Faith & Reason: The Wagging Finger of the Old Man in the Vatican ; When the Pope Talks of Moral Truth the World Might Listen. but His Views on Civil Matters Will Rightly Be Subjected to the Common Sense of Conscience
Vallely, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
THE DUST hasn't settled yet over the reports this week that the Pope has decreed that Roman Catholic lawyers should refuse to handle divorce cases. Indeed there is not even agreement as to what he did say. Many interpret his remarks as interference in the secular judicial process, but others claim he was misreported and was, in fact, doing no more than re-stating traditional Vatican doctrine, and that he effectively blessed the work of lawyers who use the divorce courts to fight for a just division of assets or fair access to children.
Certainly we have heard similar stuff from the Pope before. Every year he delivers an address to the Roman Rota, the body of ecclesiastical lawyers who supervise the system of annulments which constitutes Rome's tacit acknowledgement that marriages do fail even if the Church pronounces them indissoluble. Indeed in recent years those canon lawyers have been given a ticking off by the pontiff for dishing out annulments too easily, infected, he says, by the example of secular society, through which divorce "is spreading like a plague".
Nor is the colourful language new. The Catholic Catechism talks of "contagion", and the Second Vatican Council's magisterial Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, spoke of "the plague of divorce". Where John Paul II did go a step further this week was in suggesting that Catholic lawyers in civil courts have a duty not to "co- operate in divorce" but should instead persuade clients into mediation and conciliation. Solicitors, who can decide whether to take on a case or not, he said, must "always decline to use their profession for a purpose which is contrary to justice, such as is divorce". They may only act for an "innocent party" whose intention was not to break up the marriage but only to use the divorce court to fight for a fair settlement.
This crosses an important line, one which Rome has previously stepped over only in telling Catholic doctors and nurses to refuse to assist at abortions. Since divorce is far more socially acceptable than abortion the move was bound to be more controversial. With such a precedent what may follow? Might the Pope, next time he condemns a military action - as he did in the Gulf War - tell Catholic soldiers to refuse to fight? Might he instruct Catholic judges in the US Supreme Court that they are acting immorally if they sanction the death penalty - which John Paul II has recently pronounced is almost always wrong?
The Pope could have restricted himself to a restatement of the Church's traditional position, whose underlying philosophy was this week succinctly expressed by a writer in The Scotsman thus:
This pope has a vision and it is this: that God is love and that marriage, which is based on a promise rather than a contract, is the most significant sign of His love. …