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Different Approaches in the Catholic Church

 Different Approaches in the Catholic Church        Gerry OShea

Salvation provides a central theme of Christian apologetics: who will be saved and who will be heading in the other direction presents a major talking point for believers.  Indeed, even acknowledging the legitimacy of a discussion on the topic requires religious faith because nobody has come back to settle the question about how one’s eternal destination is determined.

Christians must also be open to realizing that we may well be asking the wrong question. After all, non-Christian religions like the Hindus and Moslems and Jews have very different perspectives on the afterlife.

Back to Catholic beliefs. Pre-Vatican Two thinking – up to the 1960’s - offered a clear set of answers for Catholics who were taught that they were members of “the one true church.” Sunday sermons stressed the 3rd century church belief asserting that “outside the church there is no salvation.” Older readers will remember this clear teaching laid down in the pulpit and in the penny catechism.

Even then people questioned the obvious unfairness of consigning those outside the church living exemplary lives to some kind of eternal damnation. Some liberal theologians came up with the idea of a baptism of desire where non-Christians, following high ethical standards, might be justified by a hidden desire for the sacrament. We haven’t heard that bit of casuistry  promoted in recent times.

Still, the constraints mandated by church regulations were - and still are - clear and Catholics disobey them at their peril. I recall a professor of Canon Law getting annoyed when students pressed him to justify such unyielding and supposedly unerring laws: “I mean to bloody well say,” he expounded, “the law is the law, and if you can’t follow it go to confession.”

Before Benedict’s elevation to the papacy he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s theological overseer, answering to the conservative Polish Pope John Paul 11. Ratzinger’s time at the helm is correctly described as a period of dogmatic certainty coupled with an abhorrence of what he dubbed moral relativism – there are right and virtuous acts and there are inherently bad ones with little room for giving the nod of approval for a bit of both.

Many Catholics agree with this approach because it provides clear unambiguous guidance about what constitutes moral rectitude. Ratzinger’s diocesan appointments to bishoprics and higher offices were nearly all solid traditionalists, yessing approval to every moral declaration from the Vatican. 

Differences between the Benedict and Francis approach to theology and to life are well-illustrated by Francis’ declaration about the homosexual lifestyle made early in his papacy, when he asked, “Who am I to judge?”

Traditionalists respond that a pope’s job always involves judging, stating clear and unambiguous Vatican positions. Francis’ non-answer on the gay lifestyle smacked of the moral ambiguity that so angered his predecessor.

Benedict argued in 2007 that only the Catholic and Orthodox churches qualified as “true” churches because they had legitimate bishops; the others he said are only “ecclesial communities.”

 To say that Episcopalians and Methodists and other Protestants felt angry and diminished by these words from the top man in the Vatican is an understatement. Recalling the huge ecumenical progress made since the Second Vatican Council, one Anglican bishop wondered what century he was living in.

 Readers will surely find all of this speculation about obtuse church matters far removed from people’s real lives in the 21st century, but there is a live strain among traditional Catholics who seem to revel in promoting the importance of the laws laid down in Rome.

Certainly, Francis was influenced by a different spirit when he travelled to beleaguered South Sudan recently, according equal importance to his travelling companion-leaders, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presbyterian Moderator of the Assembly of the Church of Scotland. They were on a peacemaking visit driven by the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount and ecclesial legitimacy – nebulous words at the best of times - was certainly not on their agenda.

Most of the bishops in American dioceses were appointed by Francis’ predecessor and they represent conservative thinking on all the moral issues of our time. Many favored refusing the eucharist to pro-choice politicians, including President Biden and the former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, both committed Catholics.

Francis objected strongly to the narrow mechanistic logic used by those propounding this position. He cautioned that receiving communion is meant primarily for struggling sinners and, perhaps, is not needed as urgently by the devout and virtuous.

Reflecting on his intervention in this issue, Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City angrily retorted that the pope “does not understand the United States just as he doesn’t understand the church in the United States.” Never mind that numerous polls show that on this issue of who is entitled to receive communion a majority of Americans strongly agree with Francis and not with the grousing archbishop.

Robert McElroy, recently promoted by Francis from archbishop of San Diego to cardinal, has a history of liberal thinking and is sure to be heard on controversial matters. His voice will be very different from the elected leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Recently, he urged the Church to “embrace a eucharistic theology that effectively invites all of the baptized to the table of the Lord, rather than a theology of eucharistic coherence that multiplies barriers to the grace and gift of the eucharist.” From this thoughtful cardinal’s perspective, baptism would be the only requirement for participation at the communion rails. 

He went on to urge that Catholics in a sexual relationship disallowed by Church teaching should not be precluded from participating in the eucharist. He argued that his approach is strictly pastoral, responding to the actual needs of the people in our time.

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church demands that “anyone conscious of a grave sin,” definitely including cohabiting outside of marriage, “must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.” This teaching further claims to be set down by St. Paul and therefore, from this perspective, it supposedly reaches beyond the pastoral to the doctrinal.

The synodal process is under way in all continents and proposals for radical reforms are being considered. Recommendations will be dealt with by bishops in Rome this October and, after final deliberations a year later will end up on Francis’ desk.

The rules state clearly that changes in church doctrine are not on the agenda. The big issues being discussed like the prevailing male dominance in the power structure, excluding women, and the negative teaching regarding homosexuality are certainly not tied to essential Christian beliefs. However, they are deeply embedded in the male-dominated church culture. 

The next few years in the history of the Catholic Church will be crucial for those who want dynamic new structures, including the tapering down of clericalism and new power arrangements that include women at every level.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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