Wednesday, 4th October, 2000 - In which I read Dominus Iesus, petition for an annulment, meet Fr Anthony Fisher, and prepare for the birth of our baby

It has been a while since I last made an entry into this journal. What has happened in the meantime?

Well, I got a hold of a copy of the declaration “Dominus Jesus” from CDF. Although this has caused a stir among protestants throughout the world, and the media have played up this petulant reaction, the document was like a shot in the arm for me. It banished immeadiately any doubt that I had on the Catholic Church’s position on the matter of salvation. This document is so Christo-centric, so focused on the Incarnation, and so attaches the work of the Spirit to the work of Christ, that it could almost be a Lutheran document. Almost. What is patently clear is that the Lutheran Church could never make such a statement, for the statement speaks with authority and with theological clarity without ambiguity, and it dares to speak on something that the Lutheran Church would shy away from for the sake of political correctness: the status of other religions and other Christian churches.

Secondly, my meetings with P. and Peter Holmes have had a couple visitors over the last few weeks. One was a final year Sem student (T.?), and the next week a visit from AH, another final year seminarian. I did not talk freely in front of T., but knowing the questions AH was asking, I decided to be open with him and tell him my position. This led to an envigorating discussion between the four of us.

Regarding the annulment application, I received a letter back from Fr Anthony Kerin. This letter included a petition that I needed to sign to say that I was petitioning the tribunal for the declaration that my marriage to my first wife was null and void, on the basis of a mutual “grave lack of discretion of judgement”. The letter also said that Kerin would be happy to arrange an appointment with Cathy (which I could attend) to discuss the annulment or dissolution (which ever applies) of her first marriage. I wrote back trying to get clarification of both issues, and am still awaiting his reply. In particular, before I sign the petiton, I want to know whether the basis of “a grave lack of discretion of judgement” is just a regular starting point, or if signing the petition for anulment on that basis would actually preclude other bases being put forward for the anullment. I also wanted to ask exactly what a dissolution per favorem fidei was. I am a little anxious to receive a reply from them, but I realise that these things never move fast. I am informed that Fr Kerin is actually the judge on the tribunal, and this means that he must be careful what he says to me, hence it must all be in writing.

But by far the biggest step forward has come in my meeting with Fr Anthony Fisher on Monday morning. P., Peter and I had heard that Fr Fisher was to be the guest speaker at our pastors' conference, and so I attempted to contact him to ask if the three of us could have some time with him afterwards. I left messages on his answering machine but got no response. I then rang his secretary who said that he had just returned from overseas, and she would pass on my name and number. When I still had no reaction, I emailed Fr John Fleming to ask for a reference. John emailed me back to say that he was leaving for Melbourne that night (staying with the Archbishop) and would be seeing Fr Fisher, so I should leave it to him. Within the day, Fr Fisher had contacted me and I made an appointment to meet him at his home on Monday morning. It turns out that he thought I was our District President (our names are similar), and returning the call so soon after returning from overseas was not high on his agenda.

On Monday morning I called at Fr Fisher’s “home”--that is, at St Benedict’s Dominican Priory in Riversdale Road--and only then did I discover that Fr Fisher was actually a member of the Dominican Order. I had to wait in the porch of the priory for a while before the door was answered, and I had a strange feeling that this was an appropriate place for me, mirroring my place in the Church: standing in the porch, before a locked door, but looking out from the shelter of the porch to the world outside. Neither in nor out. Anyway, such metaphorical musing was put aside when the door was swept open, I was faced with a quick flash of a young smiling face and a white habit that swirled and flapped with rapid movement. After quick introductions, Fr Fisher quickly showed me into a nearby drawing room, asked if I wanted coffee, and then flurried up the stairs past a sign that said “Cloister”, and disappeared.

