In an age of relativism men and women still need to appeal to an authority. The major difference for modern men and women is that that authority is their own interpretation of what Scripture means and, as we know, the reading of Scripture to one’s own damnation began early enough for St Peter to warn us of false teachers and the turning of the word to one’s own purposes. This, of course, Catholics believe, is why Jesus did not write a book, but founded a Church; the Church, which tells us what Scripture is, also knows how to read it. A Protestantised sense of Christianity sometimes leads questioners to ask what the Church says about verse x or verse y, but this is to misunderstand how Scripture is to be read and has always been read in the Church.
It is precisely because verses can be read out of context that the Church reads, and advises us to read, Scripture in the context of which it is a part – that is Holy Tradition. It is not accidental that modern liberals read it otherwise, because they know that to read the Bible in the tradition of the Church is to give massive weight to the past, and, being self-consciously modern, they reject the past and prefer what? They prefer what the old Church of England prayer book rather splendidly called ‘the devices and desires’ of their own hearts, and we know the heart was ever deceitful.
But in this world, change is constant, and in a Church guided by the Spirit to an ever deepening and widening knowledge of the infinite faith, it is not to be expected that things will stand still or that the Church will be pickled in aspic. Once it was commonly held that the Jews were damned and that the primary duty of Christians was to convert them or shun them; this is no longer what the Church holds, and for many of us this is a good thing. The theological underpinnings of this can be found in Nostra Ataete, but the spiritual underpinnings came first, and come from Christ’s own teaching on the importance of mercy. We do not go wrong if we follow this; we do if we forget that repentance on the part of the sinner is part of the process of mercy; those who do not believe in sin have a problem here, which they seem to ignore by ignoring its existence. It is here that more conservative-minded Catholics can be tempted into an occasion of sin by becoming irritated with the sleight of hand at play.
Jesus does, indeed, not judge the woman taken in adultery. She is guilty under the law of Moses because she was caught in the act, and the penalty was clear. But Christ reminded her accusers that they too were sinners, and interestingly, this effected them to the extent that they backed away from stoning her. Christ told her to go away – and sin no more. He did not invite her to establish a polyamorous community in which all that mattered was that no one got harmed and everyone loved each other.
It is this last part which those Catholics who intone mercy so loudly wish to ignore, and they do anything which smacks of being judgmental; this, at the same time as they judge others as ‘haters’ and ‘intolerant’; since there are few things more intolerant than a liberal faced with conservative views, and few can hate more, there is a comical side to all of this; or there would be if some of our liberals were not touched to the quick by this and if they possessed a self-critical attitude. But you cannot be self-critical if you are the authority, as it is on that mountain of sand your whole position is built.
For the rest of us, we rest of the rock of Peter. It is true, as Newman commented many years ago, that the marshland below the rock is a little humid, but at its summit the atmosphere is serene. What, of course, worries some is what happens if the Pope himself is inclined to take his own views as being preferable to tradition. The recent Synod suggests the answer is he gets told that whilst his opinion is always worth listening to, the teaching of the Church on certain matters does not change.