No The Pope is Not a Heretic

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 10th May 2019

I’ve been reading a lot about criticism of Pope Francis. I find it worrying because the criticism is coming from within the Church. It’s coming from high levels within the hierarchy. I find it strange because ordinary people like me seem to be very happy with the Pope and take comfort in what he is reported to say.

What sort of things is the Pope saying that seems to cause concern and who are concerned? Some bishops and even cardinals have expressed concern that Pope Francis’ statements on people whose family arrangements are, shall we say unconventional, may run counter to the teaching of the Church. These would mainly be about those who have divorced and remarried. The Church does not recognise divorce since it is concerning a sacrament, matrimony. You can’t just undo a sacrament.

The Church does recognise that some marriages fail because they were not complete in the first place. Where the conditions for marriage were not met the marriage is invalid and can be annulled. The problem would not be obvious at the time of the marriage but subsequent events may show this to be the case. Unfortunately the annulment process is not well known or understood among most Catholics and the annulled marriage would normally be dissolved in a divorce to meet the legal requirements of civil marriage law.

The resulting confusion and the need to get out of a difficult situation can leave many people in a difficult situation. A subsequent remarriage is not recognised by the Church and their irregular situation leaves the new couple cut off from the sacraments. They can’t go back to a former situation and they can’t walk away from their new family. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Pope Francis has also caused concern by his comments about homosexual people. He has stated that being homosexual is not a sin. That is to correct a misconception held by many Catholics. His treatment of priests involved in sexual abuse has caused concern, giving the impression that he tolerates this behaviour. Now a letter has been issued by a number of theologians and senior churchmen suggesting that the Pope is guilty of heresy.

Now theologians are highly trained in Church doctrine. They are the people best placed to interpret scripture and pronounce on the teaching of the Church. There are a number of prominent theologians in the Church but they do not always agree with each other on the finer points of doctrine. I am not a theologian and am in no way qualified to make pronouncements on doctrine. How am I to respond to the criticisms of the Holy Father?

As a scientist, faced with a decision I would look at the evidence and refer to the opinions of experts. However, in matters of theology I can’t claim to understand enough to take that route. The only option open to me is to look to examples in scripture. Are there any instances in the gospels that would clarify this situation?

The best option is to look at what Jesus did. The theologians and senior churchmen are concerned with the laws of the Church as they should be. If we look at the Gospels we see that, quite often, Jesus was accused of breaking the rules. Observance of the Sabbath was very important for the Jews. Jesus fell foul of the Jewish authorities by curing the blind and lame on the Sabbath. This was a clear breach of the letter of the law.

Is there ever an excuse for breaking the law? One of the most serious commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but exceptions are made. You could kill someone in defence of your own life or in defence of your country. Would stealing food to prevent someone from starving to death be a sin? The Commandments and the laws of the Church are there to lead us to an ideal. They describe how life should be lived but the realities of life can put us in situations where we have to choose between two evils. The Church does not expect us to be able to solve an impossible puzzle but to do our best to choose what is least harmful.

Take the example of the pilot whose aircraft goes out of control. He refuses to eject and save his life by parachute so that he can steer the plane away from a school full of children. Should he be condemned for committing suicide or rewarded in Heaven for saving lives? We don’t always expect the rules to be obeyed. The laws of the Church are intended for our good and need not be obeyed if they cause us harm.

The Holy Father’s critics accuse him of being supportive of sinners and so undermining the teaching of the Church. Logically that can be seen to be the case. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis is showing compassion for sinners and people in difficult circumstances. He has good examples to justify this.

We are all aware of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees who brought a woman who was caught in adultery. They were putting Him to the test to see if he would uphold the law that stated that she should be stoned to death. Jesus’ reply was,

“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

John 7: 7

When the accusers had melted away he turned to the woman,

“’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, said Jesus ‘go away and don’t sin any more’.”

