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The loss of the Church's authority: morality

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 29 January 2018

There was a time, before the roaring 1960s, when the Church acted the role of public guardian of morals and it did this through its influence on government legislation and through its congregations. After the 60s this influence came tumbling down all over the Western world. Divorce and remarriage became easier, contraception more available, abortion laws liberalised, homosexual acts were no longer illegal and governments gave up censoring content in the media. Governments in the West withdrew their influence on the private lives of their citizens. Legislation allowing assisted suicide is the next frontier in liberalisation.

Most of these changes were opposed by the Catholic Church and many regretted by evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant denominations. They all had popular support. It is clear that the spread of democratically elected governments means, as one would expect, that these governments are bound to popular opinion and less to the urgings of the Church. This means that we are now in an age in which the moral guardianship of the Church through legislation or influence on governments is at an end. Moreover, the church has lost its moral authority over its adherents. There were hold-out countries like Ireland and Italy but even these countries succumbed to liberalisation of laws on marriage, divorce, sexuality and censorship.

In an avalanche of public opinion, legislation enshrining same sex marriage in law has become almost universal in the West. This is perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Churches moral authority. Add this to the discovery of sexual predation of children by the clergy and we realise that the Church, when it asserts moral authority, has little of that authority left.


An increasing majority of people have decided that they will make their own decisions about their sexual lives without reference to the Church. This is most obvious in the number of couples that cohabit before marriage and who use contraception (between 90 percent and 100 percent of couples who seek a Catholic wedding are already living together). "Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful] suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject."

In the face of these changes the Church has been left embarrassed and powerless. More importantly, when people walked away from the moral pronouncements of the Church they walked away from the Church itself. The Church is perceived to be irrelevant in its moral pronouncements and subsequently also irrelevant in its core proclamation of the gospel.

The Roman Church is more susceptible to this loss of authority simply because it has persisted in its attempts to closely order the private lives of its adherents. The system of canon law, epitomised in the manuals of moral theology, represented the outworking of Neo-Scholastic arguments based on the idea of natural law. The argument goes as follows: since God was the creator of nature, laws derived from the order of nature were understood to be the immutable law of God. Natural law is thus not open to new insights either into the human condition or into the nature of the world.

The arguments concerning sexual activity reveals the reasoning. Once it is decided, by reason of natural law, that sexual activity has only one function i.e. fecundity, it is decided that any other activity is disordered. This means that the only appropriate receptacle for semen is the vagina. It is therefore held that male masturbation is a sin as is any sexual activity between same sex male couples who must live under the judgment that their relationships are "inherently disordered." This understanding also condemns any form of assisted conception.

This reasoning implies an ordering of creation that is transparent to the human mind despite the chaos we see in nature. While it may seem extreme to compare the forbidding of contraception, to say, to the Christmas Day Tsunami of 2004 that killed a quarter of a million people, there is a connection. We live in a world of terrible beauty that does not reveal the hand of a loving God. How can we make seemingly trivial conclusions about victimless sexual activity based on the natural order when there is plainly no such thing?

Nature proceeds in its own course and will crush human beings who stand in its path. This is not to say that natural law arguments are baseless. It is obvious that men are ordered to have sex with women for reasons of procreation. But why does that exclude other acts that nurture affection and love? If we applied this reasoning to the consumption of food we would face a culinary disaster! The problem with natural law arguments is the imposition of a positivism of creation, that there is a direct connection between the natural world and the will of the creator.


The cooperation between Church and State that operated before WWII begs a question about how the Church came to be so influential through government. The answer lies in an examination of the origins of the early Church and how those origins were, through the centuries, betrayed.

From its beginnings in a small circle of men and women who began to understand that the life and death of Jesus radically changed how they thought about themselves and God, it slowly changed into a powerful organisation with influence over government. An explanation of how this happened may be partly found in the transition of the Christian Faith from an obscure movement with its roots in Israel, its risen Messiah and its insistence on grace as opposed to law, into the official religion of the Roman Empire courtesy of the Emperor Constantine (272-337AD).

For Constantine, the Christian God was not associated with the Jesus who confronted the violence of the Roman Empire with his naked body, but was a God of the battle that he associated with the destruction of his rivals. This was a crucial change and it turned the Christian sect into a religion like any other religion in which the believer can expect material help from the deity. Thus, Constantine instructed his armies to pray to the God of Christians before they entered the battlefield.

This new kind of Christianity, become religion, was individualistic and self-interested and became fatally contaminated with the inverse of the gospel of grace; power and control. The Christian "religion" was born; not out of its origins in love for the neighbour and the enemy and the regeneration of the self in Christ but out of religious self-interest. This self-interest was heightened by the adoption from Greek philosophy of the idea of the immortality of the soul and its destiny after death.

The Church transformed the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God to men and women as an earthly, personal and social reality into judgement after death, a judgment that weighed souls in the scales of good behaviour and meant that believers were never free of anxiety. This was the Medieval synthesis that is influential to this day in some circles.

These motifs have morphed into the Popular Christianity of our time although hell has, for some reason, gone missing. What pretends to be Christian belief today is belief in the existence of a supernatural being who exercises worldly agency in creation, responds to prayer and who welcomes the souls of the dead into heaven. This god is a lawmaker, not only of the physical laws of the universe, but laws that control human morality. Christianity has been fatally conflated with the moral. This is why commentators fear that society will descend into chaos as the Church increasingly fails. The Church for them is in the business of crowd control.

This is a profound misconception of the nature of the gospel. Jesus did not institute a moral law, he lived a different life that was marked not by rules and regulations but by a heady freedom. Christians may live moral lives because they are transformed into the image of Christ, the basis of which is kindness, justice, truth and service, all different aspects of love. Jesus was put to death by the rule makers and Paul was of the opinion that the law brings death but the Spirit brings life. This Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.

The Church in Australia as represented by the main denominations is now on its knees. It is dying not only in attendance but in the training of the clergy. As it is true for congregations, the clergy is not being replaced by younger men and women. The effect is doubled; fewer congregations can afford a failing ministry. It is increasingly difficult to maintain academics in theological colleges who have only a handful of candidates to teach. The intellectual life of the Church is in peril. This failure can only aid Popular Christianity that relies more on the gut than the mind.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Church seems destined to ride the decline to extinction. One would think a concentration of resources would be possible, particularly in the cathedrals, so that the theological, musical, artistic and architectural resources of the Church could be preserved until a renewal is possible. One would think that the understanding about the transformation of theology between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would be foremost in the minds of educators, preachers, bishops and moderators. There is little evidence that it is. Instead, we get a concentration on "spirituality" i.e. the same old theological methodology centred on human need.

So, what is the future of the Church? It will obviously get much smaller and its influence will continue to decline because it will take more time for the husks to be separated from the wheat and thrown in the fire. But wheat will remain, perhaps as an underground movement and will germinate when the time is right. The time will come when we discover that we have no real foundation for life, that the gods we have erected have failed us, when we find that increasing technological advancement turns to ash in our mouths and culture is increasingly only fashion. Christians can hope because we know that the Word has entered the world and cannot be taken back.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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