The Holy Father’s September visit to the United Kingdom was widely regarded as a great success, both as a tonic to British lay Catholics and as a wake up call to the country’s secular society. But the visit also highlighted the tension that exists between his pontificate and what dismayed English Catholics call the liberal “Magic Circle” of bishops who make up the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (BCEW).
Several of its number are known to be deeply opposed both to this papacy and to that of John Paul II. The first reason for this opposition is that the members of the BCEW have been largely self-selecting from a small pool of like-minded “insiders” who come through lines of patronage that can be traced back to one man, the late Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool. At the Second Vatican Council, Worlock had been one of the first of the English bishops to promote a new liberal vision for the Church.
The vision appropriated the structures, cultural loyalties, and financial contributions of the old, inward-looking, triumphalist “ghetto” Church to build a new, outward-facing Catholicism that focused on social climbing and liberal politics. Ultimately, Worlock’s vision aimed for the broader acceptance of Catholicism by the secular elite.
This post-conciliar vision of a more visible Catholic presence is, however, at odds with Pope Benedict’s conceptions of what visibility and presence require. The BCEW’s vision ever since the days of Archbishop Worlock has aimed at “liberating” Catholics from their past and helping them to embrace the values of secular society. But Pope Benedict’s vision aims at fostering orthodox Catholics who can act as a “creative minority” in the wider culture. The differences between these two visions are ultimately irreconcilable and go to the heart of the debate over the meaning of Vatican II.
The second reason for the tensions with the Pope is the structure of the BCEW, which appears to undercut the individual bishop’s teaching role in favor of presenting a common front on every issue. The BCEW has mimicked the power structures of the traditional British trade unions that look anachronistic today. The BCEW is a rigid bureaucratic structure centered on the idea of the central committee and employs a plethora of professional lay and clerical sub-committees, all paid for by the ordinary Catholics it claims to represent. The irony is that the pursuit of this agenda has been to the detriment of halting the decline of the very working-class, “grass-roots” Catholicism that once gave the bishops a legitimate voice on issues of real social concern.
This “grass-roots” Catholicism has been decimated by a collapse in religious practice among the indigenous Catholic population, which, if it were not being buoyed up by massive levels of immigration from Eastern Europe and the developing world, would have already signaled the end for many parishes and even dioceses.
The BCEW may have succeeded in opening up the doors of the Church to the world, but instead of the world walking in, Catholics have walked out, especially those who have grown up in the post-conciliar era never knowing the safety of the “ghetto” Church and who prefer to take their worldliness from the world itself rather than from a self-consciously worldly Catholicism. For many Catholics the Church now exists only to “hatch, match, and dispatch” and retains the nominal membership that it does largely because it runs the best free schools in the country.
Where an English bishop has dared to step out of line and question the BCEW’s liberalism, the result has been criticism and ostracism by colleagues. In 2008, the outgoing bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue, presented reports (titled “Fit for Mission, Church?”, “Fit for Mission, Schools?”, and “Fit for Mission, Marriage?”) which lambasted the BCEW policies that had accelerated the decline of the faith in England. The reports also proposed a series of radical recommendations for recovery. Those documents were warmly welcomed in Rome. O’Donoghue was received in personal audience by the Pope and received commendations from three curial congregations and two pontifical councils. But the reaction to these reports in England was the complete opposite. Instead of forming the blueprint for diocesan policies throughout England and Wales, they were ignored, and some bishops even actively spoke against them.
One of the most controversial issues affecting the BCEW is its continued support for the so-called “Soho Masses” in the Westminster Archdiocese, Masses that minister to “homosexual Catholics.” The current archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has made several public interventions in interviews recently where he speculated as to whether the Church might in time approve gay marriage. He also confirmed that when the Labour Government introduced civil partnerships legislation, the BCEW made a deliberate and conscious decision not to oppose it. He continues to support the “Soho Masses” and told a radio program that those who do oppose them should be silent. He also declined to disagree with a fellow panelist’s assertion in a television debate after the papal visit that the policy of the BCEW on homosexual rights follows a markedly different line from that of the Vatican’s policy.
Those lay Catholics in England who have spoken up against these “nuanced” positions have found themselves attacked in return. Before the papal visit, highly respected pro-life campaigner John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, publicly stated that the BCEW, rather than supporting the pro-life cause or attacking euthanasia, had been vague on those issues. As soon as Pope Benedict departed, Smeaton was attacked by voices close to the BCEW who accused him of belonging to a “Catholic Taliban” that sets up its own private Magisterium and permits of no dissent.
Another prominent pro-family, pro-life activist, Archbishop Nichols’ own director of pastoral affairs Edmund Adamus, gave an interview on the eve of the visit in which he said that England (and in particular London) is the geo-political epicenter of the culture of death. The archbishop moved swiftly to rebuke Mr. Adamus, saying that this was not his own view.
The “Catholic Taliban” tag is a slur on many devout and courageous lay Catholics who have stood up for the vulnerable for many years in preference to seeking perks and patronage from liberal bishops. Curiously, what the slur also seems to ignore is that if men such as Smeaton and Adamus constitute a “Catholic Taliban” there is no doubt that its “Mullah” is Pope Benedict XVI.