The whole introduction must have taken less than 10 seconds, and I found myself sitting in a rather cold high ceilinged room which was carpeted, painted and draped in blue. I was seated at a large antique table in a dining chair upholstered with blue leather. Five other dining chairs were around the table, and there were two (more comfortable looking) chairs, upholstered in the same leather, by the large bay window that looked out onto the church. In the corner of the room was a fireplace that looked as if it had not been recently lit (this was confirmed later, when an insurance agent came into the room to assess it). I noticed all this because I was seated there for about five minutes with no other sound around the place. The expression “as quiet as a cloister” occured to me.... Then Fr Fisher returned with a tray laden with a fresh pot of coffee, two plates of cake, milk and sugar. But no cups. So he raced back up the stairs again and this time returned promptly with a couple of mugs and the interview finally began.

First I told him my story, starting with my “conversion” after Easter, leading back to my 1986 “conversion”, and forward again to the business of Synod, then back again to cover my marital history and current situation. This took about an hour. When I paused at one point, Fr Fisher told me that he had known Dr Daniel Overduin [an eminent, Dutch-born pastor of the Lutheran Church of Australia, who was a leader in bioethics and the pro-life movement in South Australia; a close colleague of Fr John Fleming and my aunt/Godmother - David 2007], and that he had come into contact with John Fleming “when I was about 19” which was “in the late 70’s”, so I put him at about five or six years older than me, although he did not look it.

Then we began to discuss the issues that were raised. I cannot remember in what order this took place, so I will jot down here several points that I took away with me from the interview.

The most astonishing revelation of all for me was that if my marital situation could not be rightly ordered, I would not be able to be received into the Catholic Church. This is because at the time of reception, one must be able to receive communion. You can’t be recieved into communion without being received to communion. This is quite a blow for me, and re-writes one of my perceived possible futures. It means that if I cannot get my marriage anulled and Cathy’s disolved, I have no choice but to remain a Lutheran. I do not know how--or if--I could do this, but what choice would I have? At the same time, there could be some wisdom of God in this... I don’t know. Fr Fisher said that he knew of a layman who wanted to join the Catholic Church and had applied for an anulment on the basis of “grave lack of discretion of judgement” who had received his anulment within six months, so perhaps it will not be so long before I know.

In the meantime, he said we could prepare for reception parallel to this process, so that as soon as the annulment etc. comes through, I could be received. He has taken on the role of preparing me (through instruction) for reception into the Catholic Church, and has also indicated that he would be the one to receive me. Part of the process of instruction would involve recommended reading and regular meetings. In particular, he has given me a copy of Aidan Nichols “The Shape of Catholic Theology” to read, and has asked me to begin working through the Catholic Catechism, putting a tick or a cross next to paragraphs so that we can use this as a basis for discussion.

We also talked about employment and the priesthood. He made it clear that ordination as a priest could not be made a condition of reception into the Catholic Church, but that an application for ordination to the priesthood would probably be viewed favourably. If not, there are other possibilities, such as diaconate or pastoral assistant might be possible, although he pointed out that these jobs do not pay well, and that I might have difficulty supporting a family on them. I said that it didn’t concern me so much that I would not be able to be a priest (--“And never be able to celebrate the Eucharist again?” he interjected, to which I replied: "Of course this frightens me, but not half so much as the prospect of continuing to celebrate an invalid Eucharist.") but that I did wish to continue to serve the church with my gifts and skills, especially in ecumenism and in liturgy. He said that this might involve further theological study, to which I readily assented.

I think, thus far, this is the gist of what we talked about. I may think of other things to add as I reflect. I will make a time to see him again soon, although I guess the three of us will catch up with him at the conference.

