Swimming Against The Tide

William Oddie FAITH Magazine January-February 2006

Every Catholic still remembers as though it were yesterday the moment they heard the news bulletin or witnessed the event: that unforgettable moment of the proclamation as pope (cum magnam gaudiam) of Eminentissimum Cardinalem Josephum (interminable pause) Ratzinger. It was, we all realised at the time, inevitable that it would be followed not only by the incredulous glee of those of us who had hoped for it, but by a prolonged knocking spree in the secular media — in which I include, since their attitude to the Magisterium is virtually identical, such organs as The Tablet and the American National Catholic Distorter (whoops, sorry, Reporter). Indeed, one way among others of reading the election, after such an unusually brief conclave, of such a magnificently counter-cultural successor tosuch a magnificently counter-cultural pontiff was that it was an act of splendid defiance of the western liberal intelligentsia: truly, the Cardinal electors showed themselves, collectively, to be the signs of contradiction that John Paul II had called on all of us to be.

I knew that there would be howls of execration (more or less muted), since I had been one of a small army of commentators who had spent a large part of the previous three weeks in radio and television studios doing interviews, at first on the implications of John Paul’s pontificate and then on where the Catholic Church should go now, what kind of Pope we ought to have and who it might be, and finally on how on earth the conclave could have come up with the most impossible candidate of all (Private Eye did a splendid spoof piece under the headline ‘Shock horror: Cardinals elect a Catholic as Pope’). Again and again there were uncomprehending questions about the late pope’s ‘policies’ — and his successor’s ‘policies’ — on homosexuality and divorce and abortion and contraception; again andagain I explained that these were not the ‘policies’ of one man but the teachings of the Church, which had been proclaimed by all previous popes and which would continue to be taught by all their successors. I might have saved my breath to cool my porridge. What was obvious enough, now that Joseph Ratzinger had been elected, was that anything the secular world (including its extensive outposts within Christian ecclesial communities) disliked about Catholic teaching would be blamed on him personally, since if only the Cardinals had elected someone sensible (Cardinal Martini perhaps) we might have looked forward to the overnight abandonment of all these objectionable and reactionary impositions on the personal liberty of anyone weak-minded enough to have been brainwashed into acceptingthem.

I remembered all this when I read the Catholic Herald’s report of the visit to England in November of the openly — indeed noisily — homosexual Episcopalian (American Anglican) bishop Gene Robinson, under the headline ‘Anglican bishop’s tirade against “ vile” papal policies’. The good bishop had come to England to address a meeting in St Martin in the Fieldw, which was held to mark the tenth anniversary of the Anglican ‘gay rights’ group ‘Changing Attitude’. Referring to the then imminently expected (and profusely speculated-over) document from the Congregation for Catholic Education — the general purpose of which was understood to be the exclusion of homosexuals from seminaries — Bishop Robinson accused the Church of an ‘act of violence’ against them. ‘I find it so vile’, he said, ‘thatthey think they are going to end the child abuse scandal by throwing homosexuals from seminaries’. So far, so predictable. It was the claim that accompanied it that was slightly less so, at any rate to anyone unacquainted with the Anglican mind: ‘We are seeing’, said Robinson, so many Roman Catholics joining the Church. Pope Ratzinger may be the best thing that ever happened to the Episcopal Church’.
Dr Austen Ivereagh, the spokesman for Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, sensibly enough, said that it was ‘inappropriate for Bishop Robinson to comment on a document which has yet to appear and which the Catholic Bishops haven’t seen yet,’ and went on to say, again unexceptionably, that the document was likely to say that ‘seminaries are not appropriate places for young homosexual men with issues about celibacy’; well, indeed — it was likely to say that at the very least. What Dr Ivereagh did not say was that Bishop Robinson was saying no more than some Catholics have said.

It will be instructive to return in due course to the case of Bishop Robinson, to the effect of his consecration as bishop on the Anglican communion, and to his interesting claim that ‘Pope Ratzinger’ may be ‘the best thing that ever happened’ to the Anglican church in North America. First, however, it is worth looking a little more closely at the arguments of some of those Catholic commentators who would like the Catholic Church’s attitude to homosexuality to be considerably more Anglican: in other words, for it to become so much a matter of personal opinion (and local custom) that it would become impossible to say what the Catholic view actually is, or indeed, whether there actually is a Catholic view at all. The technique here is to describe as ‘controversial’ any view that clasheswith the prevailing liberal secular ethos. Thus, for example, under the headline ‘US seminary visitation mired in controversy’, the Tablet reported the existence of a 13 page working paper or instrumentum laboris, the purpose of which was to guide those who were to carry out a visitation, last October, of all American seminaries. This document triggered off a scandalised wave of anti-Magisterium attacks in the liberal Catholic Press. According to the Tablet, ‘several American commentators have claimed that the Vatican is orchestrating a gay witch-hunt, while several prominent Church leaders have expressed fears that homosexually oriented priests were being unfairly targeted as scapegoats for the sex-abuse crisis’.
What the Tablet did not say, despite the fact that it had a copy of the document in its possession, was that the instrumentum laboris itself simply does not remotely support such lurid accusations. In a 4,700 word document, I have been able to find only the following questions directly or indirectly concerned with the question of homosexuality:

4. The Seminarians (cf. Program of Priestly Formation, passim, but especially 529-548.)

(1) What is your general impression of the seminarians?
(2) Do the seminarians or faculty members have concerns about the moral life of those living in the institution? (This question must be answered.)
(3) Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary?
(This question must be answered.)


