Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine March-April 2009
The Drift of the Diocese
Is there, in the English Catholic Church, a crisis of confidence in the diocese as an institution which can be relied on: both to defend the integrity of the Catholic faith and also to promote it with conviction - to propagate it as being not just an optional lifestyle appendage, but as the indispensable key to life itself, as a faith which makes demands that must be met, not the least of which is the vocation to be a sign of contradiction to the values of the secular world?
At the time of writing, the current cause celebre in this general area (there usually seems to be one at least at any given time) was the dust-up between the governors of the Cardinal Vaughan School and the Diocese of Westminster in the person of Bishop George Stack. The Catholic Herald summed it all up thus:
The governors of one of London's leading Catholic comprehensive schools, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial, have accused the Archdiocese of Westminster of forcing the school to water down its Catholic admissions requirements.
They predict that the latest directives will devastate the school's ethos and deny places to deserving Catholic children from boroughs of London where Catholic secondary provision is poor. Cardinal Vaughan, in Holland Park, has traditionally served Catholics from varied backgrounds from all over London. However, Westminster diocese has threatened to report the school to the Government if it fails to apply only the bishops' "objective criteria" on admissions and no others.
The chairman of the governors, Sir Adrian FitzGerald, said the school already complies with the law on admissions. The Church, on the other hand, believes it is the bishops' responsibility to define Catholic practice and Cardinal Vaughan was
not allowed to make subjective judgments about "who is a better Catholic".
The diocese said Cardinal Vaughan was not permitted to take into consideration "involvement in the wider life of the Church" or First Confession and First Holy Communion. It insisted, however, that the governors were incorrect to claim that regular Sunday Mass-going would not be taken into consideration and nor would the length of time parents had taken to baptise the child. A spokesman for the diocese said: "The school would be allowed to give credit to families for going to Mass every Sunday through the priest's reference form [my italics].
The passage in italics is the most important bone of contention perhaps: according to the school, the diocese specified simply "regular" mass attendance as a criterion for the description "Catholic" (they do at least accept that Catholics should be given priority): the school insisted that Mass attendance be every Sunday and all weekday Holy Days of Obligation that may have survived the recent cull. The Diocese replied that it never said what the school said it said: it could specify every Sunday if it wanted to. The school demurred: "Diocesan Guidance (Para. A26)", retorted the Chairman of the school's governors, Sir Adrian Fitzgerald Bt, "does not state that schools can give priority to children from families who attend Mass every Sunday. It states that 'regular attendance' meansattendance more often than not as far as can be judged by observation. This could be as low as twenty-seven times per year." As for the school's requirement that Baptism should be within the first year and the Diocesan reply that it had never ruled this out, Sir Adrian rejoined that "Nowhere in the heavily prescriptive Diocesan Guidance can we find any statement that a criterion relating to
baptism within a year of birth is a legitimate one". The diocese said it had been supportive of the school; Sir Adrian said, well, in that case, why, when "the School's criteria relating to involvement in the life of the Church and reception of First Confession and First Holy Communion were ... agreed by the Local Authority" and when "in the annual consultation with relevant bodies these criteria attracted no negative comment" was there only one exception to this: three months late, the threat of the diocese of Westminster to report the school to the secular authorities?
In the end, what did the whole thing really portend; what was the subtext to this affair? Damian Thompson, in his Telegraph blog, was pretty sure that he at any rate knew very well what it was all about: under the headline "Catholic Lefties won't be happy until they've destroyed the Cardinal Vaughan School", Thompson concluded that "what it boils down to, as far as I can see, is that the diocesan bishop, H.E. Cormac Card. Murphy-O'Connor, after consulting his Left-inclined advisers, has changed the rules. The criteria for assessing Catholic commitment have been taken out of the hands of the school, and also surreptitiously loosened....Diocesan Tabletistas disapprove of the old-fashioned excellence of the Vaughan, which they consider to be elitist. So, using the excuse of new governmentguidelines, they are quietly moving the goalposts. And - hey presto! - one of England's best Catholic schools turns into a bog-standard but ideologically pure local comprehensive school."
Is that unfair? To read the diocese's side of it, you'd think so. But can you trust the diocese? The real point of this whole business, surely, one of them at least, is that there is a real lack of trust between the school and the diocese: the diocese is seen as the enemy, ultimately, of the faith itself: it is seen, in effect, as an agent of the secular power. And it is here that the affair becomes, not just a one-off battle between a bolshie set of school governors and a heavily bureaucratised local diocese but an emblematic struggle which enacts, yet again, the suspicion felt by many Catholics for the local Church authorities, usually in the form of the diocese. Most Catholics have a perfectly good relationship with their Parish Priest; the Church indeed, for most of us is embodied bytwo people: the PP and the Pope: only rarely by our local bishop and his administration.
