When Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in September to beatify Cardinal Newman, he was greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds in the streets. His gentle demeanour, combined with his firm message of protection for the rights of religious believers, made a significant impact on the British political establishment and even on the secular media. As expected he made a series of bold declarations on the nature of truth, the dictatorship of relativism, and the need for freedom of conscience. Yet the organizers of the visit seemed to be caught unawares by its success and their preparations for it seemed to reveal significant fears about confronting secular culture too directly.
A crowd of only 60,000 people was permitted to attend Newman’s Beatification Mass, which is less than 2 percent of the Catholic population. Everyone in attendance had been “prescreened” and forced to pay 25 pounds a ticket. The Prayer Vigil for Youth requested by the Pope himself was also a ticketed affair. The Bishops Conference of England & Wales (BCEW) told Catholics to stay away from papal venues because “health and safety” considerations would prevent them gaining access. Instead, they were encouraged to stay at home and watch the visit on TV. Arrangements had seemed begrudging and chaotic, as though an unwelcome great-uncle who no one in the family wanted to be there had announced he was coming to stay.
This apparent lack of enthusiasm by some in the English and Welsh hierarchy (in marked contrast to the attitude in Scotland) was matched by outright hostility from sections of wider society, where a climate of virulent anti-Catholicism not seen for over a hundred years had been fuelled by the mainstream media and vociferous secularists.
No sooner had the visit been announced than speculation began that then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown (leading a Bristish government which under Tony Blair had been more hostile than any in living memory to the moral teachings of orthodox Christianity) only invited the Pope in the cynical hope of attracting Catholic votes in the forthcoming General Election.
Criticisms escalated when officials coordinating the papal visit at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office were exposed circulating “joke” e-mails suggesting that the Pope’s engagements in the UK should include opening an abortion clinic and blessing a gay marriage. They reached a crescendo when Professor Richard Dawkins called for Benedict to be arrested on arrival for “crimes against humanity.”
The National Secular Society protested about taxpayers’ money being spent on the visit, and the BCEW was forced to organize a collection from parishes as costs spiraled upward. Peter Tatchell, the leader of the gay-rights group Outrage, formed a new coalition calling itself “Protest the Pope,” and a Muslim group threatened violent disruption of papal Masses. Celebrated columnist and sexual rights campaigner Claire Rayner’s words of welcome
for the Vicar of Christ were as follows: “In all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus…as I do against this creature…the only thing to do is to get rid of him.” Meanwhile, a celebrated columnist for the London Times summed up her view of the Catholic Church: “they hate women and gays, and [expletive] kids.” The papal plane had not even left Italy and the mood stoked by the British media resembled that of a lynch mob.
A STATE VISIT
This papal visit was of course a state visit, not simply a pastoral visit to Britain’s Catholics. The full array of political protocol and convention was on display, but during the preparations for the trip, the bishops and state officials alike seemed nervous and cowered by the vehemence of the contrived hostility. The bishops had arranged for the UK government and its civil service to be “briefed” on the Catholic Church, and one might have hoped that the result would have been a better understanding of the Church’s faith and practice, as well as of the significance to Catholics of Cardinal Newman. The “briefing” took place in the strictest secrecy at the Department of Communities and Local Government, a department originally set up to counteract the threat posed by militant Islam. The keynote address was entitled “The Roman Catholic Church in Britain Today” and was delivered by Catherine Pepinster, the editor of The Tablet.
The Tablet occupies a peculiar position of significance among Catholic periodicals in England. There are a reported five million Catholics in Britain and yet this magazine produces only 20,000 copies a week. It is avowedly “progressive” in a spirit of what it likes to call “loyal dissent” from the Magisterium. It was recently and very publicly rebuked by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver for calling on US Catholics to back President Obama’s healthcare bill and for declaring abortion to be a “specifically Catholic issue.” Other recent articles have defended therapeutic abortion and have called for the Church to reconsider its position on “stable” homosexual relationships. Despite its modest circulation, it enjoys a disproportionately significant influence on the English Catholic establishment.
