“The Pharisees . . . noticed that some of [Jesus’] disciples were eating with unclean hands, that is, without washing them. For the Pharisees . . . keep the tradition of the elders and never eat without washing their arms as far as the elbow; and on returning from the market place they never eat without first sprinkling themselves. There are also many other observances which have been handed down to them to keep, concerning the washing of cups and pots and bronze dishes”
Every time I read or hear these words, I am reminded of my mother’s question put to me before any meal at home and elsewhere, “Have you washed your hands?” I was often tempted to ask why this was necessary since I would be using a knife, fork and spoon to eat the food and not my fingers. Being a dutiful son, and not wishing to risk a clip round the ear, the words never reached as far as my lips. Hygiene in the preparation of food for human consumption is vitally important, but unless I have been digging in the garden or emptying the rubbish bins around the house, I confess that to this day I do not always approach the dining table with freshly washed hands.
The question of whether non-Jews who became followers of Jesus were bound by Torah rules regarding kosher food and ritual purity, as well as circumcision, was a contentious one in the early days of Christianity. The ritual hand, dish and pot washing practised by the Pharisees – there is no evidence to show that this was a widespread practice among Jews – likely sprang from a fear that they could have come into contact with ritually unclean things in the course of daily use.
This obsession with purity gave rise to a sharp rebuke from Jesus. Labelling the righteous Pharisees as hypocrites he quotes to them from Isaiah, “This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. Their reverence of me is worthless, the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments” (29:13).
As I began to study and reflect on this passage from Mark’s gospel, my thoughts turned not only to the familiar territory of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality, on the use of artificial contraception, on divorce and remarriage, etc, but also on the Vatican’s obsessive pursuit of purity and, ultimately of control, in many other respects. We have so many examples to choose from: the ‘VatiLeaks’ episode that revealed rivalries and corruption  at the heart of the Church but which officials denied while harshly treating the Pope’s butler who was arrested for leaking his private papers; the disciplining of bishops, priests, theologians, religious sisters who dare to question Church policy on, to give a few examples,
the ordination of women, homosexuality, intercommunion with other Christians, the use of condoms in the struggle to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. I do not doubt the sincerity of Pope Emeritus Benedict when he said in the run-up to the Year of Faith, that “the New Evangelisation needs adults who are mature in the faith and witnesses of humanity” (Address to the Italian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 12th May 2012). He added that what is required is the formation of adults who have “encountered Jesus Christ, who has become the fundamental reference of their life; persons who know him because they love him and they love him because they have known him; persons capable of giving solid and credible reasons of life”. While I would not disagree with a word of that statement, a niggling question nevertheless remains in my mind, “What if those adults who develop a literate faith legitimately argue, to take just one example, that the encyclical on birth control (Humanae Vitae) is nothing but a human commandment bearing no relation to the teaching of Jesus?” It beggars belief that the present Bishop of Portsmouth can still claim, forty-six years after the release of the encyclical, that it is an infallible teaching. when the response of Catholics across the decades, certainly in Europe and North America, clearly indicates that there is little consensus on the issue. Yet, in the Philippines, with a population of more than 92 million (and growing at an alarming rate), the majority of whom live below the poverty line, the bishops strenuously opposed a Reproductive Health bill introduced by the government. “The lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments.”
Against the background of ‘silencings’ by the Vatican of priests in Ireland and elsewhere, investigations of theologians, the threat to religious sisters in the United States to ‘toe the line’ or else, the removal of bishops from their dioceses, we may legitimately ask whether the scrupulosity of certain individuals for every jot or tittle of Church law and teaching does not suffocate the Holy Spirit.
A little over a year has passed since the Papal Conclave of 2013 that elected Pope Francis I. I am reminded of words he spoke in his interview for Jesuit journals throughout the world: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you . . . How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.”
It is a pity that the late Cardinal Martini (he died in August 2012) would not allow his assessment of the Church to be published until after his death, but his verdict is no less valuable for the delay. In a conversation with a friend, Federica Radice Fossati Confalioniere, recorded by Fr Georg Sporschill SJ, he said, “We have to ask ourselves if people are still listening to the advice of the Church regarding sexuality.” On the Word of God (he was a renowned scripture scholar) he said, “The Second Vatican Council gave the Bible back to Catholics . . . Only those who perceive this Word in their hearts will be able to take part in the renewal of the Church and will respond to personal questions with the right answers . . . Neither the clergy nor canon law is a substitute for a personal response.” How he must be rejoicing in heaven now that his prophetic words seem to have been heeded by the present successor of Saint Peter.
Family life will be the focus of an extraordinary general session of the Synod of Bishops that will meet at the Vatican this October (5th-19th). Their subject will be the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation.” It is time for fresh thinking on matters concerning the family: marriage breakdowns and divorce, reform of the annulment procedures, contraception, homosexuality, same-sex unions, etc. More of the same will not do. It is time for a good old-fashioned spring-clean that is more thorough than a little sprinkling of water here and there.
● Benedict Luckhurst