John 7: 10, 11

I noticed two things about this encounter. Firstly, it is the woman who is to be stoned, there is no mention of the man. Secondly, Jesus does not condone the woman’s behaviour but does not condemn her. That is what we would expect of Jesus, his mission was to save sinners, not condemn them. He instituted the Church to continue this work. It is the Church’s role to save and not to condemn.

Pope Francis seems to be living out Jesus’ instruction to be compassionate.

“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned.”

Luke 6: 36,37

Being a sinner myself, I take great comfort in that quote knowing that I am depending on God’s mercy for my salvation. I don’t think Pope Francis is a heretic. I think he gives us a choice; are we to be sticklers for the law like the Pharisees and condemn others or are we to be like Jesus and show compassion to our fellow sinners?

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Is The Pope a Heretic?

There are all sorts of accusations circulating in the Catholic Church. Some have claimed that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy. Can this be true?

Check out my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish or, if that’s not possible, you can get the full text here next week (17th May 2019).

The Value of Human Life

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 19th April 2019.

I was at funeral the other day

The occasion was a very sad one; this was a child’s funeral. Matthew was just under two years old when he died. Deaths always come as a shock but this one was long expected. Just after he was born the Doctors had warned his parents that Matthew would not live very long. All the delights of watching a child grow normally were to be denied to them.

The family gave Matthew all the care he needed and his needs were great and constant. They had to learn how to use the life sustaining equipment when they brought him home as the hospital could do no more for him. He was frequently rushed to hospital in the middle of the night to deal with serious problems.

At his funeral our parish priest told us that often people in this situation will ask “Why did God let that child die?” and confessed he did not have the answer. Who knows the mind of God? I thought of another question some have asked me, “Why did God allow that child to live? Surely a kind God would not allow the child to live with no hope?” Their question annoyed me at the time but I realised that day that their question was the right question, one whose answer I learned at the funeral.

That question reflects the values of our society today. It assumes that a child will have purpose when it becomes an adult. Only as an adult will it have a real value. Why did God make that child? Luckily there is an answer to that question. My old catechism tells me that God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next. That applies to us all.

How do we get to know God? It seems to me that we get to know God through love. All love comes through God and it is the love we find in other people that shows us God’s love. Matthew experienced love from his family, their friends and from the many doctors and nurses who tended to him. The turnout at his funeral mass bears witness to that. Though he would not have been able to put that into words, Matthew came to know God as we all do, through the love shown by others.

Matthew was not able to speak but his smile was a great indication for his love. It was particularly obvious when he was held by his grandfather or heard his voice that this was someone he loved. He wouldn’t have been able to mention God but surely we show our love for God in our love for our fellow man.

What about serving God? Matthew wasn’t able to do anything for himself so how could he serve God? What, in fact, do we mean by serving God? It would be wrong to assume that God needs us to do anything for Him. God is all powerful and we are able to do things as a result of God’s gifts. I believe that God has a purpose for each of us. Some may have a notable purpose like Pope Francis whose purpose is to lead the Church. Most of us have purposes that are not so obvious. Take examples form the Stations of the Cross.

Simon of Cyrene was given the task of helping Jesus carry the cross so that He didn’t die on the way to Calvary. Veronica was given the task of wiping the face of Jesus. Neither of these tasks would be regarded as spectacular but we constantly remind ourselves of these simple tasks because God’s purpose for us is generally simple but important.

So what was Matthew’s purpose? Matthew couldn’t do anything. He could only be. Why would that be an important purpose? If I stand back and look at our society today one thing stands out. Our belief in the sanctity of life is under attack. Abortion has been legal in this country since the sixties. It was sold as a law to end the difficult cases of pregnancies that threatened the mother’s life. What it rapidly became is a law that destroys countless lives for the convenience of the parents. It doesn’t stop there. Some want to extend the time when abortions can be carried out. In New York recently they changed the law to allow abortions up to the point of birth.

Now we are being denied the right to have an opinion on the matter of abortion. Laws are being introduced to prevent those who value life from bothering people outside abortion clinics by praying. How dare we pray? How dare we value life?

