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Catholic Priorities & The English Church

At Bilgrimage,  Bill Lindsay has a depressing (but accurate) assessment of the ten “essential articles of creed”, as espoused by card-carrying Catholics. (“Who Knew? What Reading Newman Did Not Prepare Me for When I Became Catholic“)

In summary, these are concerned with a staunch defence of the Church, the Pope and the Vatican against all criticism; an obsession with sexual teaching, and in particular its stress on heterosexual intercourse which is open to conception; attempts by political engagement to force this view of sexuality into law; the inherent superiority of the male over the female in all Church decision taking and eucharistic celebration; and a complete disregard for the  rest of Church teaching, especially that on the importance of social justice and inclusion of all.

Bill is spot-on in his assessment of the “card-carrying”,  rule-book Catholics. However, they are a clear minority within the Church (although they would never admit it.) There is abundant evidence from around the world which shows conclusively that most Catholics have a very different conception of what it means to be Catholic, a conception much closer to your own (and mine).

We are easily misled by the ease with which they dominate commentary on religious matters in public life – perhaps because the rest of us are cowed by the thought that since we dissent on sexual matters, we are on the fringes of the Church. We are not, and must collectively grow in confidence and assertiveness.

This is also why I am deeply grateful to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the church for England and Wales, who in a series of statements around the papal visit has articulated a far more authentic view of true Catholic concerns and priorities, a view far closer to my own reading of the faith I was taught against the backdrop of apartheid, and later elaborated in study, reflection, prayer and spiritual direction.

In an early interview (in July), he insisted that true Catholicism is represented by a conscientious search for truth – not blind obedience to authority.  The context was a BBC Hardtalk interview with Stephen Sackur. This excerpt arose from some discussion about Pope Benedict, condoms and AIDS:

The point I was trying to make was the point that we can engage in a debate about in this country which is what is the meaning of human sexuality. What actually is it about? Is it a recreational activity? Is it a casual relationship activity? It is something intrinsically involving procreation? How exactly do understand human sexuality? And these are the underlying questions which I think the Pope provokes which many people find uncomfortable but nevertheless are very valid.

S. But I just wonder whether you sometimes feel uncomfortable because on the one hand your Catholic faith and your belief in the Pope and this Pope in particular leads you to a position where you want to be loyal. Loyalty is a fundamentally important part of the Roman Catholic tradition. On the other hand maybe from time to time like Bishop Dowling you believe that this Pope or any particular Pope takes a stand that you can’t share. How do you wrestle with that personally?

N. Well I think we start off here by wanting say, and this would be my most fundamental commitment, would be a search for truth, a search for what actually helps me to know who I am, what my destiny is, what my deeper origins are, what is going to make sense of this myriad of experiences that make up a daily life. And I think the church is misunderstood when the Church is represented as saying we possess the truth and from here on we’ll give it to you. And Pope Benedict would never say that. He would say and I would try and echo that we are searchers for the truth. We want to be possessed by the truth – not possessive.

This is clearly important, and totally contradicts the assumptions of the rule-book Catholics. Archbishop Nichols is clearly saying, and claiming that Pope Benedict would say, that it is misunderstanding that the Catholic Church is the sole “possessor” of a truth to which all must submit. Rather, we are all engaged in an ongoing discussion in the search to be possessed by the truth.

In a later BBC radio interview with Mark Dowd on “The Pope’s British Divisions”, with specific reference to his continued approval for the Soho Masses ministering especially (but not exclusively) to the LGBT community, he repudiated any suggestion that by allowing these Masses to continue, he was permitting people to receive Communion in a state of mortal sin. The clergy, he said have no business judging the soul of anyone who presents for communion – and anyone who does attempt to judge another should just STFU:

“anybody from the outside who is trying to cast a judgement on the people who come forward for Communion [there], really ought to learn to hold their tongue.”

In a panel discussion after the conclusion of the visit, he denied claims that the church intervened in politics particularly on matters of sexuality, or that it had opposed the Civil Partnership legislation.

Professor Dermot MacCullough had said that the Catholic Church “hates the fact” that gay partnerships are now on the statute book. Archbishop Nichols interrupted:

“That’s not true, in this country. In this country, we [JS: the Catholic hierarchy, i.e. the Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales] were very nuanced. We did NOT oppose gay civil partnerships, we recognised that in English law there might be a case for those. We persistently said that these are not the same as marriage.”

It is this discussion especially that I thought extremely important, and worthy of continued reflection. The little word “nuanced” is of great importance here: this to me is the great failing of mainstream press reporting of the Catholic church, and of the papal visit:  it is too quick to attempt to reduce everything to simple black and white, completely failing to address the complexities, or the paradoxes of the overlapping issues and contexts.

Nichols also pointed out that as a matter of fact, the bishops have made representations to government far more often on combating poverty and on education of children than they have on sexual matters.

“The times we [the Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales] interfere most in British politics is on poverty and education. Of course the media are obsessed with certain issues, but if you want to know what it is we’re really passionate about, it’s about the fight against poverty and the education of young people.”

Corroboration for this view came from another panellist, Lord Patten. He recalled that throughout his political career as a senior and influential Catholic politician, the only time the Bishops asked him to engage with them, was in a request concerning the Iraq war.

When Professor Tina Beattie, observed that this is not the impression presented by the media, Archbishop Nichols made the point that the mass media are not noted for complete and accurate reporting, but primarily for what strikes them as newsworthy. There is a great and humbling lesson here for progressive bloggers. We too are part of the media. When we concentrate our energies solely on criticizing the Church for its antediluvian and mistaken attitudes on sexual morality, we help to reinforce the public impression that sexual ethics is the most important part of Catholicism. It isn’t, and we need to spend more energy celebrating the good work that is done in those areas of authentic Catholic priority.

The rule-book English bloggers are bleating like stuck pigs at all this, suggesting that Nichols is out of line with the Pope. John Smeaton, for instance, wrote that Archbishop Nichols undermines Pope Benedict on gay unions the day after his return to Rome.

I have a suspicion they are wrong. Factually, this is clearly so – Nichols was referring to legal sanction for civil partnerships, the Pope was speaking of sacramental marriage, which are two very different things. The fact that they had two different things to say is of no consequence whatever. However, there is a wider issue here, which is that of the nature of Catholic “truth”. In Archbishop Nichols’ view, Truth is something to which we as Catholics constantly aspire and search. This implies that our understanding of truth may change . (Truth itself does not.) Recognizing this, Nichols has twice refused in interviews to rule out the possibility of the Church sanctioning some form of gay union in the future. (He has not said it will happen – merely that we cannot know). A further implication of this concept of truth as a journey, not a destination is that we need to respect those who in conscience reach a different conclusion to our own – or to orthodox doctrine.

Rule-book Catholics have an entirely different view. They see truth as unchanging, and revealed infallibly by an authoritative, dictatorial church, and assume that the Pope agrees with their view – so Nichols is somehow “out of line”. Are they right?

Benedict has demonstrated a clear respect for Blessed John Henry Newman in coming out personally for his beatification. Newman himself is subject to totally contradictory interpretations. Was he the fierce defender of “conscience”, as claimed by independent-minded progressives? Or the champion of obedience to Church authority, as claimed by conservative loyalists? Understanding Newman will give some clues to a better understanding of Benedict himself. Personally, the view of Newman that I am now developing, is that the key is neither of the above. What is really important is conscience, as the expression of obedience to the truth – which may be found in Church authority, but may also be found elsewhere.

I leave you to judge who is closer to the spirit of Newman (and hence to Pope Benedict):  Vincent Nichols, as outlined above – or the card-carrying, rule-book Catholics.


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