For once, the Church must listen to the Government
In every part of the world the Catholic Church is instinctively opposed to government interference in its affairs. The loathing of bureaucratic meddling is especially strong in this country, where the Church was once almost crushed by unrestrained state power. No one in Whitehall should be surprised therefore if British Catholics largely believe that, even where secular officialdom is not actively hostile towards the Church, it is so ignorant of Catholicism that its interventions are invariably disastrous.
This kneejerk resistance to state interference has served the Church well. Since the penal laws were lifted the Catholic community has — at least until recent times — retained a large degree of independence from the Government in the oversight of its schools and parishes. So it is natural and right that the Bishops of England and Wales bristled when the state expressed an interest in extending secular employment tights to Catholic clergy. What, after all, do the officials at the Department of Trade and Industry know about the complex relationship between priests and their bishops, and the subtle balance between rights and obligations in the Church's Code of Canon Law'?
The bishops and their advisers first rejected a DTI questionnaire, then resisted a code of employment protection for clergy. (This latter move will be relished by those who believe that lately Eccleston Square has itself developed something of a cottage industry producing statements of best practice.) The DTI is clearly unhappy with the bishops' response. And while the Government has not announced what it will do next, it has claimed, ominously, that the state has the power to extend employment rights to Catholic clergy by law.
It is necessary to ask whether the Church's innate resistance to state interference is, on this occasion, justified. As the two parish priests quoted on our front page illustrate, many clergy are deeply anxious about their retirement. They fear that, after giving the best days of their lives to the Church, they will eke out their last days in poverty and obscurity. They also express a range of lesser worries, including not being allowed to take holidays, being forced to work ever harder as the result of declining priestly numbers, and being moved with little consultation from one parish to another.
The bishops need to know whether, and to what extent, these fears are justified. It is not enough to defend the status quo on the grounds that it is being threatened by a secular government. The state is, for once, doing the Church a favour by highlighting a genuine problem, which, if it goes unaddressed, may develop into a crisis. The bishops must pre-empt the Government by examining the wide variations in pension provisions between the provinces of England and Wales. Only then can they be confident that priests who are giving everything to the Church today will be provided for tomorrow.
The miracle light of Lourdes
Any pilgrim to Lourdes who visits the shrine in the hope of witnessing an official miracle must know that the odds are heavily stacked against such an event — which, when one thinks about it, is part of the essence of the miraculous. But what pilgrims may not know is that cures recognised by the Church are now so rare that an observer might be forgiven for wondering whether Lourdes has lost some of its potency. There has not been an officially authenticated miracle at the site where Our Lady appeared to that great saint Bernadette Soubirous since 1999, and that involved 12 gruelling years of investigations.
Why the dearth of miracles? A crucial factor is the unwillingness of modem medicine to declare that any condition is "incurable"; and, in the absence of such a declaration, the Church authorities quite rightly feel that they cannot declare the sort of rigorously attested miracle that, for example, is required by the process of canonisation.
So the Bishop of Tarbes-Lourdes, the wonderfully named Jacques Perrier, has devised a separate category of "authentic healings" in order that people who recover from devastating conditions at Lourdes can recount their spiritual and physical experiences with the full approval of the Church. Some cynics have already dubbed this lesser class of phenomenon "miracle lite"; the implication is that, faced by the scrupulous methodology of state-of-the-art medicine, which can explain virtually every biological event, the bishop is moving the goalposts.
Perhaps there is a grain of truth in this charge. Yet it misses the essence of Lourdes, which is that this corner of the Pyrenees offers a degree of consolation that rivals. if it does not exceed, that of any famous Marian place of pilgrimage. Six million people visit it every year — not in expectation of joining the tiny elite of official cures, but in the sure and certain knowledge that Our Lady will ease their pain. One of the loveliest annual British pilgrimages to Lourdes, the Raphael Pilgrimage, was formed as part of Leonard Cheshire's Mission for the Relief of Suffering; nothing could be more appropriate, for nowhere in the world is desperate suffering so triumphantly vanquished.