by Norman St. John-Stevas
THE OTHER NIGHT I had an agreeable new experience; I was guest for the first time at a dinner of the Knights of St. Columba. I found the speech of one of the leading knights, with its simple declaration of loyalty to the hierarchy and clergy, agreeably refreshing and oldfashioned. The knights do not propose the health of the hierarchy at their gatherings at any length: the toast is purely formal.
I am told that this was not always the case but when the hierarchy were asked for their views on the change they gave it a heartfelt assent. Prudence I suppose.
The knights also pledged their loyalty to the Pope. "We are," sail their spokesman, "Pope's men." I hope they will send an enrolment form to the Archbishop of New York. For good measure they also pledged themselves to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Even a columnist must be satisfied.
One the most impressive recent efforts of the knights has been to organise prompt and efficient aid to the victims of the recent Italian floods in Florence and elsewhere. In a field where the Government has been so tardy it is good to see a private organisation filling the gap. All English people have a feeling for Italy, but Catholics should have a stronger one than most since Italy contains the headquarters of the Church. I congratulate the knights on their timely initiative.
As a result of my article on Mr. Charles Davis last week I have had a record postbag, most but by no means all the correspond ents agreeing with what I said. Clearly the departure of Mr. Davis is much more significant than the loss of faith in the Church by a single man: it has touched a nerve.
In a period when the Church is modifying her institutional framework a double stress is felt, one by those who feel that she is not going fast enough and another by those who feel that she is going too far. In this situation we should recall that the changes in the Church, not all of which may be to our taste, must on the premises of our faith being inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Personally I rather like the triumphalist and the baroque, but I accept that it must pass away. I am saddened that the Pope no longer wean a tiara: that it is no longer the thing to kits bishops' rings: that gentiluomini are on the way out, but I accept these historic losses as necessary if the Church is really to get close to the people in the century in whirl' we live. Others who do not care a fig for tiaras will regret other changes, but the point really is that we all have to make sacrifices as individuals for the greater good.
One of the most disturbing points made in Mr. Davis's recent article in The Observer was that many Catholics he knew were leading good lives in spite of rather than because of the institutional Church. If this is true, it points not, as he appears to think, to a duty to reject the Church but to the need for the development of new institutional forms which are relevant to people's lives today.
I also found his complaint of lack of concern for truth in the Church a telling one. That this is the case with some people 1 have no doubt, but again the point is that this arose from a lack of intellectual freedom which the Second Vatican Council has done much to remedy.
No doubt more needs to be done in the matter of Holy Office reform but because a reform is not accomplished fully is not an argument for throwing in the sponge and giving way to despair. Rather one should continue to press on until one has reached the goal.
Mr. Davis also complains that he had to move mountains of ecclesiastical rubble to produce a few sprigs of theological thought, but that again is a necessity in a time of transition. That is what theologians are for. The sadness is that where Mr. Davis sowed others will now reap.
Last week I mentioned that in my view a major cause of his defection was that the weight of authoritarianism he had to bear had become too heavy. By this I was certainly not referring to any relations with his own ordinary, of which I have no knowledge, but to the general burden of authority in the Roman Church as a whole.
Despite the letter of a corre:pondent from Liverpool about abortion last week, I hone we shall her no more from Catholics about abortion behg murder. Such intemperate polemic does more than aaything else to strengthen the hands of tho-e supporting the present Bill. The severe penalties in Canon Law against abortioni-ts were there not because the canonists regarded abortion as worse than murder but because they thought heavy penalties would be effective as a deterrent, which is a very different thing.
Another correspondent took me to tack for making a joke which he thought unsuitable for "a !eading Catholic M.P." In politics it is evident'y safer to be a co-retoondont than a wit. Sorry, I've offended again.