At the other end of life we witness pressure to allow us to assist people to die. That started off as an argument about people who are terminally ill. No treatment can help them. Now we have seen people being helped to die because they are going deaf ( a musician ), are clinically depressed and even children being allowed to choose to die even though they are not terminally ill. It would seem you can be helped to die because you are fed up with life.

Life is God’s greatest gift. Followers of Christ believe that it is for God to decide when we will die. Killing is not an option. Medicine grew as a profession to save and prolong life. We have ambulances to save lives. We devise systems to allow us to cross the road in safety to save lives. The law requires us to wear a seatbelt in a car to save lives. I’m at a loss to see how all that squares with the notion that the unborn child’s life is not just as important.

Matthew’s life was testimony to the love of his parents and friends. His life was a reminder, a timely reminder that our society is on the wrong track. By his short life he has spoken out against our disregard for God’s gift of life. Anyone who was at his funeral was left in no doubt that Matthew’s life was not of no consequence but called out that we have got it wrong.

That was God’s purpose for Matthew and he served his God and will be happy with him in Heaven. He challenges us to do the same.

Distraction

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 22nd March 2019

I’m not sure if it’s an age thing or the onset of dementia, but I think I’m getting to be easily distracted. When I should be concentrating on something important I can find myself going off on a tangent. This happens in all sorts of occasions. The most disturbing is when I’m distracted at Mass. It could be something said in the homily that makes me think, sometimes examining my own life in the light of what’s been said. Before I know it the service has moved on and I’m trying to catch up.

Simple tasks at home can be similarly affected. I can set out to make tea and notice something that needs to be put away. Before long I’m tidying the kitchen and the tea has been forgotten. The same thing happens in the shops. I’m sent to get bread and milk but when I’m wandering through Tesco trying to find where they’ve moved the milk to, I spot something I had meant to buy last week. I’m off to get my new purchase and before long I’m home without the bread. This does not go down well with my other half who can often be found muttering about care homes.

It’s not as if the distractions are not important. They are usually things that really need to be done. It’s good that I do the things that distract me but the problem is that I don’t do what I set out to do in the first place. I suppose I need to get my priorities right.

I’m finding that life as a Catholic is getting a bit like that now. The more I read about what’s going on in the Church, the more unsettled I feel. I think we are allowing ourselves to get a bit distracted. The issues of abuse in the Church, physical and sexual, homosexuality, the role of the Pope, the responsibility of the hierarchy; these important issues seem to be crowding out everything else. I’m not saying that these issues are not important but perhaps we need to stand back and see where we are going.

It seems like every day the news carries a story of child abuse in the Church. There is a big splash in the papers about a priest who has been accused of abuse and then you hear no more of it. A priest you know is removed from his parish and the word spreads. After police investigations the charges are dropped but that is not on the news. The Church investigation then starts so the priest is not returned to his parish. Later, when the Church finds no offence has been committed the priest can return to his post. Again there is nothing on the news. Unfortunately, not all cases are settled with a happy outcome.

Revelations keep coming out. Some of the offences occurred way back in the past but it all creates an impression of a Church riddled with offenders today. In fact, I get the impression that the Catholic Church is the only place where abuse is going on. However, this is not the case. Child abuse is going on in families, in schools and in all sorts of organisations we always thought were safe. The Catholic Church is not the source of most of the child abuse despite the impression crated by the media but it is surely the place where we would expect children to be safe.

It is the role of the media to expose scandals like child abuse and, despite the pain, we should be grateful to those who have shone a light on this. Every organisation should be aware of this problem and take steps to combat the threat to children. The Church set up an independent commission, the McLellan Commission in 2013 to investigate the problem in the Church and make recommendations. The Commission reported in 2015 and the Church has been working to implement the recommendations since then. The document “In God’s Image” outlines the Church’s policy.

