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The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen told readers in the US last week not to worry too much about the Vatican's reported intention to purge gays from the priesthood.

He wrote in an op-ed piece in Tuesday's New York Times: "Although this is a difficult point for many Anglo-Saxons to grasp, when the Vatican makes statements like 'no gays in the priesthood', it doesn't actually mean 'no gays in the priesthood'. It means, 'As a general rule, this is not a good idea, but we all know there will be exceptions'."

Allen then goes on do describe Italy - and, by implication, the Vatican - as a relativist's paradise.

"Fundamentally they believe in subjectivity... No law, most Italians believe, can capture the infinite complexity of human situations, and it's more important for the law to describe a vision of the ideal community."

For years, some American and Australian Catholics have been getting themselves in knots trying to conform their behaviour to rules, made by Italians, that were not intended to be obeyed literally in the first place.

But for most, the penny dropped in 1968 with Humanae Vitae's impossible ban on artificial contraception. Since then, common sense has prevailed, and the vast majority of Catholics have let such rules go through to the keeper. They've recognised its core message, which is that artificial contraception would not exist in the best of all possible worlds. But in the end, they've realised that such prescriptiveness just doesn't cut the test of practicability in the modern world. And moreover, strict observance of the "ban" would conflict with too many other moral values, including those prized by the Church.

As Catholics were digesting the news of the Vatican's imminent rejection of celibate gay priests, Australia's Cardinal George Pell was demonstrating that he was out of step with the Roman mindset within which such rules are made to be broken.

In an address titled "The Dictatorship of Relativism", he outlined to journalists at the National Press Club his vision for a resurgent Christianity that would overturn the "triumph of subjective values and conscience over moral truth". In other words, a very non-Italian version of Catholicism in which an un-thinking faithful would modify their behaviour in order to achieve strict conformity with the rules.

It's no surprise that Pell leans heavily on the ideas of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who coined the term "dictatorship of relativism" to oppose a way of life that "recognises nothing as absolute and which only leaves the 'I' and its whims as the ultimate measure". In his address, Pell made a point of dismissing the "weaker Christianity", in which Catholics are convinced that "the Second Vatican Council taught that they can now choose to identify conscience with their personal opinions, and disagree with Church teaching especially on matters of sexuality and life".

According to Allen's analysis, the difference between Pell and the Romans is that they would take a philosophical, "that's life", attitude to Catholics who decide it's necessary to flout the rules. Pell, on the other hand, would appear to be saying that even conscience-induced breaking of the rules disqualifies people from membership of his exclusivist version of the Catholic Church.

Even if Pell's brave new world of uncompromised values was accepted, it would be impossible to live. We might recognise our need for liberation from allegedly corrosive forces such as those that drive policymakers to put post-modern texts on the curriculums of English literature courses. But it's a vision that could best be most aptly described as "quaint". That is, for many it has an old-fashioned charm that assumes a less complex world that the one in which we're now living. But unless Catholics attempt to replicate the practicalities of counter-culturalism in the mould of the Amish, it's not going to happen.

For most Catholics, the struggle to pay the mortgage is more highly placed on the hierarchy of worries.



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