25 April 2013

We Are Our Own Worst Enemies

Charles Crawford, a former British Ambassador in the Balkans and in Poland, is a witty and engaging writer, who has important things to say about Eastern European states and their transition.  He is also very, very, sound on speechwriting, and on communication in general.  He has written something about how pundits frame issues here, which I thought important enough to recommend recently as an introduction to why (in my view) we are being completely and utterly trounced on Life issues in the UK media.  Millions of Frenchmen march against same sex marriage, while in this country, the subject is so settled that there is barely a debate.

Charles Crawford explains how a subject can be framed, a narrative created, so that discussion can be shut off right from the start.  We are probably all aware of its happening: gay marriage, euthanasia; we are on the back foot before the discussion even begins to take place.

How sad to see that the organisation set up to combat this distortion, by putting Catholic Voices onto the front foot in combating media manipulation, has managed to be exactly as distortive in addressing an issue internal to the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

An Agency of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales came up with a remarkable figure recently: it said that in the 1930s, on average, only 6 secular priests were ordained each year for England and Wales, and that therefore, the current figure, while down somewhat from the high figures of the 1990s, the JPII years, were nevertheless much up on the 1930s .  This 1930s figure instinctively felt odd to several of us: "odd" in the sense of "surely palpably untrue" and we raised our concern, tentatively, via various social media, not least because it had been taken up by Catholic Voices, with a comment that hinted that the decline from the JPII days, was still nothing compared to the illusory good old days of bulging seminaries which trads like to talk about.

In case the hint wasn't clear, an egregious (though not a Catholic Voice) commentator spelled it out: 'Ordinations in E&W "higher than the 1950s, which some look back to nostalgically as an era of vigorous Catholicism"'.

To the credit of the Agency which originally posted the figures, it took them down when it was pointed out to them that in fact the figures for the period 1930-1940 were that 1539 secular and 794 regular priests were ordained.  Catholic Voices didn't: apparently, the only person who could do the correction was away.  And then an addition was made to its web page: you can still see the figures, but there is now a comment (so whoever was away is now back) to the effect that as queries about the reliability of the statistics have been raised, the Agency originally posting them is now making enquiries about their validity.

This is a classic example of the sort of treatment we get outside the Church, but it's a bit much when we get it inside as well.  Whatever the validity of arguments about post hoc ergo propter hoc, the fact remains that there were many more ordinations to the priesthood before Vatican II then there have been afterwards.  I would engage with some of the arguments about the reasons for the earlier quantity with some distaste, but I would engage.  I would engage with arguments about post-Vatican II selection of candidates being based on safer psychological criteria than previously with a mixture of anger and disdain, but I would engage.  But I will not engage with an argument based on figures that even their originator withdrew a week ago.

It is ironic that those of us who want to ensure that we are not manipulated by the World have to look over our left shoulders as well.  There is a piece of news - that vocations are on the rise again - that could have been a good news story, but it has been twisted into an ideological stance about the past that has made the purveyor of the message the centre of the story: was this the purpose?

Unfortunately, I don't think that this is an isolated problem: the "Gay Masses" in Soho became a pastoral encounter, and anybody attacking them was making baseless accusations and was enjoined to hold their tongue.  In spite of what Pope Benedict said, clear dissent from Church teaching became legitimate expression of the theologian's freedom to explore.  In so many cases since (this is my blog!) 1980, clever people have framed the dialogue within the Church in England and Wales so that as their premises have been left unchallenged, their aims have been reached.

"It is pastorally insensitive to force children who aren't Catholic to sit through the preparation of those who are to make their First Communion" is a premise which leads to no preparation for the Sacraments in Catholic Primary Schools. 

"We are short of priests, but long on lay people willing to give of their abilities to help the Church" is a premise which leads to hordes of welcomers, readers, Offertory-Gifts-Bringers-Uppers, and "Eucharistic Ministers".

Those of us on this side of the divide have been tilting at windmills: those on that side haven't been aiming at (for example) the form of the Liturgy, even if liturgical argument is what we have been putting forward; they have been aiming at the clericalisation of the Laity (or at least some laity, and that "some" mainly female).

I have a disinclination for conspiracy theories, and this isn't one.  I think the people running the Church in England and Wales since 1980 have had a clear idea of exactly what they want it to be, and aren't really hiding it.  I think they have been clever enough simultaneously to speak against the empowerment of non-magic-circle Catholics (whether in orders or not) by the Internet while using the Internet to corral activist Catholics into as controlled an environment as the pre-Internet Church, all the time using top end techniques to spin and control discussion so that it is always based on their terms.

The Bishops of England and Wales had this year's Low Week meeting in Rome.  They had a retreat this year (do they when they meet at Eccleston Square?) and got to meet the Pope.  Archbishop Nichols said:

"There’s a fresh spring about the Church at the moment and I think that’s from the Pope’s eloquence in gesture and his words when he preaches and at his audiences … I think what is most remarkable in the UK is that everybody seems to have been touched by his eloquence, by his gentleness and by the humility of Pope Francis."

And so inured are we by now, that not a single one of us commented on what he was actually saying.

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