Recent events in the US may help to illuminate what has been going on in England for some time. President Obama and his advisors identified well before his election the need to recruit so-called “progressive Catholics” to his cause. To that end, Obama has actively and successfully courted “progressive” Catholicism in the US, regardless of any connection it might have to either mainstream Catholic opinion or to official Church teaching. The biggest fruit of this policy so far has been the passing of Obama’s healthcare bill. The US bishops stood four-square against the bill, but with the Catholic Health Association as a key backer, the president achieved his objective and in the process divided the American Church against herself.
It appears that for some time a similar process has been at work in England— with one major difference. In the US, it is the politicians who court the Church because they envy its influence; in the UK, it is the Church leaders who lobby the politicians to form such a “progressive alliance.”
It is against this background of the alliance between Establishment Catholicism and secular elites that the beatification of Newman itself became politicized. While the media focused on sideshows, such as “Protest the Pope” and Tatchell’s claim that Newman was a closet homosexual, Newman himself remained as little understood as ever in England. The explanation for this was supplied, quite openly, by The Tablet. On May 29, 2010, an important article appeared by one of English liberal Catholicism’s most eminent commentators, Clifford Longley. In this article Longley highlighted Newman’s strategic significance to the English bishops in contributing to the widespread repudiation of Humanae Vitae in the English Catholic Church since 1968: “The idea of invoking ‘Newman on conscience’ let them off the hook. They could tell themselves that the dissenters were following their consciences. Newman said that was OK.”
What Longley’s article makes clear is how important an interpretation of Newman as the “patron saint of Catholic dissent” has been to an English Catholic hierarchy that for 40 years has, as Longley says, “made room in the Church for both answers” to the question of the rightness of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out after Humanae Vitae that if the teaching it contained were ignored or repudiated by Church leaders, it would subsequently prove impossible to uphold any integrated Catholic vision of human sexuality. This seems to be the very situation in which the English bishops now find themselves. This failure to accept and expound Humanae Vitae in the late 20th century has led directly to a growing incapacity to articulate an authentically Catholic response to the 21st-century issue of same-sex relationships.
The “gay rights” lobby is now claiming equal sexual “rights” to those of heterosexual people whose sexual behavior also dissents from Humanae Vitae and with apparent Church approval. The leader of the Catholic Church Vincent Nichols, clearly appreciates the dilemma. He recently replied on television to the question whether the Catholic Church might in time approve “gay marriage” by saying that none of us can know “what is down the road.”
Against this backdrop, Newman’s doctrine of conscience might be seen as one way to “resolve” the issue of homosexual relationships in the same way that it was invoked to resolve the question of contraception a generation ago. Clifford Longley himself appears to recognize the misrepresentation of Newman’s meaning that such a move would involve. “If anything,” he wrote, the prominent 1960s dissenters from Humanae Vitae “would have agreed with Pope Benedict’s conservative interpretation of Newman, except that they wanted the Magisterium to say something different.” Longley here all but acknowledges that over the past 50 years Newman has been portrayed in a way that not only misrepresents his doctrine of conscience but has enabled the bishops to avoid what Longley calls the “much tougher question”—“Was Humanae Vitae itself actually right or wrong?”
The use of Newman to avoid answering that question is going to be extremely difficult to sustain in the light of the exhaustive research undertaken in promoting Newman’s cause over the last 50 years. This has produced a truly definitive interpretation which has come to be accepted by the Church and is the basis of her beatification of Newman. This interpretation (shared by Benedict XVI from his life-long study of Newman) is not that conscience should be the victor in any apparent dispute with Church teaching but rather that the Catholic faith originates in conscience and is its fulfillment. This is the “conservative” interpretation of Newman which Clifford Longley says even Catholic dissenters in 1968 recognized as the truth.
And yet the inauthentic reading of Newman based on compromise between conflicting views is the one which was officially deployed in England for the visit. In a passage in the official booklet explaining the papal visit produced by the BCEW, Newman’s credentials as a mediator between extremes were played up: “As a Catholic too in controversy, he looked for a moderate way. While he was arguing against Pusey and Gladstone, on the one hand, he was also seeking, on the other, to temper the extravagance of more extreme Catholics like Frederick Faber and W.G. Ward. It is a useful lesson for dialogue today.”
