A Higher Standard Is Possible

The Archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand, John A. Dew, will be among the new Cardinals who will receive the red biretta at St. Peter’s on February 14. Archbishop Dew was a member of last October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family. His remarks to the press during the Synod are very troubling.

He told Salt and Light Television: “the message of the New Zealand bishops was that we wanted to see language in Church documents changed so that it’s something that gives people hope and support and encouragement, rather than being something that appears to many people that they can’t sort of meet the mark, that they can’t live up to the standards that the Church is asking of them.”

He also spoke about the response of Catholics to the pre-synodal consultation conducted by New Zealand’s bishops:

25 percent of the respondents were non-practicing Catholics and the message was that “It’s impossible when we’re told that because we’re using contraception we’re intrinsically evil or that we’re living in an irregular situation, that the language is so negative that it doesn’t help us.” So, my intervention was: Let’s not be concentrating on rules, but looking for language that helps people and encourages people in their journey to God.

[Note: the Church does not consider people using contraception to be “intrinsically evil”; rather, the use of contraceptives is intrinsically evil.]

Archbishop Dew wrote in his own blog from the Synod: “I gave my own Intervention today and it seemed to be well received by most. I basically said that we have to change the language which is used in various Church documents so that people do not see and hear the Church judging or condemning, passing out rules and laws, but rather showing concern and compassion and reaching out to help people discover God in their lives.”

This line of argument is not novel for him. He was a member of the 2005 Synod on the Holy Eucharist. The Holy See Press Office published a summary of his intervention in which he spoke about those “hungering for the food of the Eucharist” and argued “[o]ur Church would be enriched if we were able to invite dedicated Catholics, currently excluded from the Eucharist, to return to the Lord’s table. There are those whose first marriages ended in sadness; they have never abandoned the Church, but are currently excluded from the Eucharist.”

Archbishop Dew
Archbishop Dew

This calls for some comment: referring to a marriage “ending” is imprecise. Cohabitation with one’s spouse may end, a civil divorce may be obtained, yet one’s marriage to that spouse continues until death. Further, Holy Communion is not denied owing to civil divorce, but rather because of an adulterous union following divorce.

Archbishop Dew’s comments reveal lack of sympathy for Church laws that seek to prevent the sin and scandal of sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist by those who lack the proper disposition because they have civilly remarried after divorce. Note the pejorative references to Church discipline for the worthy reception of the Holy Eucharist as ”judging and condemning, passing out rules and laws” whereas he seeks a new approach “showing concern and compassion,” giving people “hope and support and encouragement,” using “language that helps people and encourages people in their journey to God.”

Apparently Archbishop Dew agrees with the sentiment of some of New Zealand’s non-practicing Catholics who contend that Church law and discipline about receiving Holy Communion “is so negative that it doesn’t help us.”

My question is: Help in what way? The purpose of those restrictions is to help souls attain eternal life. Canon 1752, the final canon in the Code of Canon Law, states: “the salvation of souls. . .must always be the supreme law.” Adulterous relationships are harmful to the soul, as is the unworthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. The sting that comes from being reminded that due to persistent violation of the Sixth Commandment – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – you are not worthy to receive the Lord’s Body in Holy Communion is actually salutary. It helps to properly form the conscience, and serves as a call to repentance and reform of life.

Archbishop Dew offered a strikingly different approach when a recent scandal involving political dirty tricks became known in New Zealand. He wrote an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald in which he stated: “It does no credit to political leaders to claim that an activity such as accessing the database of another political party is done by everyone. If something is unethical, the fact that it is widely practised does not make it ethical.”

He justified the media attention given to this scandal, saying “bringing into the light unethical and immoral behaviour through the media is one of the checks on the power of the state and a way in which those responsible can be held to account for their actions or inactions, as well as revealing their true character.” He said that this scandal “shows that New Zealanders desire a higher standard of moral and ethical behaviour among all New Zealand’s politicians and believe a higher standard is possible and necessary. It is an opportunity for restoration and a restatement of core moral principles that should drive the actions of our political leaders, rather than become an opportunity for excuses, deflection or minimisation and justifications of unethical behaviour.”

Archbishop Dew is absolutely correct that “a higher standard is possible and necessary.” And that there is no place for “excuses, deflection or minimisation and justifications of unethical behavior” and “[i]f something is unethical, the fact that it is widely practised does not make it ethical.” The same high standard for political life, which some compromised politicians might plaintively call judgmental, condemnatory, and lacking compassion, is all the more applicable in matters pertaining to the good of souls.

If the truth sets us free, then let the truth be spoken to all who need to hear it, that they might live by it.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.