Malachi O'Doherty: Most Catholics now view their faith as an a la carte menu of options to accept or discard... and the truth is that it suits the Church
The hierarchy is content to let the faithful sort out their own consciences. Let's face it, if everyone who used artificial contraception was excommunicated, there'd be no one left. By Malachi O'Doherty
When is a Catholic not a Catholic? There appears to be a simple answer to that. If you are a member of a Church and you don't obey its rules, then the authorities within that Church can expel you. That is called excommunication; one is put outside the communion of members.
There are a few cases in which you can do that to yourself. For instance, according to canon 1398 of the Code of Canon law, if you procure an abortion you are latae sententiae excommunicated; that is, already sentenced.
You may not know it, if you haven't read the law. Your own priest may not know that you are no longer a Catholic if you haven't told him that you have procured an abortion, but by the law of the Church you are out.
And if you want to become a Catholic again you have to go to your bishop and confess your sin and be restored to the Catholic communion.
But everything can work out okay for an "already sentenced" excommunicated person. He or she can go to Mass, even get married in a church, so long as no one in authority within the Church knows that the axe has already fallen. The wound does not show.
The Church teaches that, in order to receive the sacraments, you should be in a state of grace.
I remember conversations I had with the late Fr Denis Faul, a man I disagreed with on many things but had a huge admiration for. I put to him the question that many unionists had asked about why the Church gave the sacraments to IRA killers.
The answer was that one might not know the state of mind of a killer when he or she dies. In that instant, there may have been repentance, therefore it would be wrong to deny the person the funeral rites.
But what, then, of the killer in prison who is clearly unrepentant? Fr Faul was saying Mass in Long Kesh and giving communion to republican prisoners who were anything but repentant. He said it was not for him to judge the state of the heart of that prisoner.
I also discussed this once with Martin McGuinness and he said that his interpretation of the Second Vatican Council was that he could act with an informed conscience and that, if one's conscience honestly did not regard it as a sin to kill a soldier, then the IRA man might make a good confession without even mentioning it.
He said that an IRA man might "read Playboy" on a Thursday, shoot a soldier on a Friday and go to confession on a Saturday, confess the sin of reading Playboy and not mention the killing and be in a sufficient state of grace afterwards to receive communion on a Sunday.
I quoted all this from our conversation on Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence and several Church people responded by saying that McGuinness was wrong.
The conversation with Fr Faul had not initially been about IRA killers, but about the divorced person. I asked if a woman has left a marriage and been divorced, can she receive communion?
He said yes, she can, so long as she has not entered into another marriage. If she has remarried, or is having a sexual relationship with someone other than her husband, she is sinning.
"And you would refuse her communion?"
But not every priest would do that. On another occasion, I was visiting Jesuits in Ballymun during research for a television documentary with Moore Sinnerton of Chistera Films, with whom I made several programmes in the 1990s.
While there a woman in the room asked a priest on behalf of a divorced friend if the friend would be turned away from communion. The priest said: "It is not for me to know the state of her conscience. If she feels it is right to come, then she will not be turned away."
And it should not be surprising that the Church is generally leaving people to sort out their consciences for themselves, because one major sin, in the eyes of the Church, is now almost universally overlooked.
In 1966 Pope Paul VI published the Humanae Vitae encyclical urging married Catholic couples to attain to the holy state of chastity in their marriages and banning the use of artificial contraception.
He had been advised by the Irish philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe that, if the Church approved of sex for purposes other than procreation, it would deprive itself of an argument against homosexuality. If heterosexuals could have sex for pleasure, or the expression of intimacy, then what sin were homosexuals committing?
The Catholic clergy knows fine rightly that most people in Ireland use contraception. By the letter of Catholic law these people are sinners and should confess and desist before they can be allowed communion.
I am not a Catholic, but I often find myself at Mass for funerals or weddings, and I observe that nearly everyone in the congregation on these occasions goes forward for the eucharist.
They have decided for themselves that they are not sinning. They have decided that the proper judge of the state of their souls is themselves and not the priest. They believe that the Church is not the hierarchy, but the people.
Nearly all Catholics now are a la carte Catholics, taking the part that comforts them and disregarding the rules they don't agree with.
Some like me decide not to be Catholic any more, but many want to go to church at least occasionally - perhaps at Christmas.
Many want to marry in a Catholic church and be buried with the last rites of the Church.
They have come to an accommodation with themselves and the Church which suits them nicely.
And this is true not just of laggardly insincere Catholics, but also of some of the most devout, some of them radicals within religious orders.
In truth it suits the Church, too. It does not want to lose members. At times it wants to declare that it speaks for millions of people in Ireland when it patently does not.
It wants to be able to say that the Catholics of Northern Ireland require a Catholic school system, because they are believers, when the real reasons they want it might be more complex.
But this accommodation fails before the question of abortion for one who has declared publicly a vote for abortion law reform.
The rule is that if you want governance of your own conscience, you keep it to yourself. That way you don't embarrass the Church by reminding it that its rules are now just a menu of options that the faithful can pick and discard as they like.