolubility.  However in a telling paragraph Ratzinger deals with the reality that even the marriage tribunals can err: “Here it seems that the application of EPIKEIA  in the internal forum is not automatically excluded from the outset”.   As the judicial forum concerns ecclesiastical law EPIKEIA remains a possibility.  Ratzinger concludes “This question demands further study and clarification.  Admittedly, the conditions for asserting an exception would need to be clarified very precisely, in order to avoid arbitrariness and to safeguard the public character of marriage, removing it from subjective decisions”.

e)   On the much debated question of furthering or retarding Vatican 2’s vision of marriage: Ratzinger does not accept the choice between “contract” and “covenant”. “One must not forget that with the covenant, the element of contract is also contained and indeed placed in a broader perspective”.   Then Ratzinger introduces a fascinating new dimension to the whole debate: “Further study is required, however, concerning the question of whether non-believing Christians –baptized persons who never or who no longer believe in God- can truly enter into a sacramental marriage.  In other words it needs to be clarified whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ipso facto a sacramental marriage.”
f)      Ratzinger’s Introduction concludes with a sensitive acceptance of the importance of church language in marital matters but also with an insistence on the place of truth in pastoral practice: “A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people  concerned must always be grounded in the truth.  In the end only the truth can be pastoral”.

As Benedict XVI, Ratzinger introduced another angle on the exception he described in 1998.  Speaking to the clergy in the diocese of Aosta about the question of the marriage of baptized Christians without faith he said; “ those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not true believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert, discover faith and feel excluded from the Sacrament are in a particularly painful situation”  He said that he felt that the first marriage was invalid but that the whole matter “must be studied further”.


By way of conclusion, it is clear that there is nothing new in any of the above:  the praxis of the Orthodox Church carries the qualifier “from time immemorial”;  the subtleties of pastoral solutions (erstwhile ‘casuistry’) have an equally long history in the Western Church; the refinements in the theology of the Sacrament of Matrimony are on-going; the concern for the extended family  introduces an element of evangelization into the pastoral ministry with the divorced and remarried.

What is new is the sociological reality that divorce, if not the norm, is certainly normal in many societies.  Such a background cannot but have implications for our pastoral outreach.

The coming together of different aspects of this whole question  -the Orthodox approach, the debate about indissolubility and the Pope’s acknowledged need for further study of critical exceptions- together  have a cumulative effect that a positive way forward is available.

At the popular level the discussion can easily become very emotive:
(Warm-hearted but wrong headed/ cold-hearted but right headed)

e.g.  “What mother would deny her child food –no matter what wrong the child may have done?  How can the Church deny her (erring) children the food necessary to live a holy life?

e.g. why is there one and only one unforgivable sin (entering an irregular second union?)

e.g. until ‘death’ do us part:
physical death                      dead and buried!
mental death                        permanent mental illness (?)
civil death                              life imprisonment (hostages etc)
moral death               irretrievable breakdown

e.g. Sacraments can cease to exist {Eucharistic Species}, contract can cease to apply, covenants can be broken.

e.g. “Power of the keys”: why is ‘ratum et consummatum’ excluded?

What is missing from the whole debate?

One of the most significant advances in modern systematic (dogmatic) theology was the recovery of the RESURRECTION.  Theologians like Durrwell spearheaded the biblical insights into the meaning of the Resurrection.  There was a whole new flowering of theology rooted in the transformative nature of the Resurrection.  This had huge consequences for spirituality, for renewal and transformation (e.g. the Second Vatican Council).

But the splendour of the Resurrection does not seem to have reached MORAL theology.  With the exception of Oliver O’ Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: an outline for Evangelical Ethics, very little Resurrection light has been shed on moral theology.

Brian Johnstone’s magisterial article TRANSFORMATION ETHICS: THE MORAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE RESURRECTION and Anthony Kelly’s THE RESURRECTION EFFECT : TRANSFORMING CHRISTIAN LIFE AND THOUGHT both attempt to carry on the conversation. Gerald O’Collins’s BELIEVING IN THE RESURRECTION is in the same vein.   These authors are beginning a conversation which could be as far reaching as the earlier biblical or dogmatic conversation.  

