03 February 2020

How To Get A Synod To Agree With You

It was a couple of paragraphs in the live feed from the German Synod which set me thinking:

"The results of more than 5,000 emails that Catholics from all over Germany had sent to the Synod authorities in the past few weeks were also presented. Only a small majority of the letters had requested the acceptance of married priests. Many Catholics had emphasized that they wanted priests who were experienced pastors, and that priests should not get bogged down in administrative and committee work. The questions of sexual abuse and ordination of women were very rare in the emails.

In the debate that followed, the Professor of Theology from Erfurt University, Eberhard Tiefensee, called the current crisis-ridden priesthood a 'debilitating wound' that had to be studied very closely in order to be healed. Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück said that in the future priests should be free to decide whether they wanted to live a celibate life or not."

Choose a sample of messages and don't give any clue to how representative the people who send them are (we'll come back to this theme), choose the subject you really want to change and say (again, without producing any evidence) that a small majority is in favour, and then get one hysterical and one outrageous comment from "leaders" so that down the line, these can be reined back in a "compromise" which will coincidentally be exactly where those who organised and are manipulating the Synod can get exactly the result they first thought of.

We have our own experience of this: the Catholic Church in England and Wales launched exactly such a "Synod" which assembled in Liverpool in 1980 (see the footnote for a discussion of what Canon Law thinks these two meetings actually are). What was then, and is being now, sold as a movement to reform the Church in the light of Vatican II (oh, and "prompted by the Holy Spirit"—always reference the Holy Spirit when you want to introduce significant, unwonted and probably unwanted change) was actually a heavily clericalist, top-down, solution to issues internal to the local Church hierarchy and which did not interest the vast majority of the knees-on-kneeler Catholics, who, en masse, tend to be treated as an amorphous, ignorant, pliable and barely-relevant-other-than-as-a-source-of-revenue, lumpenpewletariat.

Thus it was in England and Wales. A National Council of Priests had been set up by a number of activist priests in the wake of Humanae Vitae, whose main focus was the relationship between priest and bishop: not, as you will have guessed, a relationship based on filiality and docility, but on the "rights" of priests vis-a-vis Bishops, in particular the right of a priest in dispute with his bishop about a matter of theology to have arbitration from outside his diocese. Archbishop Worlock (who else!) had understood the threat to the episcopacy posed by the NCP and came up with a policy of neutralising its strength by furious agreement, ensuring a detailed exchange with the NCP to prevent confrontation before it could happen, and a compromise based on the bishops accomodating the demands of the priests which did not limit the bishops' authority.

One of the bees in the NCP's bonnet was the need for a 'national pastoral strategy' for England and Wales, and this was something Worlock, on behalf of the Bishops, decided should be embraced as a way of overcoming the NCP as a separate focus of authority. So a joint working party was set up between the Bishops' Conference and the NCP. As the 1970s progressed this became the major strategic initiative of the Church in England and Wales, and the idea developed that it needed a national conference, an assembly of bishops, priests and laity which would deliver the momentum needed if the strategy developed and endorsed was to take root.  So far, so good, but the NCP asked for the working party to "give special consideration to the problems of married life in the contemporary world, taking note of the sensus fidelium concerning contraception and divorce in particular".  It took a lot of time, and the expenditure of many of the brownie points Worlock had built up to remove references to the supposed sensus fidelium though the NCP priests who most vocally had supported this line were not removed.

The Bishops' Conference took on sponsorship of the National Pastoral Congress, with Worlock becoming Chairman of the organising committee; Fr Tom Shepherd, Chairman of the NCP became its secretary. Archbishop Dwyer wanted to make sure that contraception in particular should not be a dominant theme of the Congress, and in fact would have blocked it as a subject, but his term as chairman of the Bishops' Conference ended in 1979, and Cardinal Hume, who took over from him, ensured that a full section of the Congress would discuss 'marriage and family matters'.

