Occasionally, and then generally by accident, the TV screen serves the purpose of revealing the truth. One such occasion was that of the ABC's Couchman Over Australia which purported to analyse the condition of present-day Catholicism in the aftermath of the much-debated series Brides of Christ
The organisers of Couchman Over Australia are, of course, merely concerned with assembling a crowd which will provide "good television" - that is to say, a lively debate which will not make too many intellectual demands on the average viewer. However, even with this qualification, this particular edition of Couchman Over Australia vividly illustrated the increasingly incontrovertible fact - that there were two groups of individuals, both describing themselves as "Catholic", with radically contradictory interpretations of the nature of Catholic belief in the areas of doctrine and of morals. Which should, of course, create a major problem in logic, at least for the tiny few who believe that logic still matters.
A sceptic might argue that both views were misrepresentions of the real thing. Nobody, however, could argue that both views were right, since they were contradictory. The enemies of Catholicism would have been delighted that the Catholic Church should have got itself into such an apparently inextricable mess.
The road which led Cardinal Newman's ultimate conversion was a persistent endeavour to discover which of the competing Christian Churches was the Church of the Fathers. His reasoning was that the Church of the first four centuries, being chronologically closest to the life of Christ Himself, was most likely to be that Christ.
If Newman were alive today he would at once have recognised which of the two groups on Couchman Over Australia actually represented continuity with the first four centuries. The group was small. It comprised Bishop Pell, Peter McGauran of the National Party, and, at the beginning of the discussion, the former Labor Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Lionel Bowen, although by the end of the session, he appeared to have lost track of the central issue.
Those whom Newman would not have recognised as Catholics would have been a number of ex-priests, ex-nuns, former seminarians and former Catholics in various stages of alienation from the religion into which they were born and which some of them still claim to profess.
Bishop Pell was forced to draw attention to the fact that the Catholic Church's only claim to truth rested on the fact that it was established by Christ and that it was bound by His teachings. Whether or not these teachings were reconcilable with 'progress', feminism, environmentalism, or any other of the substitutes for religion which enjoy a contemporary vogue, was, in this view, fundamentally irrelevant. The second group barely gave nodding recognition to the essential principles of the Faith, as revealed by Christ; to the development of doctrine and ecclesiastical structures - particularly the episcopate and the priesthood - which flowed from His teachings in the first two centuries of the Church's history; and to the organic development of the concept of authority which has evolved consistently through the Church's General Councils down to the Second Vatican Council.
For the second group, these principles, inscribed in Catholic tradition from the beginning, and further defined and developed by General Councils, had little, if any, authority. They were simply human inventions, and reflected male dominance throughout the history of Christianity. They were far less "the truth" than a male gloss on the truth.
It did not appear to concern the second school that if the Church had been wrong on fundamental issues of doctrine and morals for two thousand years, then throughout all of that period, the Church had been permitted to teach error and falsehood. The only intelligent course of conduct for any rational person would be to leave the Church.
To believe that the 20th century inventions of a Father X or a Sister Y should be treated seriously as any kind of binding substitute, would be fantasy, not to use Stephen Leacock's more acerbic phrase, moonbeams from the larger lunacy."
Particularly noticeable was the overwhelming preoccupation with sex. Humanae Vitae had shattered them all. It was the Church's teaching on contraception and divorce which was the bone which stuck in their throats, understandably enough since many, if not most, of the exponents of the second view seemed to have encountered serious personal difficulties in this aspect of their lives. Not one of them seemed to be familiar with the point made by Hans Küng in Infallible? that the Church's teaching on contraception had been taught consistently and uniformly since the earliest days of Christianity and that it was therefore binding on Catholics without the necessity for a definitive statement on the part of the "extraordinary" Magisterium. (Küng added that since the teaching was obviously wrong, it was nonsense to claim that the Church was infallible on anything).
At least one of the nuns, still apparently a member of her Order, made it clear that her purpose in remaining within the Church was to transform it from within, substituting the propositions of militant feminism as a necessary gloss on the Church's past teachings. In other words, her role was that of the Trojan Horse. Having apparently been corrupted by centuries of male domination, the traditional teachings were in need of re-interpretation. What the Holy Spirit was doing across twenty centuries to permit the Church, which he was supposed to inspire, to teach error was left unclear.
The resultant situation is that both sets of contradictory views are, in practice, regarded as being within the parameters of Catholic faith and practice. This can only mean that there is no irreducible minimum of traditional Catholic belief which must be professed by every single Catholic, if that person was to be entitled to call himself or herself a Catholic.
The situation is, in fact, much worse since it is obvious that those who hold the progressivist view are in charge of the bureaucratic structures which effectively govern Australian Catholicism today. It will be their substitute for Christ's revelation which will be handed down to the generations whose minds they control.
The consequences of permitting this situation to remain are abundantly clear. By the end of the decade the already small percentage of those still attending Mass will be smaller still. Among those who do attend, an even smaller percentage will have any idea of the central core of Catholic beliefs which constitute the Catholic message. Catholicism will have been driven even closer to the outer margins of existence; not as a result of persecution, but as a result of internal decomposition. This, incidentally, is precisely the way in which great civilisations disappear: the fundamental core rots from within so that it requires only relatively small external pressure to bring about general collapse.
When the Archdeacon of York recently called on the Anglican Church to recognise that it was hopelessly split, the London weekly, The Economist, speaking from a secularist viewpoint, commented:
"A Church should not huddle together, vaunting its spirit of 'compromise' when one-third of its members have a quite different view of order and authority from the other two-thirds, as is the case over women's ordination. The centre cannot hold when one kind of Anglican believes that the only way forward is to move with the times, and another kind clings to practices set down over centuries. Both can make sound, theologically respectable cases for themselves - but not for endlessly papering over of the differences that divide them."
If that is the condition of Anglicanism, can Catholicism be far behind?