How many people reflect on the fact that the Hebrew word we transliterate as ‘shibboleth’ means ‘ear of corn’? I think we might be tempted to call it a ‘wisp of straw,’ especially when the belief in question is one we do not share or regard as outmoded. I often think that many people in Britain today regard Christianity as rubbish, possibly even dangerous rubbish, and certainly not worthy of respect or any attempt to understand. As a result, whenever Christianity comes into conflict with contemporary attitudes it is dismissed as old-fashioned, over-rigorous or just plain wrong. If one questions what someone means by Christianity, one frequently discovers an ignorance so profound as to be frightening, bolstered by an inadequate grasp of history and a conviction that a very literal interpretation of biblical texts is all that is needed to make one an expert in what Christians believe. If I sound harsh or hyper-critical, it is because I have often been on the receiving end of such misconceptions; and I am beginning to wonder whether our current fascination with the visual (rather than with text) is making it more difficult to argue a case or express an opinion reasonably.
Take, for example, the Catholic Church’s pro-life stance. To anyone who has studied it, it is entirely consistent. From the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, the individual’s right to life is regarded as clear and unequivocal. Abortion and euthenasia are equally unacceptable; capital punishment may just be allowable, but there is a vast body of opinion that argues against it. Divorce and the possibility of remarriage are difficult areas, and as for same-sex marriage or choosing one’s own gender, the Church doesn’t believe it possible. Not, please note, that the Church is against it; she just doesn’t believe we can decide such matters for ourselves. All these things make Catholics out of step with contemporary British opinion, and often with other Churches that regard inclusivity as more important than tradition. But then, of course, other things come into play. I trust my divorced and remarried friends, my trans friends, my friends who have had abortions, find me as welcoming as those whose lives have taken a different course. And there’s the rub.
Looked at from outside, Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, can appear harsh in its refusal to accept unquestioningly many of society’s current values. Where there is congruence, as, for example, in awareness of the earth’s finite resources and the need for more equitable sharing or for the pursuit of social justice and the common good, there is no problem. But even where there is disagreement, as in some of the instances I have mentioned, these disagreements are not carried over into condemnation of the individual or personal animosity. We are a Church of sinners, and that knowledge teaches us to be humble in the face of difference. We uphold what we believe to be true because we believe it to be true. To do otherwise would be to do violence to our conscience. But we must always be ready to explain, and to make sure that what we believe to be the teaching of the Church really is the teaching of the Church, not our own version of it. Love has a way of making difficult or contradictory things easier. It reminds us that shibboleths can take many forms. Only discernment can show which are nourishing ears of corn and which are transitory wisps of straw.
Please note: I don’t want to get into an argument over the teaching of the Catholic Church in this blog. If you want to know what the Church teaches, a good place to start is the Catechism, which you can find online in English here. (Link opens in new window.)