It is the most cogent praxis emanating from the Sixties, and is in full bloom in the Catholic Church in England, as reported by the UK Spectator; and showing that, when standing on traditional teaching, priests—and laity—should question authority when it appears to be going off the rails.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols has slapped down nearly 500 priests who signed a letter to the Catholic Herald expressing concern about the Synod on the Family this October, which is to debate sensitive questions of sexual morality. This is a significant blunder by the Cardinal that exposes both the inflexibility of his leadership style and – certainly in the case of some of the priests – lack of confidence in his stewardship of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Here’s today’s Catholic Herald report:
Priests should not conduct a debate about the October Family Synod through the press, Cardinal Nichols has said, following the publication of a letter signed by hundreds of priests, urging the synod to issue a ‘clear and firm proclamation’ upholding Church teaching on marriage.
In the letter, signed by almost 500 priests and published in this week’s Catholic Herald, they write: ‘We wish, as Catholic priests, to re-state our unwavering fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage and the true meaning of human sexuality, founded on the Word of God and taught by the Church’s Magisterium for two millennia.’
In a statement, a spokesman for Cardinal Nichols said that the press was not the medium for conducting dialogue of this sort.
‘Every priest in England and Wales has been asked to reflect on the Synod discussion. It is my understanding that this has been taken up in every diocese, and that channels of communication have been established,’ the statement said.
‘The pastoral experience and concern of all priests in these matters are of great importance and are welcomed by the Bishops. Pope Francis has asked for a period of spiritual discernment. This dialogue, between a priest and his bishop, is not best conducted through the press.’
This is an unwise – but entirely characteristic – move by Cardinal Nichols. Here are some thoughts that spring to mind:
- The Cardinal refers to ‘channels of communication’ that, in reality, are either blocked or permit only one-way traffic. I wouldn’t dream of calling a Prince of the Church a control freak, but if Nichols were a politician – a painfully on-message Labour junior minister from Merseyside, say – the cap would fit. The idea that the Bishops of England and Wales ‘welcome’ any views that don’t coincide with theirs is laughable. On this issue they’ve decided to align themselves with Pope Francis’s opinions on Communion for the divorced and homosexuality. The fact that these opinions are inchoate and elusive doesn’t trouble them because the same could be said of their own jargon-rich waffle. Cardinal Nichols is impressively fluent in ‘bishopese’; what distinguishes him from his colleagues is his quietly effective suppression of dissent. On this occasion, however, it hasn’t been so effective. Priests who normally play by the rules were so worried by the Anglican-style chaos of last October’s Synod on the Family (the first of two) that they felt they had no alternative but to speak openly.
- What Cardinal Nichols did not say, though I suspect he’s aware of it, is that many priests were told by those ‘welcoming’ channels of communication not to sign the letter. As one signatory told the Herald, ‘there has been a certain amount of pressure not to sign the letter and indeed a degree of intimidation from some senior Churchmen’. Without this arm-twisting there would have been many more signatories. So the problem is bigger than it appears.
- The Cardinal’s anger is directed not just at the priests but also at the press for publishing their letter. Obviously he doesn’t like me, and you wouldn’t expect him to, but he shows little interest in Catholic newspapers that, as it happens, bite their tongues and resist opportunities to criticise him out of loyalty to the Church. He is not rude to journalists but he can be aggressively patronising and it never occurs to him that devout Catholic writers might help him to spread his message. Whatever that is. The situation is doubly frustrating for the media because His Eminence appears to have taken a solemn vow not to say anything remotely memorable in public. At least you can’t accuse Pope Francis of that. To make matters even worse, Nichols employs an infuriatingly inept and ill-informed press office.