14 August 2017

The Bishops ...

A few weeks ago I was part of a discussion about the use by Catholic Voices (CV) of the term "Catholic" in their title and whether they present (or could or should present) themselves as voices of the Church when they aren't a Church-sponsored organisation.  Are they "Catholic" in the way the "Catholic" Bishop of Portsmouth is, or in the way the "Catholic" Herald is?

CV was set up by Jack Valero and Austen Ivereigh in advance of the Pope's visit to the UK to train mainly young articulate Catholics to be able to present a Catholic point of view in the media.  This was - is - a thoroughly laudable aim: anybody who has appeared on live TV or radio knows how difficult it is to make their point without some sort of preparation. In the sort of hostile bearpit most people trying to argue for a Catholic position will find themselves, only professional training will give them the technical skills they need. At CV's inception there was a degree of hostility to the project, not just from those who were suspicious of the Catholicity that might emerge from the organisation but also from those who were suspicious of a group independent of the Bishops being trotted out as the voice of Catholicism.  But since the Pope's visit, these potential problems seemed not to surface in CV.

CV's website today says:

Catholic Voices does not represent the bishops' conference of England and Wales in the media (contact the CCN) but has its blessing.

In other words, the authoritative source about Catholicism in the UK is the Catholic Communications Network (CCN) of the CBCEW, and Catholic Voices is simply a way for a media outlet to find a "Catholic on the Clapham Omnibus" when it needs somebody who isn't an official spokesman for the Church.

And yet ... I have heard recently from a journalist that any call to the CCN asking for a Catholic comment on an issue of the moment gets forwarded routinely to CV and that, furthermore, requests to discuss current Catholic views on difficult sexual matters (the new frontline: not sex, or contraception, or the "remarriage" of the divorced, but gay rights, gender etc - the letters that come after LGB) were getting no results: that beyond "compassion for all" there didn't seem to be a willingness to put forward an identifiable Catholic viewpoint.

I heard separately that the Catholic Education Service (CES), led by Paul Barber, had recently hosted a study day for CV which was aimed a coming up with a definitive "line to take" on transgenderism.  It worries me that CV, as well as seeming to have become an organisation which speaks for the CBCEW, appears to be looking for a moral lead from the CES.  The doubts which were raised about CV when it was set up are manifest in the CES, most recently in the case of their including material from Stonewall in a tendentious document about homophobic bullying in schools: doubts about the Catholicity of the advice, and of the appropriateness of its coming from a lay-run and -managed agency of the CBCEW, rather from the Bishops themselves.

This isn't a question of those who are responsible for Catholicism in the public square working out just how to implement a CBCEW agreed policy on transgenderism: the Bishops have never studied, never mind agreed, a new or distinctive view on the subject. It is a question of authority: more precisely of a crisis in authority.  We know that the English and Welsh Bishops are divided on both sides of the argument created by Amoris Laetitia: effectively, there are those who think that the Church's approach to the sixth and ninth commandments is conditioned to and by the era in which we live, and those who think that what the Church has consistently taught that Jesus himself taught is still as valid as it always has been. They will not tell us publicly that they are in disagreement of course, but this also means that they cannot control agencies of their Conference deciding what should be said: if only some of the Bishops contradict the CES, then by implication the others are in favour of it, and the disagreement will have surfaced. Even worse, as time passes the truth is trickling out anyway, and there is an articulate Catholic laity who are bound together in the Internet.  The opposition to the Stonewall document, and the way the Internet was used to spread the opposition, was a major surprise to people who had thought that it was still possible to control absolutely the information flow from the CBCEW.

The Bishops are the problem. It is they who should be telling us what Amoris Laetitia means, not a bunch of laypeople.  And, anyway, it shouldn't be a problem of whether or not the CBCEW can agree. Episcopal Conferences are useful for coordinating national strategies when the Church has to operate at the supra-diocesan level for non-ecclesiastical matters, but have no other use. The annual Low Week meeting was instituted precisely to do that in the era before the invention of Episcopal Conferences.

Each of our Bishops should be on his cathedra, telling us what Amoris Laetitia means.  Not to do so is a dereliction. It is little short of a scandal that our pastors are not shepherding us.  If they think that the proclamation of orthodoxy by some is less valuable than silence and a pretence of unity, then there is a serious crisis of episcopal identity. Bishops don't exist to be silently united in their national conferences: they are there to confirm the brethren.

(There is a silver lining to this dark cloud: Catholic Voices has produced a cadre of Catholic voices who are in the address book of TV and radio producers and who are out there commenting in an authentically Catholic voice on matters of faith and morals without any affiliation other than to the Church.)

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