The other day I emailed Peter Holmes saying:

Incidentally, this morning I am going to see Anthony Fisher about beginning a "process". This interview was arranged for me by John Fleming who was in town just recently, staying with the Archbishop. More later. (I hope you don't mind me going on my own, but I have some specific issues to face, and I think I am already committed to this line of action whereas you other two are not quite so. I will report fully on Wednesday).
Peter replied:
That's OK, but would you mind asking if I could meet him soon too? With respect to my own journey, right now I can't see any other path but the road to Rome holding any integrity. But, I'm committed to working through the issue slowly and methodically, and giving the Lutherans time enough to summon their best arguments against Rome's claim. In other words, I'll hang around in my parish for a while yet, plodding through the issues, talking it through with anyone who'll listen and if, at the end of say... 3 more years... I haven't read or heard a convincing argument against Rome I'll take the necessary steps.

Quite frankly, if I were a single man and just a parishioner, I'd be packing my bags right now. But I have family, in-laws, children and many fellow pastors who I need to show that I have not rushed into this, and that I have given them all every chance to prove me wrong.

I'll be looking to talk with Fisher pretty soon though, I need to talk through the practical process for me, and which things can be done privately, discretely, and which require a public stand. I'd also like to talk more with Catholics around the place who have a theological brain to pick.

I pray your meeting with Fisher is helpful, and I hope you can pass on my request, and details if appropriate.

But now there are far more pressing things for me to think about. Our second baby is due in the next couple of weeks, so we are right into the preparations. We showed Maddy her birth video last night, and then set up the birth pool in our room next to the bed. So all these musings will probably be put on the back burner once again. I am learning to be patient, and have resigned myself to the current situation and the present process.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2000 - In which I mail my annulment application, converse with my Seminary mentor, and hear about Dominus Iesus

Today I mailed my application for annulment. I was simply waiting the last couple of weeks for confirmation from my witnesses. Pastor T. (who was the celebrant at my first marriage) was the last to give his consent, which he did so by contacting me by phone a few nights ago. It was a good conversation--long and detailed. It reminded me how much he had been a good influence and guide in my life. He fully understood the issues I was raising, but, naturally, did not agree with the conclusion to which I had come. He said that he thought it was “a bit crass” to convert. I am not sure quite what he meant by this.

I had a long conversation with my Seminary mentor by phone yesterday. He raised for me the issue of “anonymous Christians”, and the Lumen Gentium statement about salvation being possible outside the church (Karl Rahner theology, etc.). He said that he found this to be the single greatest obstacle to the Catholic Church because making such a statement as the Vat II council did was going beyond the tradition, and was even heretical. I said that I needed to reflect more on this. Interestingly, today I received an email from G. about a new CDF/Ratzinger statement regarding the relationship between the Catholic Church and other denominations and faiths. I look forward to seeing this. [Coincidentally--if there are such things as coincidences in matters divine--this document turned out to be Dominus Iesus, which pretty well answered all my concerns and the objections of my mentor on this score. - David 2007]

For myself, I know that our own church has never made any definitive statement about the fate of those who, “through no fault of their own”, have not heard the gospel. We have recognised the universality of sin, and therefore that all people deserve eternal damnation, yet we have shied away from saying that those who die without any knowledge of the good news in Jesus Christ will automatically be condemned for eternity. We have “left it up to the infinite wisdom of God”, or some such thing. Now, I wonder if this refusal to make a positive statement about the damnation of those who “through no fault of their own” have not heard the Gospel is somehow the negative mirror image of the Catholic Church's positive statement that God may indeed save some who are in this situation. Given the latter, two other things must be stated: since Christ alone is the way to the Father, even these must come to the Father through Christ (“anonymously”?); and secondly, that there must be some criteria upon which God judges, and it is hard to see any other criteria than moral rectitude. My own suspicion is that this statement in Lumen Gentium is somewhat “philosophical”, that is, it acknowledges the theoretical possiblity of salvation by works (as in fact does Lutheran theology) without claiming that anyone has indeed been saved this way. The Catholic Church has never, for instance, canonised a non-Christian! [Nb. My interpretation of the Lumen Gentium statement here is wrong on at least one count: in the situation described, salvation is still by grace, and not by works - David 2007