A couple of days ago Damian wrote about Archbishop Nichols' comments about same sex "marriage", reacting to an intemperate attack on the Archbishop by a different Daily Telegraph blogger. It was classic Damian: witty, full of insider knowledge, strong on opinion, despairing of the Hierarchy's ability to affect the national mood, and not traditionally respectful in the way that (say) The Universe still is. Damian is unpopular with the liberals in the Catholic establishment precisely because he writes about what they would prefer to do without any sort of negative publicity. In a world where the Catholic press is either docile and never says anything to embarrass the Hierarchy, or is pushing a secularised agenda in which Catholicsm is a sort of Roman reflection of how the bien pensant want society to look - Polly Toynbee with modern hymns - Damian is unique. There has never been a Catholic journalist who has exposed failures within the Hierarchy as Damian has, and there hasn't been one who has attacked the Hierarchy's politics from the right with such swagger. And to crown it all, he has done it from the vantage point of the Daily Telegraph, where he is out of the Hierarchy's reach (though exactly what ++Cormac said to the Barclay brothers on his visits to the Channel Islands would be interesting to know).
The main thrust of the anti-Damian argument (which only lasted for a brief period before the announcement of the suppression of the "Gay Masses" at Warwick St moved commenters on) was that the need for a unified stand by Catholics behind Archbishop Nichols as he was being howled down by the liberal media for upholding Catholic teaching outweighed any value that criticsm of him from his right flank (as it were) might bring; that he had a duty to be more measured in his words and not give aid and succour to his opponents in the non-Catholic world.
Given Damian's influence, this is an argument worth addressing, but I'd say from the outset that what goes for Damian goes for any of us who comment on the activities of the leaders of the Church: we might not be as popular, as well-connected, as good with words, as full of insight, though some of us might think we are and many might wish they were, but we are in the same boat.
In this regard, three separate trains of thought have struck me: one is about the collective responsibility of Catholics in England and Wales; the second about the completely changed relationship between the Hierarchy and the Faithful; and a third about Rome.
From the time when the relative stability of the eighteenth century led to a grudging tolerance of Catholics to when the Church left its self-sought ghetto in the 70s and 80s, Catholics accepted they they should keep a fairly low profile as a community. Even if persecution had disappeared, low level discrimination hadn't, and the easiest way to avoid trouble was discretion. This is a very broad subject, but one aspect of it was the collective responsibility of all Catholics not to rock the boat of their own accord but instead to obey the Captain's orders. In a society where hierarchy and deference were part of the norm, it became second nature. The Catholic head only appeared above the parapet when the Hierarchy said that it was appropriate to do so: the demonstrations ahead of the 1944 Education Act are an obvious example. The fractures within the community caused by those opposed to Humanae Vitae, a first and shocking example of individual Catholics not only attacking the Hierarchy and the Magisterium, but doing so in public and in the secular media, didn't destroy the instinct towards discretion when speaking about Catholic matters in a secular environment, but while the instinct remains, well, instinctive, the fact that it could be challenged has also been noted. We tend to seek discretion and pulling together around policies we agree with, but are no longer concerned about being vociferous about those with which we don't. Yesterday's spat was an example of the clash between the two.
The new relationship between Hierarchy and Faithful which I have traced (ad nauseam?) to the Liverpool Pastoral Congress of 1980 did not affect the broad relationship between the senior Bishops and the senior Laity as it was a contract which entrenched the position of each in relation to their fellows. The Bishops who counted counted a little bit more than before, and the laity who mattered mattered quite a lot more. But the biological factor has intervened and those who led from 1980 into the new millennium have now moved on to their reward, and the fruit of their stewardship is first, a very new sort of laity: a much smaller constituency which still has a large majority of people who no interest in opining about the Church whatsoever, a declining number of 1980 Liverpool liberals, and an increasing number of people attached to some of the new JP2- and B16-inspired movements within the Church which are best characterised by being definitely not 1980 Liverpool liberal; and second an episcopal conference in which a significant proportion of Bishops are close to retirement and the first new appointments suggest a radical U-turn in episcopal selection.
And the Internet has opened up a new relationship between Catholics and their HQ in Rome. If the establishment of Episcopal Conferences weakened the authority of Bishops, Heads of their Local Churches, the Internet has removed the ability of the Bishops' Conference to mediatise what is coming out the Roman Dicasteries. We know what the Pope wants because we can hear him telling us ourselves. It must seem to some of the older Bishops that the Vatican has selected a new laity in England and Wales, faithful to Rome instead of Eccleston Square.
This is the context in which our reactions to Archbishop Nichols have caused so much internal friction. We have followed the Hierarchy's engagement with Life issues in their broadest sense, and with those who are not totally on message with the Bishops' Conference, and we have found our tongues. When our leaders haven't led, or when they have led badly or in a wrong direction, we have felt empowered to say so. Where the lay groups they sponsor have said or done things we have felt was unauthentically Catholic, we have said so.
I said before that the main thrust of the anti-Damian argument yesterday was that he, and, I argue, by extension we "had a duty to be more measured in his words and not give aid and succour to (the Archbishop's) opponents in the non-Catholic world". I might have signed up to that ten, maybe five, years ago. I don't think I do any more.
What interesting times!