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The loss of the Church’s moral authority

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Reading Tony Judt's Postwar I was reminded of the liberation of public morals that took place in the early 60s in the West. Immediately post WWII, most of the countries of Europe, including Great Britain, had legislation that sought to control the private lives of its citizens. In many cases the Church was involved in defining these laws, especially on the continent with the rule of Christian Democratic parties, for instance in Germany and Italy. Quoting Judt:

Homosexual intercourse was illegal almost everywhere, and punishable by long prison terms. In many countries it could not even be depicted in art. Abortion was illegal in most countries. Even contraception was technically against the law in some Catholic states, albeit often condoned in practice. Divorce was everywhere difficult, in some places impossible. In many parts of Western Europe (Scandinavia once again being a partial exception) government agencies still enforced censorship of theatre, cinema and literature, and radio and television were public monopolies almost everywhere, operating as we have seen under strict rules as to content and with very little tolerance for dissent or 'disrespect'. Even in the UK, where commercial television was introduced in 1955, it too was strictly regulated and carried a publicly mandated obligation to provide 'enlightenment and information' as well as entertainment and advertisements." p373

This picture began to move in the late fifties and early sixties. Liberal democratic governments, whilst increasing their involvement in welfare, drew back from involvement in matters of religion, sex and artistic taste. Unlike the Church, democratic governments were able to respond to public opinion and it was that opinion that broke the nexus between government and the Church.


Particularly, it was the Catholic Church that lost its authority in moral matters because it had been so involved, via government, in the exercise of such authority. For example, the decline of the influence of the Catholic Church in Quebec was marked by the declericalization of public education and a dramatic change in the roles of nuns who has previously attracted 2-3% of Canadian women and a sharp drop in the fertility rate beginning in 1960. Quebec was on the way to becoming a secular state. Divorce became legal in Italy in 1970 and attempts to abrogate it by the Catholic Church was defeated in 1974. Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe indicating that the Vatican's ban on contraception is widely flouted and same sex union became legal in 2016.

There are many more examples, but the most striking is the change that took place in the Republic of Ireland that voted to legalise divorce in 1995. The country was rocked by clerical sexual scandals in the 1990-2000s and in 2015 the unimaginable happened when same sex marriage became legal.One of the most devout Catholic countries in the world threw off the Authority of the Church. This coincided with a dramatic fall in Mass attendance that indicated that it was not only the moral authority of the Church that was rejected but the Church itself.

The recent postal vote on same sex marriage in Australia is but a continuation of the loss of moral authority of the Church. This is most notable in those Christian denominations that understood their role to be the defining of public morality i.e the Catholic Church and the various fundamentalist or evangelical churches. These churches derived the law of God from natural law and Scripture and see obedience to that law as integral, even, I suspect, central, to being Christian. Liberal society has turned its back on this and, unfortunately, on any involvement in the Church. Thus, by overplaying its hand in the dictation of morality, the Church has become doubly estranged from society. The turn away from imposed morality has produced a turning away from the Church itself to the impoverishment of many.

The gradual liberalization of public morality places those churches that emphasis obedience to the law of God outside of mainstream mores. No longer can they rely on government to support their case because government, being democratic, has gone the way of popular liberalism. These churches may not find this situation a bad thing because it further defines them over and against the world. However, becoming ghettoised deepens the chasm that has opened up between church and society.

The Church's loss of authority over public morality raises the question as to core business of the Church. If the Church sees itself as the moral guardian of society from whence does it derive its guidance? I have argued that neither a naïve biblicism nor natural law is capable of providing a useful and consistent ethical system if indeed such a thing is possible or desirable. If it was capable of such a thing then why has its efforts been so easily and almost universally overthrown? The intransigence of the Vatican to mass disobedience illustrates that it is incapable of listening to the voice of the people but holds fast to sexual morals that are not obviously part of the original tradition of the early Church let alone the New Testament.

It is not as though secular morality advocated violence, theft, adultery, envy and bearing false witness or anarchy. The turn away from the morality proposed by the Church was to do with divorce, contraception, abortion, same sex marriage and extramarital sex. Whilst one would think that pastoral advice on these topics would be welcomed, that is quite different from a one size fits all prohibition with attendant consequences for the standing of members of the Church. The problem is the scholastic rationalism that draws hard and fast lines on areas of human life that are uniquely complex. The human tends to get lost in rationalist arguments.


There is such a thing as Christian ethics but it finds its origins in the living out of Christian discipleship and community rather than in the quotation of texts or a reliance on natural law. Ethics comes from who we become in Christ rather than rules applied from outside of ourselves. Our freedom comes from the fact that we do not know what we will become, that is always in process. The sexual abuse scandals that the Church has endured bears witness to the failure of morality. Men and women act out who they are, not what they have been taught is right. The idea that intellectualism should and could control desire has been found to be wanting.

Surely this was apparent in Germany during two world wars. A nation steeped in Christian morality, both Catholic and Protestant, became enthralled to schemes of national grandeur that produced unimaginable acts. Christianity, for many but not all, was shown to be hollow, a thin veneer of intellectual assent that did not reach into the centre of a person's being. Paul's problem with the law was exactly this: it left the inner person untouched.

By extending its attempt to control public morality the Church has overreached its remit and suffocated the moral sense. Rather than relying on the hearing of the gospel and the nurturance of the Christian community to generates persons who became Christ-like and hence acted in a Christ-like manner, the imposition of rule based morality left individuals in in a pre-adolescent state without an internal locus of compassionate action. How else can we explain the barbarity of the two world wars carried out in the name of the German Fatherland or Mother Russia (later commuted to the Supreme Soviet)?

The writing is on the wall for Churches who cling to what they perceive as Christian morality. The path out of their impasse lies in robust theological work and in giving up their assumed moral superiority. In short, they must nurture the faith that tells them that they are simply heralds of the advent of the Word and that that Word will do its work transforming the hearts of men and women and thus transforming the world. Surely that is the essence of faith. Faith is letting go of control and of trusting that the Word in Christ has entered the world and that we are but it's accomplices.

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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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