ON Tuesday the Bishops of England and Wales will gather at Archbishop's House, Westminster, for a meeting which may prove to be one of the most momentous since the Hierarchy was restored in 1850.
The main, and perhaps only, subject for discussion will be the Pope's encyclical on birth control Humanae Vitae and, as the German and Belgian Hierarchies have already done, the English bishops will try to establish a uniform policy on putting the encyclical into practice.
Thc meeting, which is understood to have been initiated by Cardinal Heenan, chairman of the Conference of Bishops, was planned as a secret session. Many knew that it must take place, but only the bishops and their confidants knew the date— until it was leaked to the national press.
Thirty bishops are entitled to attend and vote at the meeting. These are the diocesan bishops and their assistants the titular bishops, together with Bishop Homyak, the Apostolic Exarch for the Ukrainians in England and Wales, and Bishop Tickle who is responsible for the armed forces. Retired bishops, like Archbishop Roberts. S.J., a maverick on the birth control issue, have no official standing and no say tn policymaking.
Decisions at these meetings are carried by majority vote and the English Conference of Bishops has a good record of presenting a united front even when there are divisions among its members.
The "New Pentecost" scheme was a good example of an issue that provoked strong feelings around the conference table yet received at least nominal backing from every bishop when it came to the crunch.
In addition, the bishops tend to get on well together. It would certainly be difficult to find the kind of animosity among the policy makers of the English Catholic Church that is rife in the board rooms of many large companies. At least to each other the bishops show disarming charity and friendship.
Although there are differences over the way in which Pope Paul's encyclical should be presented and put into practice, as witnessed by the diverse pastoral letters which have appeared during the past five weeks, there can be little doubt that the bishops will agree on a common policy and stick to it.
And what will the policy be? That, of course, is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Will the English bishops follow the liberal interpretation of the en cyclical already put forward by the German and Belgian Hierarchies, or will theirs be a toe-the-line-at onceapproach? It would be premature to forecast which way the voting will go. but it is possible to estimate the mood of individual bishops by their public statements on the subject.
Most of the bishops have now made their own positions on the encyclical abundantly clear. Archbishop Murphy set the ball rolling with a tough, uncompromising and much quoted statement.
"Make no mistake about this encyclical," he said. "There may be a contemporary clamour. drowning the quiet relief of many and the heroic acceptance of the disappointed but when the history of these days comes to be written, this encyclical will be hailed as the Magna Carta, not merely of all women, but of all men and all children."
It is reported that a priest of high standing in the Cardiff diocese sent the Archbishop a telegram with this message : "Would the king please meet his knights at Runnymede?"
Bishop Wheeler of Leeds took a similar attitude : "Artificial birth control can only bring disaster on the human race. It leads easily to conjugal infidelity and the lowering of morality. It can lead to a lowering of respect for woman as an individual. It panders to selfish enjoyment."
By far the most outspoken pastoral came from Archbishop Cowderoy of Southwark on Sunday, August 11. In this he suggested that those people who had been led by their priests to expect a change in the Church's ruling on birth control should now turn their bitterness against "these false and devious advisers who gave them unfounded hope."
Some priests refused to read the pastoral, others re-wrote it.
A slightly more moderate message came from Bishop's House, Nottingham. but Bishop Ellis still spoke of "false Christs and false prophets." Bishop Rudderham of Clifton told his diocese that "all are bound by this decision : none can rightfully dispute it or cast doubt upon it."
To a greater or lesser degree several other bishops followed the trail blazed by Archbishop Murphy including Bishop Holland of Salford, Bishop Foley of Lancaster "Too many have followed the clamour of the world" Bishop Wall of Brentwood and, in a joint pastoral, Bishop Petit of Menevia and his auxiliary Bishop Langton Fox. This joint pastoral came as something of a surprise. Bishop Petit makes no bones about being one of the more conservative members of the Conference of Bishops, but Bishop Langton Fox has a reputation as a liberal. His coauthorship of the Menevia pastoral does not seem to bear this out.
Several powerful bishops have adopted a more conciliatory tone in their public utterances. They are led by Cardinal Heenan who told people to continue going to the Sacraments even if they found the Pope's ruling difficult to follow.
The attitude of these bishops is that the Pope has stated the ideal and that not only must backsliding from this ideal be expected but that it must be approached with the utmost gentleness and charity.
Archbishop Beck of Liverpool certainly thinks along these lines and like Cardinal Heenan he has so far refused to suspend priests who find the encyclical difficult to accept.
He repeat:– loud and often. that people must be given time to adjust to this new situation. The Pope took four years to make up his mind, Archbishop Beck has pointed out, and married couples may need just as long, perhaps even longer.
Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham is another who will probably press for a conciliatory statement and quite certainly Bishop Worlock of Portsmouth will be found in this lobby.
The rest of the diocesan bishops present something of an unknown quantity. Bishop Cashman of Arundel and Brighton, for example, issued one of the most compassionate of all the pastorals. Yet when it comes to a final decision he is in no doubt as to where he stands : the encyclical is the final word and unquestionable.
There are then the assistant or auxiliary bishops to be taken into account. Because they do not issue pastorals one can only guess their attitude to the encyclical on past performance.
Bishop Casey. Auxiliary of Westminster, has already made his position clear on television when he spoke of the encyclical as being "the parting of the ways" for some. He will probably line up with those who demand immediate total acceptance of and obedience to the encyclical. The other auxiliary of Westminster, Bishop Butler, will be among those pressing for a conciliatory statement. He will probably,find himself in the company of Bishop Harris, auxiliary of Liverpool and, possibly, with Bishop Pearson, auxiliary of Lancaster.
Who sways who and to what extent will determine the kind of statement which this historic meeting issues. If the bishops produce a toe the line immediately statement they will alienate those Catholics who find the encyclical hard to accept. On the other hand, they obviously cannot reject the Pope's ruling.
The chances are that they will recognise the very genuine crisis that so many loyal Catholics have found themselves faced with and issue a statement similar to those of the continental bishops. recognising that conscience does have a part to play in the matter of contraception.