Another threat to the hegemony of the BCEW is liturgical and cultural diversity. With Soviet-like brutishness, the BCEW has sought over many years to curb the activities of those Catholic groups that exist outside of its direct control. In one English diocese, a bishop sought to limit the celebrations of the Syro-Malabar Rite and ordered Indian Catholics to attend the Roman Rite on Sundays. The BCEW sought under Cardinal Murphy O’Connor to liberalize Polish Catholic immigrants by insisting that Polish Catholic mission parishes show greater uniformity and fusion with parishes under BCEW control.
The BCEW also organized three-week-long “training” classes for Polish priests and other foreign priests who intended to work in England. These classes were delivered by the then-president of Ushaw Seminary (which is shortly to close), Msgr. Terry Drainey, who has said, “Some foreign priests working in Britain tend to be too dogmatic about the Church’s moral rightness on just about everything.” He added, “That’s not how we do things here. This course shows how we deal with a whole range of issues affecting Catholics, including the role of women, divorce, the lay ministry, and homosexuality.” Shortly after delivering the courses, Msgr. Drainey was selected to be the bishop of Middlesbrough.
This desire for liturgical uniformity comprising the Roman Missal of 1970 in its old ICEL English translation (nothing has yet been done to prepare for the new translation next year) has been threatened recently by several factors that have whittled away at the BCEW’s power. First are the large numbers of recent immigrants who attend non-English language Masses celebrated by their own priests. There have also been the spiritual “free market” policies of the “New Movements” (Focolare, Opus Dei, Youth 2000, etc.) promoted by Pope John Paul II, which have encouraged many Catholics to develop their spiritual lives outside of diocesan structures. And most recently there has been the “liturgical free market” of Pope Benedict XVI, with both the rehabilitation of the older form of the Roman Rite (Summorum Pontificum) and the invitation to Anglo-Catholics to form liturgical communities within the Catholic Church (Anglicanorum Coetibus).
All these factors are underpinned by the increasingly vociferous Catholic blogosphere, largely orthodox in character, which the BCEW simultaneously fears and despises in a way reminiscent of the Soviet regime’s attitude to the Eastern European underground free press. All these forces are at odds with the “Cultural Revolution” mentality of the BCEW.
The BCEW finds that it can neither advance in line with secular “progressive” thought nor face retreat, so it simply stagnates. Meanwhile, authentically Catholic radicalism and counter-culturalism is led by traditionalists. The specter of large numbers of Anglo-Catholic clergy becoming a semi-autonomous part of the Catholic Church in England has horrified the BCEW, which has greeted every development in the progress toward the first English ordinariate with sighs and fear.
In situations traditionally calling for the very warmest of language in dealing with “Separated Brethren,” spokesmen for the BCEW have been at pains to stress that the ordinariate is not going to be allowed to be a “church within a church.” This is because the BCEW fears further loss of its own power and resents everything about the conservative intellectual tradition that forms the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism. It is no wonder that the negotiations which led to the motu proprio were between Anglican bishops and the CDF in Rome and not the BCEW.
THE BCEW AND SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM
Nowhere has this near-pathological determination to oppose any hopeful new developments while presiding over inexorable decline been more exposed than in the maneuverings of the BCEW to ignore, block, and ultimately frustrate Summorum Pontificum. The BCEW has spent a great deal of effort behind the scenes gathering data to support the idea that there is no demand in England and Wales for the extraordinary form of the Mass, while at the same time willfully refusing to foster or promote it in parishes.
Its only significant contribution has been to insist that the transferred holy days of obligation that it imposed on England and Wales also be applied to the extraordinary form. Within days Rome pointed out that the feasts could legitimately continue to be kept on their original dates in the extraordinary form since it was only the obligation to attend Mass on the feast day that was affected by the BCEW decree.
The Pope’s decision to liberate the extraordinary form might be compared to Coca-Cola’s decision in the 1980s to bring back its original drink, “Coke Classic,” after the experimental “New Coke” produced a slump in sales. In this analogy the attitude of the BCEW toward Summorum Pontificum would be like the English regional division of Coca-Cola ignoring the directive from headquarters in Atlanta, keeping all the new supplies of Coke Classic locked in its warehouse, burning all the advertising literature sent over from Atlanta and then reporting back that there was no discernible demand for Coke Classic in its region.
Indeed, so distrustful is Rome of the BCEW’s stance that it is relying on data supplied to it by lay Catholics in England and Wales in order to obtain an accurate picture. No observer of Catholic affairs in England is in any doubt that the BCEW in its current form has pursued policies that distance itself from the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and criticize and marginalize those lay Catholics who openly support papal teaching.
The reasons for this are clear differences of view on the direction and character of post-conciliar Catholicism. How long this can continue to be sustained without some public fracture in relations depends in large measure on the desire within the Vatican to intervene in the English Church more directly. Pope John Paul II for the most part left the English Church to manage itself and Pope Benedict has preferred to teach rather than to impose, as his recent ad limina remarks to the BCEW on dissent showed.
Rome may also feel that time is not on the BCEW’s side, as its search for up-and-coming priests who share its vision to join its ranks becomes ever more frustrated. The English clergy is increasingly populated with foreign priests, young traditionalists and middle-aged ex-Anglicans, none of whom are exactly yearning to embrace the BCEW vision. Archbishop Nichols of Westminster was overlooked at the November consistory because, say observers, it will be another two years before his predecessor loses his conclave vote. If he wants to be sure of the red hat next time around, there are some difficult issues for him to confront in the meantime.
Dominic Scarborough contributes to The Catholic Herald in Great Britain. This article appears in the December 2010 issue of CWR.