The Church now requires every parish to implement its Safeguarding procedures. Those people, lay and religious, who are involved with children or vulnerable adults are investigated by Disclosure Scotland and must attain a certificate to prove their suitability. Further to this the Church will provide training for those involved, deal with allegations, provide support for survivors, support those accused and continually monitor the quality of our systems. This is not yet complete and it will take time to put everything in place but it is a greater response to the problem than I have seen in any organisation I have been involved with.

We must raise awareness and keep vigilant without this becoming a distraction from the real work of the Church. Christ instituted the Church to carry on His work of saving sinners, including those guilty of child abuse. We have to see our Safeguarding work as a natural part of the Church’s work in spreading the Gospel. Those found guilty of abuse will be dealt with in the legal system and the Church will have no role in shielding anyone from the law. It is important that the Church can continue to work to bring salvation to the abuser. Those guilty of abuse must still have access to the sacraments. The Parish Priest must agree conditions and procedures with the abuser to allow access without endangering children and vulnerable adults.

Attending church services should be a joyful and uplifting experience. I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that. Knowing that the Church is taking steps to maintain a safe environment for all should allow us to continue or Catholic practices with confidence. We are all responsible for the safety of others and knowing that there is a Safeguarding Coordinator and Parish Priest who will respond to any concerns we have should give us the reassurance we need in our parishes.

I’d like to think that we could put all this behind us and that we have a future where abuse does not exist. That is just a pipe dream. We have just become aware of something that has been going on in human society for a long, long time. It’s not going to go away but, God willing, we will now be better prepared to protect our children and vulnerable adults in our care.

Shame The Devil

Christmas is over. We know this because the cream eggs are out in the shops now; Easter is on its way. Easter arrives after a long Lent (well it always seems long to me). Ash Wednesday is on the 6th March and February is a short month so get ready.  During Lent we try to prepare ourselves for a holy Easter; move away from sin towards Heaven. This month I began to think about the causes of sin and, of course, the Devil.

A popular image of the Devil is found in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Tom is shown with an angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. The angel is trying to persuade Tom to do good and the Devil is persuading him, usually successfully, to do bad. I think it’s quite a good description of the battle between good and evil. It works better for me than the image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. I’m not keen on snakes and I can’t see myself being persuaded by one. But why is the Devil so persuasive? Surely the wee angel on your shoulder should do better than the Devil?

Just why is the Devil such a good tempter? How does he do it? I think he uses his secret weapon, the lie. Isn’t it surprising how well lies work in persuading people? The current state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic show how well lies work. Some politicians tell lies all the time. Their opponents expose the lies but people take no notice and continue to believe the lies. Why are we so vulnerable to lies? I think it’s because we tell ourselves lies to boost our ego. My wife tells me that I’m not fit to decorate the room; I’m too old and I had a heart attack. I reject that as nonsense as I’m as fit as I ever was. It’s only when I have to use the wee glyceryl trinitrate spray that I realise I’ve been lying to myself.

Satan tried this with Jesus when he offered Him the whole world if He would worship him. Jesus was human but He did know the truth and rejected Satan. We really know the truth about ourselves but our pride leaves us open to flattery.  The clever thing is that the Devil persuades us that we are choosing something good. We do know that the Devil can persuade us to do wrong but we kid ourselves that we are stronger than that. We deceive ourselves.

In the New Testament there are stories of people who become possessed by the Devil. In Luke 8:26, 39 we hear how Jesus cast out a legion of demons from one man, sent them into a herd of pigs and the pigs then drowned in the lake. Demonic possession is not so well accepted in modern times but in recent years there seems to more awareness of possession. The Church has priests who are trained in exorcism and there are more calls on them now. It’s not something we hear much about but you might be surprised. A few years ago I was at a conference in Leeds and got talking to a priest there. When heard where I was from he commented that that was an area with a surge in the number of exorcisms. I found that hard to believe but later found out that he was correct.