Is the moral doctrine taught in conformity with the documents of the Holy See ? in particular the Encyclical Letters Humanae vitae (1968), Veritatis splendor (1993) and Evangelium vitae (1995); the Declaration Persona humana (1975); and the Circular Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons (1986)?

And that is that. Homosexuality is mentioned only in these two paragraphs, which take up 114 words, or approximately 2.4\% of the entire document. There is no witch-hunt, and no scapegoating. The real crime of the document is not that it is designed to hunt out or ‘scapegoat’ homosexuals (patently it is not) but that the question is raised at all, even in passing. One is left with the inescapable impression that it is the actual underlying purpose of the document — which is to ensure the priestly formation of the seminarians in conformity with the teachings of the Catholic Church (not simply on questions of sexual morality but on everything else as well) — that is found so objectionable. It is, in other words, not these two passages, taken out of context, but the context itself, which isthe real target here. Immediately before the paragraph on moral teaching quoted above, for instance, the instrumentum laboris specifies that the following questions should be asked: ‘Do the seminarians receive a substantially complete and coherent grounding in Catholic dogmatic and moral theology? Is attention given to the unity of theological studies? Are the seminarians taught to love and be faithful to the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church? How are the seminarians helped to integrate their theological studies with their spiritual life?’ This is itself preceded by two more questions: ‘Are the seminarians capable of dialoguing, on the intellectual level, with contemporary society? Do their studies help them to respond to contemporary subjectivism and, in particular, to moralrelativism? (This question must be answered.)’ To all of which one is tempted to respond by asking another question: can anyone doubt, if all our seminaries were now truly to begin to fulfil the expectations these questions delineate, that the eventual result would be a renewal of the faith and witness of the Catholic Church? Can anyone doubt that if all seminarians were ‘taught to love and be faithful to the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church’ we would soon have the priests we need to bring to fruition the great counter-revolution (begun by the last pope) against the pandemic of secularisation which has so ravaged the Church in Europe and North America over the last forty years? Another question is irresistible: why do so many Catholics in high places want this counter-revolution tofail?

All this brings me back to the Anglican-bishop Gene Robinson, as he mutters away against the vile policies of Pope Ratzinger. For, it is not just the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality that this Robinson is against. He also, for instance, opposes its teachings (and those of all other Christian communions) on marriage and the family. He himself left his wife – the mother of his two daughters – to cohabit with his male lover, Mark , and he appears to think that Jesus himself was probably a homosexual. When asked by one confused parishioner how Christians could both accept homosexuality and the Bible's emphasis on redemption for sins, he replied as follows: ‘Interestingly enough, in this day of traditional family values, this man that we follow was single, as far as we know,travelled with a bunch of men, had a disciple who was known as “the one whom Jesus loved” and said my family is not my mother and father, my family is those who do the will of God…. Those who would posit the nuclear family as the be all and end all of God’s creation probably don't find that much in the gospels to support it”.’ Thus, and much more, ‘openly gay Bishop’ Gene Robinson’.

And yet, he seriously claims that Catholics are flocking to convert to Anglicanism because of the ‘vile policies’ of their Church. That is not what a majority of the world’s Anglican archbishops think; in a letter sent in November to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (who is known to be sympathetic to clerical homosexuality) over half of them demanded that he return to the Anglican ‘consensus’ on ‘unrepented sexual immorality’ (by which the archbishops mean the behaviour of Bishop Robinson) and warned Archbishop Williams that if he did not, many Anglicans would join ‘more conservative’ Churches (i.e. become Catholics). I am sure that is true. Not long after Robinson made those remarks about Our Lord’s sexual identity, I had dinner with an old friend from my Anglican days, stilla minister in the American Episcopal Church — whom I will not identify, for reasons that will become apparent — who told me how it was becoming increasingly difficult to remain an Anglican in North America after Robinson’s ordination as bishop. He then told me in that he was soon to be consecrated (still the Anglican term for the process) as a bishop himself; even so, he said, the way things were going he would almost certainly in the end become a Catholic. There are many like him, who stay because of those to whom they have a responsibility. In the end, they come to understand, as I think my friend is in the process of doing, that staying is simply to help perpetuate the myth of Anglican ‘comprehensiveness’, in which it is possible to live under the illusion that one’s own little part ofone’s church is sound even though the rest is disintegrating.

I think he will die a Catholic; and I remembered our conversation when I read about Bishop Robinson’s remarks about all those American Catholics he expects to become Anglicans. For, one thing has to be said about those migrations from one Church to another, in opposed directions, over some issue of contemporary ecclesiastical controversy. It is that when Anglicans become Catholics, they are swimming against the tide of the current secular consensus; when Catholics become Anglicans, they are going with the flow of the prevailing culture. It was very obvious over women’s ordination. In England, hundreds of Anglican clergy became Catholics. In many cases, this brought them very considerable hardship; they lost their homes, their livelihoods, even their friends, all for a cause the secularmedia mostly represented as being both reactionary and misogynistic. A handful of Catholic women became Anglicans, in order to be ordained, just as a handful of Catholic gays will now become Anglicans in order to be members of a Church which presents them with no difficult moral challenges about their own sexuality, or indeed about anything else. The fact is that becoming a Catholic is and always was considerably more demanding than becoming an Anglican. It is the difference between those who fight against the tide and those who go with the flow of the surrounding culture. The contrast has always reminded me of the behaviour of the salmon who every year swim upstream against the current, no matter how strong, sometimes even leaping up waterfalls, in order to return to the river’s sourceto spawn. But there are also a few salmon who are not strong enough, and who never make it; the current carries them downstream and out to sea.

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