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Can speech be free in the Catholic Church?

  • 09 April 2015

Some 60 years ago the German Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (pictured) wrote a pamphlet on free speech in the Catholic Church. His explorations may seem now to be very tentative, but were daring at a time when the Pope took positions on disputed questions and demanded acquiescence.

Rahner's Catholic world was different from that of today. In discussions about the Synod on the Family, cardinals have differed publicly on how to approach irregular relationships.

Priests in England drafted a letter, invited other priests to sign it, and made it public. In turn, English Cardinal Vincent Nichols rebuked them for caucusing.

Meanwhile Pope Francis has insisted that the participants in the Synod are free to express their opinions, urged them to give priority to people at the margins of church and has proclaimed a Holy Year of Compassion to coincide with it.

In Rahner's time free speech was looked at from the perspective of the teachers of faith. The questions concerned the content of faith, what was open to discussion and what was closed, who could speak authoritatively about it, and what were the responsibilities of those being taught.

Within this framework Rahner tried to enlarge the area left free for discussion, and to expand the responsibilities of those receiving teaching beyond passive acceptance. He agreed that public conversation about faith should avoid confusing people or diminishing that the expression of opinions should not confuse people about faith or diminish respect for teaching authority.

Pope Francis also takes for granted that teachers will teach and Catholics will receive Christian faith. Like Rahner, he encourages lively conversation about its implications, believing that this will enhance the credibility of what is taught and that the truth will commend itself. His confidence distinguishes him from many Bishops who emphasise the danger of error and confusion among ordinary Catholics living in a culture antipathetic to faith. This difference underlies some of the divergences in responses to the Synod.

But the deeper differences arise out of Pope Francis' distinctive perspective on the communicating faith. He is less concerned with the content of what is taught than with how it is understood, particularly by those who are at the margins of the Catholic Church. He is concerned that preoccupation with explaining the whole Christian message in technically correct language often leaves people at the margins of church alienated from what they see as bad news. So he asks how the Gospel can be heard as