The third Vatican message is: We decide what is a sin and what isn’t and what is a mortal sin and what is a venial sin. Without repentance mortal sins condemn you to hell for all eternity; venial sins land you in a temporary form of hell called purgatory. Mortal sins can only be certain of forgiveness if confessed to a priest. Venial sins can be forgiven by a sincere act of contrition. Who holds the power in this relationship?
Sins would be pretty stable things, wouldn’t they? You wouldn’t think that sins could change, would you? You wouldn’t expect to burn in hell for something in one age and be perfectly free to do it in another, would you? Yet that is exactly the case. I’ll give you two examples, one ancient and one modern.
Five hundred years ago, when Fr Roy would have been burning, the Vatican said it was a mortal sin to charge interest on a loan. It was called usury. That was why Jews were the money lenders. They didn’t have that limitation in their religion and Shakespeare made a whole play out of it, painting Shylock the Jew in a very unfavourable light.
Fifty years ago the Vatican taught that masturbation was a mortal sin and every priest agreed including me. Recently a group of priests were celebrating their golden jubilee of ordination. During a discussion on the moral teaching of the Vatican the question was asked, “Is masturbation a sin?” Every priest answered “No.”
How could a person burn in hell for all eternity fifty years ago for doing something which today isn’t even a sin? Perhaps I should point out, as far as I am aware the Vatican has never repealed its former teaching.
The fourth message is different. It is based, not only on what the Vatican said or did, but even more on the Vatican’s silence. Let me set the scene for you.
Fifty years ago in our moral theology lectures we learned the principle of double effect. If an action had two effects one good one bad it was permissible to do the good action provided that the good was not achieved through the bad. In other words that the good effect was not caused directly by the bad act. The bad effect was side effect not a cause.
An example of how this might work was the case of a dying patient in severe pain. The doctor gives a dose of painkiller sufficient to stop the pain even though it will shorten the patient’s life. Legitimate says the Vatican because the good is not achieved by the bad. The pain killer would kill the pain just as effectively if it didn’t shorten life.
An example of the opposite would be if a soldier becomes trapped in the tracks of a tank in a landing craft on D day.
If the tank moves he dies a agonising death. If it stays still till he can be extracted, uninjured they will all be sitting ducks for the shore batteries and they will all die. An officer draws his pistol and shoots the soldier. Not legitimate says the Vatican. The good aim is achieved directly by killing the soldier.
Now I am not here promoting or defending these Vatican moral guidelines. I am simply stating that these are what the Vatican was teaching fifty years ago and as far as I know still are.
Over recent years thousands have died from Aids and thousands of orphans have been created. The principle of double effect could have saved their lives. By wearing a condom a man could have protected both him self and his partner. The fact that the woman would not become pregnant is an unrelated side effect. The Vatican refused to lift its ban on the use of condoms. Hundreds of thousands died; hundreds of thousands more became orphans.
All power tends to corrupt.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely
Lord Acton 1834- 1902
The fifth message is one which, at least today, the Vatican would prefer not to give out. But every act of authority has the potential to reveal the corruption, the unfeeling, the ruthless treatment of long serving, faithful servants: Fr Bougois pitched out on the street in his seventies. His crime? Speaking in support of women priests.
Archbishop Law of Boston was in danger of being prosecuted for moving paedophile priests from parish to parish and never reporting their activities to the civil authorities. The Vatican moved him to Rome and gave him an important job. Now he is beyond the reach of American justice.
It would be nice to think that these are modern aberrations which can be overcome by reform. The evidence tells a different story.
Let’s deal with the hopelessness of reform first. Fifty years ago we had a reforming Pope, John XXlll. He tried to start the reform of the Vatican but was horrified to realise that nobody was carrying out his instructions. “They have disobeyed the Pope,” he exclaimed to a friend.
So on the occasion of a ceremony in the Lateran basilica he announced, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to call an Ecumenical Council.” An ecumenical council requires every Catholic bishop throughout the word to attend.
The Vatican immediately got to work drawing up the agenda and the conclusions which the bishops were going to rubber stamp. The bishops met, accepted the agenda and tore up the Vatican’s conclusions. They re-wrote the documents and the conclusions based on their discussions. A leading theologian influencing those debates was Hans Kung.
After five years of deliberations the documents produced by the Council pointed the Catholic Church in a new, more open more collegiate direction. They weren’t perfect but they were a huge advance on what the Vatican had had in mind.
Following the Council every Pope declared his commitment to its teachings while failing to take positive action to promote them; then quietly ignoring them and finally, under John Paul, acting as though they didn’t exist. Hans Kung is now banned from teaching in any Catholic institution.
Why is there no hope of the Vatican being reformed from within? Because corrupt people never reform themselves and Popes, even good ones, die. The Vatican never dies.