If this is a battle between good and evil what are the Devil’s tactics? I put myself in the Devil’s place (I’m not changing sides, just thinking) and I looked at where I would attack. The Devil is not one for frontal attacks so I suppose I would attack things that support the Faith. I would attack the family where we draw strength and support. I would attack the Church and the sacraments that bring us closer to God. I would attack the community of God and persuade people to think only as an individual.

Looking around I think the Devil has been busy. The family has come under attack in western society. Marriage has come under attack. When it can’t be abolished it can be weakened. We are now making marriage irrelevant. It is not seen as the cradle of the family but as a convenience for same sex couples. Now holding a traditional view of marriage is regarded as an attack on the rights of same sex couples. Actually, regarding people as being either male or female is now wrong. The latest thinking is ‘gender neutral’. Your gender is something you can just decide on a daily basis apparently. How do you keep families stable in that situation?

The attack on the Church has been Just as successful. It’s not an attack from the outside but from the inside. The sins of a minority of priests and the weakness of response by some bishops have put the whole Church on the spot. Crimes of abuse are being investigated all over the world and the Church’s image is being trashed everywhere. The abuse cases have caused many Catholics to leave the Church and have weakened the catholic community.

The community aspect of catholic life has been in decline for many years. When I was young every parish had a collection of societies and groups to cater for all ages. There were societies for men and others for women. I was a member of the Boy’s Guild and my dad was a member of the Sacred Heart confraternity. These things have largely gone. People are reluctant to join. Attendance at Sunday Mass is the last commitment and that’s only if there is no ‘game’ on.

The Devil likes us to stress our strengths and individualism. In thinking that we don’t need others we are weakened. In looking only to our own strengths we are weakened. How can we counter this? Where do our strengths lie? Paradoxically our strength lies in recognising our weakness. Knowing we are not strong enough to combat evil on our own we turn to God and that is where our strength lies.

The Church is not just a human organisation. Christ is the head of the Church and, as we see in the gospels, is stronger by far than any demon. It’s only through prayer that we can really accomplish anything good. There are lots of different forms of prayer; it’s not just the rosary. The prayer we need in the fight against evil is where we put ourselves into God’s presence and include Him in our thoughts and worries of the day. By having Christ share our lives we become stronger.

Coatbridge, my adopted home, has the motto ‘Laborare est orare’, To Work is to Pray. There is no better prayer than to offer God all we do each day. What we achieve will be all the greater for God’s involvement in it. If we truly offer our work to God, no matter how trivial that work may seem, it will play a part in the fight against the Devil and all his works.

More power to you in your work in 2019; just remember every unpleasant task you undertake, offered to God, is a blow against the Devil.

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 8th February 2019

Christmas is Revolting

merry christmas

Well, that was Christmas. I was really looking forward to the Christmas holiday. As someone who has retired I suppose it’s odd to think of this as a holiday since I’m not off to work on other days. What’s so special about Christmas for me to think of it as a holiday? It’s a time to step out of the normal routine, a time for eating and drinking, a time for Santa Clause and children. It’s about giving presents, peace on earth and goodwill to all men.

Christmas is, for many, a time to travel. Some are heading off to the sun for a winter break while many are heading back to family celebrations. How often have we seen Christmas travel disrupted by problems on the railways or by traffic jams. This Christmas we had Gatwick airport closed by a drone scare and tens of thousands of people had their journeys disrupted. I suppose that could be seen as very similar to that first Christmas when Joseph and Mary had to go on a journey with a baby on the way. They had no accommodation and the baby was born in a stable.

Did Christmas work for you? Me neither. I suspect many people feel a bit like I do, glad when it’s over and back to the routine. So how did I get it wrong? For some people Christmas is a time of crisis. There are homeless people and families struggling to stretch their meagre resources to make a Christmas experience for their children. Most of these parents manage to provide for their children, usually by self-sacrifice. Expectations of Christmas have grown, fuelled by the advertising industry. We are persuaded to buy the latest toy for our children, the expensive jewellery or technology for our loved ones and to provide a Christmas banquet for all the family.