If the Resurrection is indeed the saturating event of Christianity, it must have immense implications for how we live our lives, how we hold together the various polarities life and revelation present to us.   How the indissolubility of marriage and the admission to the source of Resurrection life, the Risen Lord in the Eucharist, would look in a transformed ethics, we can as yet but speculate.

If the Eastern lung of the Church can breathe happily and usefully while holding in tension Christ’s idea of Christian marriage and compassion for those hurt by love, then perhaps it is offering us a way forward.  We already hold in tension elements like:
Grace and Truth
            Faith and Reason
            Objective and Subjective
            Body and Soul
            Flesh and Spirit
            Time and Eternity

So we can hold fidelity to God’s dream for marriage and compassion for those in difficult circumstance.

 In adhering to the truths of the Gospel (or the Church) we cannot ignore the TRUTH of the Gospel, Jesus, the Compassion of the Father made flesh.
Sean Wales, C.Ss.R. (October 2012)

The Quest for God: Making sense of faith
Fr Gerard McCabe CSsR


Theism:         It is taken as true that God exists.
Atheism:       it is taken as true that God does not exist.
But it might be argued that both are forms of belief.Agnosticism: 
The claim not to know whether or not God exists.

There is a real sense in which we are all agnostic.
Moving back to theism, the understanding that one brings to the belief that God exists is itself of major significance.
I can believe that God exists as the source of being, as the explanation for there being a world at all but that might not evoke anything significant in me. Such would be a form of deism.
Even the view that a Christian is one who is forced to follow the dictates of God is only one view of theism, and one that I would not personally be comfortable with.  It easily leads to the idea of God as dictator.

The philosophical question of God
It has always been one of my interests to examine the notion of God and religious belief within a philosophical framework. And even one who would claim to believe in God has to face the challenges that call into question the existence and the nature of God.

The Case Against God
Many influential contemporary thinkers have recently published books on this topic, perhaps the best known of whom is Richard Dawkins in his work The God Delusion. But I find my own understanding of God and faith more significantly challenged by earlier thinkers.

                Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge.
                Anthropology is the mystery of theology.

For Feuerbach the true secret of religion is atheism. Religion is the relation of man to himself. Human beings are the beginning and the end of religion. Religion should be seen as both true and false.
Religion is true insofar as it tells humanity about humanity. Religion is false because it treats human nature apart from its own nature.
The consequences of the falsehood of religion are that we are alienated and impoverished. So a return to true humanism would inevitably lead to atheism.

Marx:      Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

                 The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.

Marx believed that the historical function of religion has been to offer a divine justification for the political and economic status quo. It has allowed the vast majority of people to suffer deprivation from the ruling classes and economic powers. When we change the economic conditions then religion will naturally and rightly disappear.

Nietzsche:               God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

Life is will to power. This world is the will to power, and nothing more. And you yourselves are also this will to power, and nothing besides.

There is too a prophetic element to Nietzsche’s idea of the death of God, in that contemporary western culture can largely be defined through the death of God in contemporary beliefs and values.
We see therefore that a nihilistic approach to human life is possible. There is no rationally conclusive argument against the possibility of nihilism.  By the same token, nihilism itself remains unprovable. It is not at all certain that life is fundamentally meaningless.

Freud:           Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.

It would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife; but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.

For Freud, therefore, the origins of religion and the persistence of religions are based simply on psychological factors. We create gods who are a source of both comfort and fear for us. But religion is doomed to failure because it has no objective reality other than as expressing our deepest hopes and fears.

Darwin:        The mystery of the beginnings of all things is insoluble to us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.
There is no doubt that the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution in Origin of the Species caused a great crisis of faith in western culture. If the world has evolved randomly through processes such as natural selection and the adaptation of species with the survival of the fittest, then it might appear to go against the traditional Christian belief that the world was created with design and purpose by a loving God. And if the theory of evolution is true does it not call into question our human belief that we are the highpoint of creation, all the rest being created for our benefit?