You will have noticed that so far, mention of the laity taking part has been light.  But the "representatives" of the laity were being selected. Mgr Mario Oliveri, deputy to Archbishop Heim at the Apostolic Delegation wrote to Rome complaining that Congress delegates "appeared to be drawn, on the whole, from either those holding progressive views or from amongst those who know little or nothing about the nature of the Church" but when Worlock found out, Heim was persuaded to go to Rome to sweep Oliveri's difficulties under Vatican blankets. The laity were told in 1978 that the Congress would take place in 1980 and that "in the eighteen months preceding the Congress every diocese in England and Wales will make its own preparation so that at the Congress itself a substantial representation of the Church, prepared in mind and spirit, will be able to reflect together on the developing life and mission of the Church." What would "substantial" mean? How would attenders be "prepared in mind and spirit"? They certainly didn't mean that the lay representatives would be representative of the laity at large.

It was decided that each diocese should send one delegate for each 1000 of its Mass attendance on any one Sunday. As dioceses varied dramatically from the rural to the densely populated industrial areas, each diocese was left to find its own method of choosing representatives, though with the encouragement of the organising committee, most representatives were chosen at deanery level. In the code of Canon Law in force at the time, the deanery was a unit or practical administration. Were priests resident in their parishes, preaching, catechising and anointing? Was Mass being celebrated worthily? Were instructions given by the Bishop following his visitations being implemented? Were sick priests being looked after? Were they being buried decently? For understandable reason Canon Law did not envisage the deanery as a way of by-passing parishes which weren't on-message, but that is what happened.

The report of the Bishops' Conference says: "Deanery 'link-men' were important in the chain. Each deanery consists normally of nine or ten parishes. Usually, one priest in each deanery, acting in close collaboration with the diocesan coordinator, was responsible for promoting the Congress in his deanery. It was an attempt to develop the deanery as a pastoral unit and a possible way of stimulating local interest even if individual clergy were not on occasions cooperative." The last sentence is a pretty blatant exercise in post-hoc justification: it was purely a way of ignoring recalcitrant priests.  Only 70% of parishes bothered to respond to the paperwork, and no records have been published about how many of those responses were against what was clearly, from the paperwork, the direction of travel, but by changing the level at which representatives were being selected from that of the parish, the selection could be manipulated so that only people who were not going to be opposed to the party line would be chosen.

A series of discussion groups, pastoral councils, and small-group meetings prepared representatives in mind and spirit: of course the majority of the people who could attend so many meetings and read all the paperwork surrounding the preparations for the Congress were the educated middle class, who tended to be from the same background as the bishops and NCP priests. As Clifford Longley puts it: "Among the lay people from all over the country who attended the Congress were many who were prominent in their own careers and professions, experts in their field and well informed theologically." This isn't a description of anything other than a small proportion of the laity in any Catholic parish I have ever known, but it ensured that there would be no surprises in the resolutions of the Congress because everything was neatly stitched up beforehand. 

Hume and Worlock got their way, and a reference to contraception formed part of the final report but they had made a major strategic error. Not only was the Pope, John Paul II, completely unimpressed by their views, he had announced that the Synod of Bishops, scheduled to take place a few months after the end of the Liverpool Congress, would discuss matters of family, marriage and sexuality.  A papacy showing it self to be more and more conservative swept aside Hume and Worlock’s priorities, to the extent that the Cardinal felt it necessary to warn the Bishops’ Conference and the NPC that a period of reticence on the part of all of them would be a very good idea.

Hume and Worlock came close, bur didn't win the approval they sought. The effects of their Congress were dire and are with us still, but they didn't manage to "change doctrine". However, I bet the German Bishops haven’t got as far as they have without learning to make sure the Vatican has been squared off first.

Footnote: According to Canon Law (Canons 431-459) Liverpool 1980 and Frankfurt 2020 are both examples of 'Particular Councils': "Can. 445 A particular council, for its own territory, takes care that provision is made for the pastoral needs of the people of God and possesses the power of governance, especially legislative power, so that, always without prejudice to the universal law of the Church, it is able to decide what seems opportune for the increase of the faith, the organization of common pastoral action, and the regulation of morals and of the common ecclesiastical discipline which is to be observed, promoted, and protected. Can. 446 When a particular council has ended, the president is to take care that all the acts of the council are sent to the Apostolic See. Decrees issued by a council are not to be promulgated until the Apostolic See has reviewed them."