What is the problem? Is it an institutional one: or does it have to do with certain key individuals? Is the diocese a compromised institution; or is the real problem the fact that there are just too many dicy bishops? In its Christmas edition, The Catholic Herald ran an extended interview with Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton, who seemed to go out of his way wilfully to embody episcopal diciness. For a start, he turned up dressed as a layman, looking, remarked Andrew M. Brown "trim and fit... and sporty. In his nylon zip-up jacket, dark jersey and slacks he might be a dad taking his son to a rugby sevens tournament". At the end of the interview, as the bishop prepared for his train journey back to his diocese, Brown alluded to his secular appearance; in reply "[h]etold [him] a story about how he once came back from a conference in clerical black and two people badgered him with their Da Vinci Code questions." As Brown drily commented, "It was a good anecdote. But as an explanation for not wearing clerical clothes, it struck me as only half convincing." This was a restrained way of saying something pretty damning: Bishop Conry was pretending not to be what he was so as to avoid having to defend his religion - an interesting contrast, incidentally with the reaction of Opus Dei, directly attacked in the Da Vinci Code as a sinister and murderous sect, who when busloads of Da Vinci Code trail tourists pulled up outside the houses of this supposedly secretive organisation, invited them in and answered their questions, attracting as a result hundreds ofnew vocations. (How many new vocations has Bishop Conry attracted?)
The whole interview is well worth studying in full as a classic of its kind: rarely has the liberal secularist Catholic mentality so uninhibitedly, even defiantly, displayed itself (you can read the interview by going to www. catholicherald.co.uk/ features/ f0000353.shtml). Above all, one is repeatedly struck by the Bishop's remoteness from reality. When Brown remarked that "[a] lot of conservative enthusiasm comes from the young", Bishop Conry explained this phenomenon by saying the reasons were "geopolitical more than theological", specifying "massive climatic change heading our way inexorably", the present economic uncertainty, the threat of terrorism, and the fact that "China could wage cyber-war". How these thingsexplain -for instance - the enthusiasm of Youth 2000 - one of the few really buoyant youth organisations in the Catholic Church today - for prolonged adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, is not perhaps, immediately obvious. But Bishop Conry is convinced that he is on to something here: he reckons he really understands young people. Brown's interview here was masterly, and was clearly well-prepared. As he tells us, "Since the Catholic Youth Services were closed down earlier this year, Bishop Kieran has supervised youth ministry in this country." So Brown went to the relevant website and discovered (with what glee may be imagined) a proposed "Youth Mass with a liturgy designed to appeal to youngsters": "Suggestions included distributing tips on high-energy light bulbs, handing out Fairtradechocolate and in a list of things to be sorry for in the penitential rite: leaving water in your kettle." Brown asked if the bishop thought any of this was a bit silly? Well, it might be, he replied:
But it's youth. We're not going to switch light bulbs on in young people's heads, not at a single event. But it was felt some of that would be appropriate for young people." Leaving water in the kettle? "For young people that's an issue - energy saving." Could the Church be more radical? Talk about the serious questions - repentance, salvation? "You can't talk to young people about salvation. What's salvation? What does salvation mean? My eternal soul? You can only talk to young people in young people's language, really. And if you're going to talk to them about salvation, the first thing they will understand is saving the planet. You're talking about being saved and they will say: 'What about saving the planet?'"
Is that really what they all talked about, those hundreds of thousands of young people at World Youth Day, in the intervals of all that old time religion, all that Pope stuff? Were they really not concerned about salvation and their eternal souls? Did they really talk about not leaving water in their kettles?
One could go on. "Is it a good idea to go to Confession regularly?" asked Brown; "No," replied the good bishop "because my own experience when we had Confession every day at St Chad"s Cathedral in Birmingham was that regular penitents came back with exactly the same words week after week." The Catholic Herald came in for a certain amount of disapproval in my parish for publishing the interview at all, as though giving Bishop Conry a platform implied the paper's approval of his views and as though if we ignore his views they will go away. The fact is that what Bishop Conry said encapsulated what we are all up against in the English Catholic hierarchy. Among the bishops, he is by no means the odd man out: that is Bishop O'Donoghue of Lancaster, that good and courageous man. We needto know that; the Herald did us all a service.