I would like to put the argument of my first piece with the above title a trifle more crudely, just to prove that I am as adept as the next man at smelling of the sheep. 'Demotic' is my middle name.
As we have seen, we now have a situation in which a Pope, or an Episcopal Conference, can apparently disregard or treat with contempt what a Pope taught or enacted as little as seven (or nine) years previously. Let us explore the implications of this. Are you sitting comfortably?
Suppose you have a Church which claims a Magisterium, a Teaching Authority which (it says) possesses a divine guarantee. Now ... be realistic. Such a body might, if sufficiently dishonest, be able to get away with unobtrusively ditching some unwanted doctrine in a few centuries. Only dusty old pedants might notice. What I am suggesting is that such a Church will find it much, much less easy to get away unnoticed with ditching a dogma in less than a decade. People remember; people notice ... people who accepted the earlier teaching and have a problem with the change will notice it; and so will the people who disagreed with the original formulation and are now cock-a-hoop about the fact that our wonderful new pope Francis IV has just dumped it. The change will be obvious to both sides.
What is going on now is, in my view, gravely worrying, for the following reason: the whole plausibility of the Papal Magisterium, and of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, is being severely undermined. Perhaps, already has been.
Suppose this pope, or any pope hereafter, puts out some, any, piece of teaching. Any Catholic will have every right to ask a question somewhat along these lines:
"Thank you very much indeed, Holy Father. Most interesting. Lovely stuff. Now ... can you just clarify one detail ... that teaching you've just given us ... when is its use-by date? Is it one of the cut-price Seven Year Decrees favoured by the English bishops, or one of your own much more durable Nine Year Jobs?"
So when ... for example ... will Laudato si get to the seven-year expiry date which the CBCEW has with such sophistication imposed on a magisterial enactment of Benedict XVI? By my calculation, on 24 May, 2022. Then we shall all be able to heave a great sigh of relief and happily get back to the agreeable occupation of trashing "the Common Home". Yes?
But stay: what's so Magical about seven years? Surely the CBCEW will not want to be reported to Bergoglio as being Inflexible and lacking in Mercy? I'm sure its members all have salami slicers in their kitchens. Why not five years? Three? One? Or ... yes ... surely, "Six Months" has a rather lovely flavour to it?
So perhaps Laudato si expired on November 24 2015? Or will you accuse me of irrationally fetichising the Sixness of that? "You idiot, three months is more than long enough", I hear you all noisily cry. I "fess up", as the young people say. I have not a leg to stand on. Perhaps, just for bureaucratic neatness, we should assume that a papal teaching enjoys validity between the date of its official promulgation, and the date when its text is released.
To be, just for one moment, dead serious and to drop all that irony: I very much fear (1) lest this pontificate go down in history as the occasion when Pope Francis I cut off the magisterial branch he was sitting on; and
(2) that it may be very much more difficult for a future pope to glue the branch back onto the tree.
We did once see, in Ireland, a man demolishing a wall by standing on top of it and whacking it with a crowbar. Happy days. Happy country.
Deo volente, this piece will continue with two more sections.