Yet while the theory of evolution does present challenges to our understanding of faith and nature, does it necessarily lead to atheism? Darwin himself never publicly advocated atheism as the most adequate response to his theory.

The powerful criticisms of religious belief initiated by Feuerbach and taken further by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, along with the scientific challenges raised by Darwin among many others need to be listened to and taken seriously. Their views certainly need to be taken seriously as a means of challenging the nature of our beliefs. But we can confidently state that none of them succeed in disproving the existence of God. Their atheism therefore is based on assumptions that have not been substantiated.

The Case for God
Our openness to the Transcendent

The 20th century philosopher Heidegger states that it is not how the world exists but that the world exists that is the real source of astonishment. The fact that there is something rather than nothing can already evoke in us a sense that the world is wonderful, that there is beauty and meaning and value to be found in the simple fact of existence.

To be human then is to take note of the sense of wonder that emerges whenever we come to a deep realisation of our contingency and dependence. This same sense of wonder has a remarkable ability to create in human beings the idea that there are significant objective values that allow us to flourish as human beings in a world of mutual dependency. Values such as love, compassion, mercy, truth, justice courage, endurance and fidelity are often seen not just as moral choices but as values that express our true human nature.

One can reasonably argue that precisely this sense of our own contingency and of the values that help to add meaning to our existence tell us something that is fundamentally true about human life. It suggests that by nature we are open to the transcendent, to the fullness of life which is made valuable precisely through our dependency.

We are dependent and vulnerable creatures who achieve fulfilment and happiness through values, such as love, truth and beauty, which best express our proper human nature. If one accepts this understanding of reality then one can be immediately struck by the extent to which religious belief offers a home for our deepest longings. Theism, in its traditional form as found in the three great Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, suggests that there is a real match or fit between our hopes and dreams for a fulfilled life and our idea of God as the source and the destiny of human life.

The idea of a unitary source of meaning and truth in beauty in the world has ancient roots. Both Plato and Aristotle in different ways accepted this view, and argued that human beings could not achieve fullness of being or happiness until they understood the source of meaning and all being as God. Christian thinkers were happy to make use of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle to suggest that the truth of God found in revelation is in harmony with what philosophy can tell us about human nature. The Christian thinker who offers us the clearest arguments to reconcile faith in God and human reason is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). His views might still today offer us a way of answering the question why we should believe.

Aquinas and the Five Ways

Aquinas was a noted philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. He attempted to show that given our human nature as contingent beings who cannot account for ourselves, we can even through reason come to the truth about nature, and that the existence of God is a rationally possible account of the truth of both our existence and our openness to the transcendent. In the famous argument of the five ways he offered not philosophical proofs of the existence of God but rather demonstrations, based on our own human experience, to suggest that the existence of God is not only plausible but indeed offers us a satisfactory explanation of our human existence and all that is implied by that.

The First Way: Argument from Motion
The Second Way: Argument from Efficient Causes
The Third Way: Argument from Possibility and Necessity
The Fourth Way: Argument from Gradation of Being
The Fifth Way: Argument from Design

Aquinas offers us only one example of a philosophical approach that suggests that it is not unreasonable to come to the conclusion that God exists. Today there are many philosophers such as Richard Swinburne who continue to offer reasons to believe in the existence of God. We can conclude therefore that it is possible to find good and consistent reasons to suggest that God is the best and most adequate explanation for being, the beginning and end of all that is. We do have reasons to believe.

The case for and against the existence of God
In Scottish law there is the possibility to reach a conclusion that the case has not been proven. This would be my response to the question of God from a philosophical perspective. A case may be made both for and against the existence of God, but cannot I think be philosophically proven.

