It is splendid to have Geoffrey back. The simple fact he now has the time, because Mrs Sales is better, is, in itself, a cause for celebration; but it is for what he calls his ‘contrarian’ point of view that we most appreciate him. He has, if he will forgive me, a gift for cutting through cant to the heart of the matter. Where many of us would have debated the rights and wrongs of the Ashers’ bakery case, Geoffrey points us to a broader picture – with a lesson for us on how we have, too often, behaved. It is not a pleasant message to receive, but it is a necessary one. His comments about the Irish Catholic hierarchy made uncomfortable reading, but for that very reason were essential reading. How should the hierarchy deal with these hot button issues, where the societal elite, of which they are part, take one view, and the Church another?
The fear of being thought to be censoring free speech is a very real one for many religious. In my own Parish we have had an active discussion on this very theme. One of our number holds, in essence, what might be called a Congregationalist Catholic point of view. A man of a certain age (mid 70s) and of the ‘spirit of Vatican 2/we are the Church’ ilk, he would like to be able to use our website to put forward views which question the teaching of the Catholic Church, and our priest (a man of similar vintage, but slightly different views) is, rightly, uneasy about that. But he is equally uneasy at the idea he would be seen as ‘authoritarian’ were he to simply use his veto and say ‘no’ to the idea. I therefore found myself leading the ‘simply say no’ line, and, somewhat to my surprise, found most people agreed with me, but had not wanted to say so for fear of being thought to be ‘authoritarian’.
Pope Benedict, as so often, expressed it best:
it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate
I have no problem with anyone saying what they want to say in their private capacity. If someone wants to contest the teaching of the Church, they are free to do so – but not, in my view, on a parish website. As regular readers know, I make catechetical contributions to that website, but I do so under my real name, and with the approval of the ecclesiastical authorities. I am pleased that not once has anything I have submitted been questioned or rejected, but if it were, that, too, would be fine. My priest and my bishops have spiritual authority, and I do not regard their perusal of my work as censorship. If I want to make a contribution to debate, I have other avenues, and will take them; the same is true for anyone in the age of the Internet. But if I am writing for the Parish, I steer clear of obviously controversial issues, and I ensure that, as far as is possible, what I write is in line with the teaching the Church. I do the former because a parish website is not the place to disturb the faithful, and the latter because it ought to be a place for good catechesis.
Is that to submit to censorship? No, it is to acknowledge two things which we often forget: that the Church is not a doctrinal free-for-all where every opinion has equal validity; and that those set by God to guard the faith do, indeed, have that duty, and that all Catholics wishing to write on the faith should remember that, especially when writing in any sort of official capacity, which includes writing for any publication calling itself Catholic.
None of that is to deny the freedom of speech we all enjoy, but it is to distinguish between licence and license. The Church does not deny its members the right to question, but it does try to draw a line between a mature contribution to debate and dissent for its own sake. That is not, some of us would say, a difficult distinction to make.