by Fr. MICHAEL RICHARDS,
Editor of the CLERGY REVIEW
THE violent outbreak of contrOversy over Humanae Vitae which has been raging Within the Church in this country has brought to a head. perhaps to a crisis point, the ailments which have afflicte4 us for some years now. nd which have been a cont ual source of weakness, frustrating our attempts to be an effective sign of Christ l in the modern r
world. This ay well be the moment given us by God for understandin them more clearly and moving towards a cure.
The six years which I have now spent working as a priest were preceded by six years' immersion in the affairs of the French Church, as a seminarist at the Institut Catholive. Now there is no lack of controvers and tension in France, with political differences dcepeni g the divisions l to which tci perarnent and opinion will a ways give rise.
Disputes lead men both of the Right and of the Left to separate themselves from the Church. The French know
how ' to argue even more
fiercely than we do. But somehow I never met there quite that atmosphere of sour distrust or that tone of despairing sarcasm which is the peculiar contribution of the melancholic Englishman to religious controversy.
What struck me immediately on beginning work in England was the presence of a party spirit of a rather different kind from that which one finds in France. Men werc self-conscious, edgy. tense; they took sides over trifles and fell into a tone of mocking superiority when they spoke of those with whom they dilagreed. They seemed to have no confidence in the Church as a living reality. only in an idea of the Church, their idea of the Church, so that party spirit appeared to mean more to them than a common faith.
I am not accusing or judging anyone here; I am trying to describe an atmosphere of which I was no doubt as much a victim as anyone else.
Our exposed situation as a religious minority of a not particularly respectable kind —outside the 'Establishment,
cosmopolitan, administratively awkward—has made us thin-skinned about other people's views'. One result is that we tend to treat the Church with the acute embarrassment of a prep-school boy whose parents are bound to say or do the wrong thing in front of the other boys.
We strain to show our own enlightenment by writing apologetic pieces in New Christian and suchlike about the way the Roman Catholic Church is being pulled and pushed into the twentieth century. This no doubt causes as much unimpressed amusement among non-Catholics as it sparks off annoyance among Catholics.
Wearying of what were perhaps unduly brash or naïve attempts to convert England, we have turned to converting the Church. This tail-chasing activity has made us more ineffective than ever. We don't seem to realise that new blood would do us a world of good; if we could convert a few more people, we might be able to put the Church into better hands than our own. But people don't want to join a Church when some of the more articulate members seem so ashamed of the company they are keeping.
With monotonous regularity the bishops are blamed for everything that goes wrong. Now in a way this is what they are for. and I am not suggesting that we should all simply make a pious resolution not to be beastly to the bishops in future.
I am even beastly to them myself in a mild sort of way from time to time. In fact, I am often tempted to echo the words of the sergeant-major to the officer cadet on a celebrated occasion : "For God's sake say something, Sir. if it's only good-bye". But there is something more than salutary criticism in what is so continually being said. There seems to be a wish to close down communication. to write off the bishops and a great many of the clergy and to go it alone. And in this atmosphere, with the best will and the most outstanding talents in the world. the bishops can do nothing.
There must at least he an open readiness to listen and interpret with goodwill; otherwise relationships within the household of faith break down. I say faith deliberately here, since learning from the Church and sharing with others what one has learnt is part of the life of faith.
This impatience with the
dull routine of much Church
life has given rise in many places, in thought, word or deed, to the phenomenon of the Underground Church. This new form of sectarianism has arisen, not, as so often in the past. among the under-privileged or less educated members of society but among the more educated and intelligent.
They are people who have studied the documents of Vatican II, have read a great deal about the liturgy, and have a strongly developed social conscience. Some of the very best people. in fact. And they cannot understand why the Church is not getting on with it.
The parish mass fills them with silent fury. The complacency and utter stodginess of their fellow Catholics drives them into wild fits of agonised despair. The clergy.often feel as they listen to them that they could do with many more such people. who have such a grasp of what the Church is and how much more we should be doing, But they reflect also that these critics have not yet faced the ordinary day-byday, hand-over-hand struggle of coping with average and below average members of the Church, that they seem to think that it is enough to think or write or say a thing for it to be so.
Alas, from resolution and paper to flesh and blood there is a wide gap and a long and hard battle. Our poor old human nature prefers familiar ways and a seated or recumbent posture to the bright and breezy Butlin atmosphere of an energetically pilgrim Church.
The highly intelligent arc so often highly strung as well: that is why they find the rest of us such a mortification. Perhaps they need to discover that God put them in the Church in order to teach them the art of relaxation which most Christians are so good at. They should not leave us, for we lazy dim-wits need frequent whiffs of their invigorating fresh-air spirit to stop us slipping any further down the sedative way.
The idea seems to have got around that the existence of special groups within the Church, in which people with like minds and talents get together for the exchange of ideas and for pushing forward particular aims is something necessarily at loggerheads with the mind of the rest of the Church.
But the formation of religious orders and societies for all sorts of purposes in the Church is an essential part of the infinite variety of Christian living. Harm is only done
when members of an order or of one group or other get a holieror brainieror more progressive than thou attitude towards other members of the Church.
Contemptuous. impatient or patronising words about the uncourageous. unenthusiastic, unholy, compromising lot that most of us are content to be, are signs of a narrow, harsh and rigorous spirit which cannot abide the universal long-suffering toleration of the Gospel. The line between puritanism and true
prophecy may be a thin one, hut it is perfectly clear.
I have not mentioned any particular issues here because 1 am certain that there is no way of solving them which does not involve a prior change of heart. The Fathers, as usual, had their word for it ; Homo tristis semper male agit. The sad man is always a bad man. Gloom is already a sin, and the starting-point of a great many more. We have got to shatter the humourless mood of continual opposition and closed, non-cooperative touchiness which is paralyzing our will to reform and to work together as Catholics.
Some look for a solution to our difficulties in the organisation of partisan groups in the Church. But any reinforcement of our present sectarianism would be a major disaster. St. Paul pin-pointed for ever the harm done by those who cry "I am for C'ephas." and Pope Paul must find similar party cries today more of a trial than a compliment.
There is no harm, necessarily. in washing dirty linen in public. but there is something pathological about the woman who tells tales about her friends and relations in every Launderette in town.
Whenever I read or hear depressing words about the Church being offered for public consumption, I am sorely tempted to say loudly and rudely. in the words of the Sage : "Mate, if you know of some more convenient excavation, why not sally But my mother taught me to count ten and change my mind. Maybe their mothers never told them. But Mother Church would love it if they would only learn.