A meaningful life
Atheism has often rightly focussed on the importance of seeking a meaningful life, one that is most likely to make us happy.
A meaningful life was taken to be an authentic life.
I would wholeheartedly endorse such a view.
There is also within atheism thinking a focus on the notions of being true to one’s own character, and of becoming our self-chosen set of projects.
Again, I find myself comfortable with such a vision.
But it has to be acknowledged that the notion of being true to one’s own character is a complex matter. We, as human beings, are mysteries to our own selves in many ways.
And, while it is a wonderful hope that each of us might become our own self-chosen set of projects, we would have to acknowledge that this is something of a rarity in human experience. Social, political, economic realities often prove to be major obstacles despite that human desire.
There seems to be an assertion made that atheism offers us as human beings a greater possibility to achieve happiness through an authentic life based on one’s own most deeply cherished projects. That may be true. But I think that we might also ask if having some form of religious faith can perhaps also allow a person to achieve happiness through an authentic life and the pursuit of one’s own most deeply cherished projects.

Relationship and love as central features of a meaningful life
I would want to suggest that constitutive of a meaningful life is that as human beings we are relational beings. And I would go so far as to say that the centrality of love and relationship is even more significant for a meaningful life than the pursuit of a self-chosen set of projects.
Four aspects of being in relation with others seem to me to be of critical importance.
1                 The experience of love leads to self-transcendence
2                 Relationships are not built on certainty but on risk
3                 No relationship can flourish without trust
4                 Love in relationship needs to be expressed and communicated.

It is good for us to be rational beings; we should certainly strive to be nothing less than rational in our understanding of the world. And yet don’t all of us have a deep sense that there is much more to being human than being rational? Reason is good and necessary and always desirable. And yet reason is always impersonal. So, as persons, is there not much more to us than rationality? I would certainly want to argue so. If that is true, then I would also want to suggest that there must be more to religious belief than the fact that it provides us with a plausible reasonable account of reality. If we are to find the best reasons to believe in God then there must be something deeply personal at the heart of our faith. It is this fundamentally personal aspect of belief that I would like to now consider.
At the heart of the human experience is our endless search for meaning and for the fullness of life. Within the long history of humanity we find endless expressions of that desire for meaning and fullness of being. We find countless attempts in history to express that desire for transcendence. The great works of art and literature, the love and respect for our natural environment, our longing for beauty in the world, all speak eloquently of our openness to the transcendent. We can all know the truth that we are made more human, better human beings, through the riches of poetry and music, of art and music.

But it is my view that the deepest experiences of transcendence that we can have come about through the experience of love. Is there anything more beautiful, meaningful and glorious than our human ability to step beyond our own self and to take joy in the very existence of another human being? Is there anything more precious to us than the simple joy of loving and being loved? Does it not come to our minds that life is ultimately about love or it is about nothing at all? Have not the greatest expressions of human art, in music and literature been expressions of love and transcendence? Is it not the case that our openness to love and to being loved tells us something much more deeply true about human nature than that we are rational animals?

All of this suggests to me that the final answers to all our questions about life and existence, about God and about human nature, if such answers are to be found, will be found in the depth of the human heart which is open to the transcendent beauty of love. It is a wonderful thing for us to be rational, but greater by far is the depth of the heart which takes us way beyond reason. As the philosopher Pascal famously said: The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about. Ultimately therefore, if we want to answer the question why we should believe, it is to the heart that we should turn.

So, it seems to me an undeniable fact that if we are to find not simply rational arguments to demonstrate the existence of God but reasons that fit in with our essential nature as human beings, then it the heart and the mystery of love that will give us the answer why it is meaningful to believe.

The single most crucial factor about love, as far as I am concerned, is that it is entirely dependent on moving beyond one’s own subjectivity. It involves an absolute risk, and relies hugely on a spirit of trust. In other words, we cannot demand proofs of love. In our most significant relationships of love, that very love is built around these two factors of risk and trust. We risk everything when we commit ourselves to loving another. And love is only possible when we take the risk to trust in the one we love. We know deep within our hearts that when we demand proofs of love from another person then we are no longer talking about a love that is real. To love and to be loved is the most precious factor of our lives. And the utter beauty of love lies in its fragility. We risk everything in love, believing deeply that it must provide us with the final answers to our existence. There is a deep truth that loving costs us not less than everything. In loving truly, we move way beyond reason and the need for certain proofs. At the very core of our human loving is belief. And it is this personal belief that love is who we are that provides us with the meaning that shapes our lives and grants us the possibility of happiness.