The result can be families at breaking point. Marriage guidance services can tell us of the increase in requests for help in the post-Christmas months. The strain on families often proves just too much. So much for peace and good will.

Businesses were sounding the alarm when sales did not soar as they had hoped before Christmas. They relied on a surge in buying to keep their business alive. Christmas is a big commercial festival. Perhaps that is a clue to what’s going wrong with Christmas. I’m now having to rethink my ideas of Christmas.

I’ve been thinking of Christmas as the birthday of Jesus and we are having a birthday celebration. That’s the story for the children. As an adult, should I be looking for a deeper meaning? The birth of Jesus was God coming to join us, but it was not His decision alone. Mary was asked for her consent for Jesus to be born for us. She gave her consent and the world was changed for ever. Now there is a clue there. God is all powerful and could just decide to put his plan into action but He didn’t. Christmas is not something God imposed on us. Mankind had to agree and cooperate in the plan.

That first Christmas was God making good on his promise to send someone who would change the world. He didn’t intend to set up an international public holiday, he was starting a revolution. Most revolutions are marked by a single event that captures the imagination and triggers the revolt. In France the storming of the Bastille marked the start of the French Revolution. In Russia the storming of the Winter Palace was seen as the start of theirs. These were violent events that were more symbolic than effective. The first Christmas was not violent and was probably the most significant in human history.

Like all revolutions ours never really ends. There are always counter revolutions and attempts to reject the new order. Christ’s revolution is still being opposed by the world. Jesus brought a new way of thinking into the world. He rejected hate and replaced it with love. His command is to love your neighbour and see each other as brothers and sisters rather than enemies. You only have to look at a newspaper to see how that is being rejected all over the world. Perhaps then we can understand why Christianity is under attack all over the world. The Christian revolution is attacked with violence in many parts of the world and is attacked by more subtle means here.

Now I’m seeing Christmas Day as the focal point of our revolution. It’s Christian equivalent of “Remember the Alamo” or a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille. The reason we don’t recognise this is that it’s peaceful revolution. This is a revolution that rejects hate and violence and uses the power of love instead. Christmas is our reminder that the revolution goes on.

Now, if I’m a revolutionary how do I carry on my revolt? I can’t go about attacking those who oppose me because that would be against the revolutionary principles I’m promoting. No, I need to go about my revolution by changing myself. I can’t counteract hate and violence by violent means. I’ll have to rid myself of aggressive attitudes and replace them with love. I need to see others as my brothers and sisters, not enemies. If Christmas is about giving then I need to look at what I give.

The Christmas gifts that count are not scented candles and shiny baubles. The gifts that count are gifts of myself. How ready am I to share what I have and, more importantly, what I am. We’re not good at giving away things we no longer need. (My wife is very good at giving away things she thinks I no longer need.) We are even worse at giving away what we do need. We can easily become a captive of our possessions. So powerful is the advertising industry that we are reluctant to give up things we may never have made use of. Hoarding has become a massive problem for some.

More importantly, we are not so good at sharing ourselves. Every one of us has gifts and talents that we can put to good use in helping others. We might be the person who can always get a car started on a frosty morning or can mind a child while the parent is busy. We must put these talents to good use in our revolution. Just as revolutionaries would attack and dominate their opponents we must love and serve our brothers and sisters.

Perhaps you remember the slogan, “A puppy is not just for Christmas.” That was intended to make people realise that dog ownership was a year round thing. Well perhaps we should adopt the slogan “Christmas is not just for Christmas.” Every day should be my day of peace and goodwill to all mankind. Every day is my opportunity to bring love into other people’s lives. Just like a good revolutionary, I can’t sit about waiting for something to happen. I need to make things happen. I need to make Christ’s revolution real and part of everyone’s life.

If I manage this then I won’t need any New Year’s resolutions this year, I’ll have an all year revolution instead.