In the past week, a number of matters have been brought to my attention which, whilst emanating from different parts of the world, bear certain common features. In each case, the issue concerned the formulation of personal attacks (usually by means of social media) upon members of the Church by persons proclaiming themselves to be acting on behalf of themselves and others. The similarities do not end there. In each instance, it was possible to identify the following components: a) the 'message' was directed to a specific person, targeted on account of their perceived adherence to Church teaching; b) the attack was formulated in terms which declared not merely the author's opinion of the target but professed to the the views of others; and c) the judgment was made in such terms as to make clear that any contrary view was unworthy of accommodation. In each case too, the target was a person who, by reason of their office, or, authentic commitment to obedience, were constrained from formulating any form of response; public or private.
As we know, civil and canonical laws make express provision for both defamation and privacy. It will rightly be pointed out that within any democratic society, one also has the right to freedom of expression. It is a matter of record that similar rights are enjoyed by the faithful within the Church. However, unlike secular culture, the laws of the Church clearly articulate the rights of the faithful in a manner which renders them inseparable from responsibility. Furthermore, and whilst it will be unwelcome news to some, the Church is not and cannot be encountered as a quasi-sociopolitical community; whether a democracy or otherwise. Rather, the Church -and her priesthood- were instituted by Christ Himself.
This reality may be considered uncontroversial; and indeed, incapable of argument. For others, these truths are impedimenti to be overcome or removed. Nor is this perspective confined to those outside the Church. It is a view which has clearly gained traction with those who would wish to reconfigure the Church; adopting a path of travel whose co-ordinates are based on culture not creed. No less problematic is the fact that the culture in question demonstrates no accommodation to views, perspectives, or values, which are inconsistent with its own. It is for this reason that certain members of the Church have found themselves vilified. Such vilification is, seemingly, not on account of views expressed or provocations uttered. No. Their offence: perceived adherence to the Church's teachings.
Clearly, the laity (faithful or otherwise) have the right - and sometimes the duty - to manifest their opinions upon matters which: "pertain to the good of the Church." But, one might be forgiven for concluding, the bonum ecclesiae is unlikely to be served by the abandonment of the teachings of its founder or the revelation and mission with which it has been entrusted.
As is often the case, the implications of such a course will be readily recognised in other institutions. Nor is there any shortage of literary works upon which to draw to corroborate this proposition or the truth it represents. In the course of the last century, Trollope penned his characters of The Warden, Proudey and Slope; capturing in each the virtues and deficiencies of the institutional established Church of England of the day. The dilemma which confronts certain members of the Church today is far less subtle or nuanced. Nor does it require extensive prose to portray the fallacy upon which their views rest. In fact, one need no look no further than a literary work for children.
In the Tales of Beatrix Potter, we encounter a number of creatures who personify the whole panoply of human traits; including stupidity. One such character is the aptly named fowl: Jemima Puddleduck. Having encountered a 'gentleman' out for walk, she is beguiled by his speech and flattered by his attentions. In due course, she accepts his invitation to dinner; at the same time complying with his request that she contribute 'sage' and other ingredients. The enthusiastic and attentive reader will already have detected the plot: the 'gentleman' in question is a fox and Jemima is 'the dinner'. Her safety lay in a very basic, but nonetheless irreplaceable, form of social distancing. But how does this relate to the Church in our present times?
From the instances to which reference has been made, it is evident there are those within the Church, who like Jemima, are operating under the mistaken belief that, in their demands for abandonment of the Church's teachings, they are contributing to a banquet in which all may participate in crafting the menu. They do so, seemingly, without any appreciation of the purpose for which the banquet is being held: to celebrate their demise. To continue the metaphor: there be any splitting of the bill.
In the readings for the novus ordo Mass today, we hear in the letter to the Romans that we are to concern ourselves with the spiritual. Likewise, the Gospel reading celebrates not the knowledge of the world, but the Wisdom of God. With these passages in mind, and without laying claim to any form of novelty, perhaps the focus of all the faithful should be and remain upon Christ Himself. He is and remains The Person of Interest. Perhaps then, and only then, will we truly grasp that our rights and freedoms are gifts upon which we may legitimately draw in order to discharge our responsibilities to Him and to His Church. In serving both, we have some prospect of serving His mission and not our own. In the words of the hymn:
"The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, his shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard."
Our Lady - Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.