Saturday, January 25, 2014


   During my doctoral studies in Rome, I lived at the North American College graduate house on the Via del Umilta':  Humility Street.  Humility Street is a very narrow street, one block from the Trevi Fountain.  For a while it was a chaos of two-way traffic with Fiat autos and Vespa motor scooters racing headlong at one another.  The situation got so bad that the Roman authorities changed the street from two-way traffic to One Way.

   One afternoon I opened the door and out of habit, looked both ways before stepping out.  It was siesta time and the street was empty.  Then to my right, a Fiat turned the corner and came in my direction--the wrong way.  I looked the other way and there at the corner stood a Roman policeman, waiting for the car to reach him.

   I said to myself, "The poor driver is going to get a ticket!"  But then, I saw the policeman look both ways down the cross street. Though I couldn't see, he saw that no traffic was coming either way.  So instead of stopping the driver and giving him a ticket, the policeman motioned the driver to continue past him and go on his way.  In that little experience, I saw the policeman take a "pastoral" approach rather than apply the literal meaning of the law.

   Cardinal-designate Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, takes a strict, literal approach to the law, including the teaching that divorced and remarried Catholics cannot receive Communion.  Recently, Cardinal Maradiaga, of Honduras, suggested that Mueller soften his approach and be more flexible.  Maradiaga noted that Mueller is German and is therefore accustomed to following the letter of the law.  Maradiaga, whose culture is closer to that of the Roman policeman, is suggesting that he take a pastoral approach.  Each approach must account for the other in our expression of morality. 

   Besides our approach to morality, our understanding of what is moral arises from several sources.  Most immediately, it arises from our everyday life-experiences, i.e., from our "everyday wisdom".  More deeply, it arises from reason--and this includes our best understanding of science and our best understanding of human nature.  Finally and most deeply, it arises from our Faith.  

   In the past, we have used these sources to change our moral teachings and approaches, e.g., on slavery, usury, and religious liberty.  Today we can legitimately ask, "Could there be reasons from everyday human experience, from reason itself, and from our Faith, that make it all right for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion?  And if so, like that Roman policeman many years ago, can't our church leaders allow for these reasons?"

   Also, beyond the question of marriage and divorce, many Catholics today are looking anew into their lived experience, and at reason and our Faith, to question and re-discern the teachings on responsible contraception, on the gay expression of our humanity, and on the theology of women.  In many ways, this is a time for testing the Spirit. (Cf. 1 Thess. 5:19-22).

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