“Opening Up”, Julian Filochowski and Peter Stanford (editors) (BOOK REVIEW)

Reviewed by John Cook

Julian Filochowski and Peter Stanford (editors), Opening Up, Darton Longman and Todd, ISBN 0-232-52624-9. £14.95.

The sub-title of this book is “Speaking Out in the Church”. The 24 contributors (almost all of whom are Roman Catholics) write about the need for the Church to go back to Jesus, his example and teaching, his life, death and resurrection: but to note what life in the world is like now. The book is a plea for the Church and the Gospel Message to escape from the shackles of past thought and practice, and to address the realities of human life in 2005.

Several contributors point out that the Church should be a listening and learning Church, not just a teaching Church. “We are Church. Together. We are multi-hued, we are female as well as male, we are gay and straight, we are all sinners and all would-be saints. And we must learn again to listen to each other.” It is “a global people united in sacrament and solidarity striving to follow the Lord in this broken and divided world”.

Down the centuries the Church has been impoverished by concentrating power and authority in the ordained, and under-valuing the experience, the thought and the insights of its lay members. Baptism has primacy over ordination. Having an all-male ordained ministry has further weakened the understanding and the applying of the Gospel. Chapter after chapter is a plea for the Church to get real about sexuality, poverty, and peace. Theological seminaries should ensure that students (and staff) understand the realities of God’s good gift of sexuality. “What you don’t know can hurt you”. Sexual intercourse is for expressing and building up a loving relationship, not just a means of producing babies.

Believing that Jesus showed God’s love for all people, clergy, nuns and others have worked amongst gay and lesbian people. Unsympathetic members of the hierarchy have tried to stop them. Priests have been rebuked for welcoming gay and lesbian people to receive the Holy Sacrament.

No one doubts that the Church needs rules. There is no virtue in chaos. But “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath”. To forbid the wife of an HIV-infected man from insisting that he uses a condom, is to promote death not life.

The Church also needs to get real about Options for the Poor. God is described in the Bible as “the Father of orphans, defender of widows”. The cancelling of unpayable debt, and the promoting of fair conditions of trade are urgent. There is no salvation for the rich if the poor are ignored. “Extra pauperes nulla salus” – outside of the poor there is no salvation.

I am typing this review on the day that newspapers report the publication of “An Instruction concerning Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with Regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders”. The document, from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, says the church deeply respects homosexuals. But it also says it ‘cannot admit to the seminary and the sacred orders those who practice homosexuality, present deeply rooted homosexual tendencies or support so-called gay culture.’ The document reiterates the Church’s traditional teaching that homosexual acts are ‘grave sins’ and also intrinsically immoral and contrary to natural law.

Writers in Opening Up point out that respecting Natural Law means the Church has to take account of scientific discovery. The Earth does revolve around the Sun. Human beings do not choose their sexual orientation. All of us, lesbian, gay, straight, need to live our sexuality in ways which conform with the two great commandments: to love God whole-heartedly, to love our neighbour as ourselves. God calls some of us to a life of celibacy, God calls others of us to a faithful sexual relationship of love.

“Traditional Church Teaching” emphasises the importance of applying church rules carefully to particular circumstances. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and the levite obeyed the rule of purity (do not touch what might be a corpse) rather than the rule of compassion. The Church needs its members to cultivate and obey an informed conscience, rather than be unthinkingly compliant.

The book has been published to mark the beginning of the leadership of Pope Benedict. As the introduction states “Opening Up is not a monochrome or tidy gathering. There is no common experience, temperament, register or angle of vision. But each voice, in its individual and sometimes contrary way, is a reflection on love, truth and justice in the Catholic Church spoken in honour of a friend.”

The friend is Martin Pendergast, who ”hast given most of his life to cherishing those who are on the margins, whether of society or the Church”. Martin is a member of CSCS.

Our CSCS leader, Jane Fraser, is one of the contributors. She has written the chapter “Teenage Pregnancy: are the Churches to Blame?” You cannot read this chapter without being forced to think very deeply indeed.

Reading this book is like opening the window of a stuffy room, and receiving breath after breath of fresh air. I recommend that as many people as possible read it. With thinkers and writers such as these, there is hope for God’s Church on earth.


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