We have argued already that there are good reasons for us to believe in the existence of God as the source of our being. And it makes rational sense to argue that the best of our human nature must be where we come closest to God. So, if that which is best in our human nature is our experience of love, then surely the very least that we can say about God is that God is love, and that His love for us is personal and the ultimate answer to all our human questions.

But we can only come to this realisation through reflecting on our own human nature. And this I think tells us something absolutely central about the nature of belief. As we have seen, we can never truly ask another person to prove her love for us without damaging that very love. So too we ought not to expect to be able to find proofs of the existence of God, or to ask God to prove His love for us. Just as all human love is built around the fundamental quality of risking everything in trust, so it is entirely appropriate that our belief in God will not be based on reason or proof, but on that very same risking everything in trust. In other words, we dare to believe that God not only exists, but is the source of our being and the cause of that which is best in us, namely our ability to love and be loved. We dare to believe that despite all our weaknesses and failures, we are personally loved and cherished by the being who has made us the kinds of being that are made for love. We risk our whole being that this love of God is the final truth of every human being, the final joyful answer to all the questions that human existence asks of us.

It is a fundamental and necessary aspect of human love that it needs to be personally expressed. We have to find ways of showing that our love for another person is real and true. So it should come as no surprise that the God who has made us for love would also need to find ways of manifesting His personal love for each one of us. And at the heart of our Christian faith is that this is precisely what God has done. As St. John tells us: God loved the world so much that he gave us His only Son. So we have here the finest reason we have to believe. Jesus is and remains for all time the most perfect expression of the personal love of God for each of us and for all creation.

What is being suggested here is that our Christian faith, our faith in the personal love of God, made visible to us in the person of Jesus not only makes sense at the level of rationality but touches us at the core of our being precisely as human beings who, by nature, believe in love as that which most expresses our being. In other words, faith and reason work together and show us that there is nothing richer in all of human experience than in coming to know the love of God, made visible in the person of Jesus.

What is being suggested here is that in the person of Jesus we find, simply by the story of his existence and the love that marked every moment of his existence, each one of us may find the answer to all our questions; those questions which emerge from both our joys and our sorrows. In Jesus we are given every reason to believe that life is meaningful. In Jesus we find reason to believe that all our questions have a meaningful answer. In Jesus we find reason to believe that just as love is the best of human nature, so too love is at the heart of God’s concern for our lives. In the person of Jesus we find the courage to believe that despite the presence of evil and suffering in our lives, we are ultimately cherished as both individuals and as the family of God. In Jesus we learn that daring to believe in love will be enough to take us beyond death and the grave. In Jesus we can have certain hope that our longing for happiness and peaceful loving is not an empty dream. We are made for love, to know the joy of both loving and being loved. And this longing already finds fulfilment in taking the risk of believing in the God who is made visible to us in Christ.
There is an American poet, Raymond Carver, who I believe provides us with one of the most beautiful images of a living faith that can be imagined. He died at the age of 50, and in the last moments of his life he wrote this little poem called Late Fragment.

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.

Why do I believe in God? I believe because, despite moments of darkness and struggle, despite many unresolved questions, I already feel myself beloved by God here on earth. And because I trust that each one of us is already beloved at every moment of our being. We have every reason to hope that we are already beloved and will be loved in this life and in the eternal life to come. This I believe is the truth of God for us. And to know this is to know that the truth will set us free.

For these reasons I would want to conclude by stating with great confidence that theism, and within my own set of beliefs and values, Christianity, offers a meaningful response to life. I would also want to conclude that theism offers a meaningful way of life: that having a loving relationship with God offers us happiness, an authentic life and the possibility of being true to our most deeply cherished projects.

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