The only story of [the life of Pope St Callistus] we have is from someone who hated him and what he stood for, an author identified as Saint Hippolytus, a rival candidate for the chair of Peter. What had made Hippolytus so angry? Hippolytus was very strict and rigid in his adherence to rules and regulations. The early Church had been very rough on those who committed sins of adultery, murder, and fornication. Hippolytus was enraged by the mercy that Callistus showed to these repentant sinners, allowing them back into communion of the Church after they had performed public penance. (Taken from www.catholic.org.)

Doesn’t this sound familiar? I came across the above paragraph on 14th October, the memorial day of Pope St Callistus and thought of the current controversy over the apostolic exhortation Amores Laetitia (The Joy of Love). This document has caused serious divisions among Church leaders, with some following the example of Hippolytus and accusing Pope Francis of trying to change the Church rules on marriage. They stop short of accusing Pope Francis himself of heresy but argue that he is muddying the waters so much that it is causing heretical teaching in others and confusion among the laity. Other leaders, following the example of Callistus, talk of the need to apply Pope Francis’ teachings on mercy and compassion at a parish level, taking the individual circumstances of each person into account.

Callistus and Hippolytus lived hundreds of years before Benedict but I found myself wondering what advice he would have given them if he had been around at the time. The Rule of St Benedict was addressed to people who had renounced worldly affairs. However even a monastery is not immune from power struggles and differences of opinion on how to apply the gospel and Church teaching to everyday life. St Benedict would have been well aware of this and allowed for it in his Rule. By studying the Rule, we should be able to work out whether St Benedict would have supported Callistus or Hippolytus.

There are many relevant sentences in the Rule and it would be a monotonous exercise to list them all. Instead, we can concentrate on Chapter Two: What Kind of Man the Abbot Ought to Be and Chapter Three: On Calling the Brethren for Counsel. We read that the abbot must teach by both word and example; he must not love one more than another; he must not ignore faults in others but must be stern in one situation and loving in another, adjusting punishments to suit the character of the offender; he must remember that he will be called to answer for the souls in his care; he should consult the brethren on important issues and then do what seems most expedient, exercising prudence and justice. The community should then accept his decision without grumbling, continuing to defend their own opinion or complaining outside of the monastery. Finally ‘In all things, therefore, let us all follow the Rule as guide, and let no one be so rash as to deviate from it.’

Do these points help us to understand the current situation? If we think of the Abbot as the Pope and the Rule as Canon Law, what message do we get about how we should react to Amores Laetitia and those who are arguing over its teaching? It seems to me that, as the document was the result of two Synods of Bishops, the Pope followed the Rules guidelines on taking counsel and then coming to his own conclusions. However there is a significant body of people, both lay and clerical, who have not accepted his teaching. Are they doing the equivalent of deviating from the Rule or was the Pope’s teaching so contrary to Canon Law that it did not meet the Rule’s guidelines of being expedient, prudent and just? The only way to judge is to read the document for yourself, making allowances for whether you tend to be a Callistus or a Hippolytus, both of whom thought that they were serving the Church and doing what was best to save souls. 

                    Jane Coll, Oblate of Pluscarden

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