“THE BIRM INGHAM 3”
An extraordinarily paradoxical situation unfolded in England before the papal visit. Three members of Newman’s own community at the Birmingham Oratory were suddenly sent away on “indefinite retreat” to different religious houses by the Oratory’s Apostolic Visitor in May. Before the Pope arrived, it was announced that one had been sent to an Oratory in South Africa for a year, one to the Oratory in Toronto, and the third forcibly exclaustrated from the community by canonical decree for five years. In the face of growing challenge from vocal parishioners and Catholic commentators for an explanation of why they had been removed, official statements about the three proved puzzlingly inconsistent. First, the official spokesman suggested that they had been affected by unpleasant stories in the press about the former Provost and had actually asked to go on retreat. It was then suggested that there were divisions within the community over the arrangements for the papal visit which had required the three to be sent away in order to “calm down.” Other commentators even attempted to discredit the three by suggesting that they were part of an Oratorian community that was out of control and had acted divisively in pursuing their own agenda, and may even have worked to undermine the previous Provost.
The replacement of the Provost would seem to endorse the theory of concerns about effective oversight and control inside the Birmingham Oratory community, but the real question is whether the consequence of this was the internecine warfare suggested by commentators. Many believe that the most direct consequence was a failure to restrain the three’s increasingly public statements concerning both the Newman cause and the issue of dissent from the moral teachings of the Church by high-profile figures such as Tony Blair (who published a piece in L’Osservatore Romano near the start of the papal visit about Newman). It is suggested that the three’s statements were being heard way beyond the boundaries of the Oratory parish and came to the attention of certain factions in the British hierarchy who felt they had gone too far. According to this version of the story, the Visitation was forced to act against them because the Birmingham Oratory itself had come to be seen by some high-ranking prelates as “dangerous.” The situation was further complicated because the three Oratorians’ views on Newman were clearly in harmony with the Holy Father’s and echoed his sentiments on dissent as expressed to the bishops of England and Wales in his ad limina address to them earlier this year. The credibility of this version was given a significant boost when the Oratory spokesman admitted on the eve of the visit that the reason for the three’s removal was “doctrinal tensions” and that these were not tensions with other members of the community.
FRUIT FROM THE PAPAL VISIT
The palpable lack of enthusiasm for this papal visit on the part of the very people organizing it provoked anger and bewilderment among grass-roots Catholics in England, particularly when the visit proved to be an overwhelming success. Some have suggested that what lay behind this was a determination by elements within the English Catholic hierarchy to assert its independence from the person and public statements of Pope Benedict and to demonstrate to the British political class that its own interests lie in accommodating Catholicism to modern secular attitudes. Beyond sympathy for those attitudes, the reason for this policy, it is suggested, is the determination of the hierarchy to protect the Church’s property, and in particular its schools, from being seized, having already lost its adoption agencies in a recent wave of “gay equality” legislation. There is also the connected issue of the need to attract funding from the wider secular society in which it finds itself. Thus Newman was presented during the build-up to the visit not as the passionate opponent of liberalism and the defender of papal teaching but as a kind of community organizer who preferred conscience over papal authority.
It was left to the Holy Father himself to take every opportunity during the visit to correct this approach and to demonstrate a clear difference of his understanding of Catholic teaching from that of some of the English bishops. The tragedy in all of this is the widening rift between the attitudes of the clerical and lay Catholic establishment in England. As one noted English Catholic priestblogger put it, the choice facing English Catholicism is stark: “The alternative to the Benedictine project is turning the church into a sterile desert containing nothing but aging bishops and a vast lay staff with a few lay people with a few vague, post-Christian beliefs.”
We should pray for the intercession of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman that this is not what follows the papal visit to Britain in 2010, but rather that Newman’s much hoped for Second Spring may yet see Britain enter a new phase of acceptance and understanding of the Catholic Church.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.