Page 5, 28th June 1996

28th June 1996
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Page 5, 28th June 1996 — Caught in the web

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Locations: Salford, Liverpool


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Caught in the web

TUE NINE-DAYS WON DER of the supposed "Catholic Civil War" began with Alice Thomas Ellis's now legendary Catholic Herald column attacking the late Archbishop Derek Worlock and ended with the appointment of Bishop Patrick Kelly to succeed him in Liverpool. The affair coincided with two other not unrelated events: a row over Catholic Religious Education (as epitomised by one RE text in particular); and a meeting of Catholic traditionalists in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster,addressed by Mother Mary Angelica, the charismatic American founder of the television network Eternal Word Television (EWT).

The controversy over the meeting was a direct result of Cardinal Hume's appearance at it. It was widely reported that the Cardinal had come to deliver a rebuke: it was not enough to be obedient to the Pope, the Cardinal told them; you must also be obedient to us, the English Bishops. In other words, some thought, stop causing us difficulties by going on all the time about doctrinal purity in your obscurantist and backward-looking and uncharitable way. The Cardinal appeared to be underlining this message by firmly dissociating himself from four resolutions later to be passed by acclamation by the meeting.

One of these was of particularly topical relevance: "We humbly implore that every Bishop shall himself examine the textbooks used in his schools for religious instruction and replace those which do not accord with the catechism on any basic issue. At the same time that he ensures that his catechists and teachers fully understand and accept every teaching of the Church on Faith and Morals".

This is not accommodating language; indeed, it might be thought it is the kind of thing the Cardinal must have had in mind when he called on traditionalists to be more charitable to those they disagreed with. But did the very large audience which passed it by acclamation really deserve Clifford Longley's assessment itself arguably less than wholly charitable that they were fundamentalists, "hardly participants in mainstream Catholic culture at all"? Certainly, from my observation of them, few felt the "seething sense of betrayal... by the Catholic Bishops" of which Longley accused them, and they greeted Cardinal Hume with standing ovations both before and after his supposed wigging.

The fact that there were already Bishops who were doing much of what that unbending resolution in education had called for: the new archbishop of Liverpool, Patrick Kelly, was one of them.As Bishop of Salford he had himself examined Waving the Mb, the syllabus installed by Archbishop Worlock in the neighbouring diocese of Liverpool to replace the existing RE syllabus, and had forbidden its use in his diocese.

Can you be a Catholic believer without believing what Catholics are supposed to believe? That was what that resolution about Catholic RE was really about. In the context of the time, this was seen as referring in particular to one textbook and one RE teacher in particular: to the former nun, Clare Richards, and her book Roman Catholic Christianity. Her textbook was, I wrote in The Catholic Herald, "clearly. and deliberately subversive not only of specifically Catholic doctrine, but of the central articles of mainstream Christianity".

The skilful ambiguity of Richards's language, however, has protected her from Episcopal interference. In the wake of the furore caused by the Catholic Herald's coverage, individual Bishops seem to have decided to defend the hook, not only on the grounds that doctrine is not important but on the grounds that the book actually teaches it in an orthodox way.

So there is an impasse here, which cannot be resolved simply by arguing about the text itself. I have to say that it is entirely mysterious to me that any theologically competent person (let alone a Catholic Bishop) can come to such a conclusion in good faith: but, undoubtedly, so it is. Perhaps such a thing is possible because to the pure all things are pure: and certainly, what we have here is a difficulty not of fundamental principle but of interpretation. There has been, in other words, no episcopal "betrayal" of the Faith. When Richards, for instance, says that the doctrine of the Trinity is that "thinking about Jesus is thinking about God", a Bishop anxious to avoid the embarrassment of condemning a text already in widespread use will look for a way of harmonising such a statement with his own orthodox understanding: and of course, if you believe that Jesus is God, a statement like "thinking about Jesus is thinking about God" is literally and obviously true.

But the real question here is not what the Bishop believes about Jesus, but what Clare Richards believes about him and intends her book to teach.

WAT WE HAVE HERE in other words is less a doctrinal problem than one of literary criticism. What is the book's underlying intention and character? This is a neutral question, to do with whether or not we have any information outside the text itself which will enable us to estab

lish its actual meaning. And in fact we do. We have the clear evidence of another book by Clare Richards, in which she spells out her views on two major doctrines so fundamental that it is hard to see how Catholicism can exist without them: the doctrines of the Real Presence and the Divinity of Christ.

It is clear enough what an authentically Catholic RE ought to teach about Jesus. Addressing an audience of headmasters recently, Cardinal Hume simply but comprehensively summed it up; "I speak," he said, "as a Christian who accepts the astonishing claim that God became man, walked with us close on two thousand years ago, and continues to do so as our way, our truth and our life".

THAT IS WHAT Catholics believe: and Catholic RE should presumably teach it.The Gospels, Cardinal Hume said, "should, if properly understood, lead a young person to be part of a believing community". And "properly understood", says the Catholic Church, includes and must never dilute let alone omit that "astonishing claim" that Jesus is God.

Clare Richards does not believe this claim and has taken a conscious decision not to teach it. "I don't say any more", she says in her book, Who Would a Teacher Be, "that Jesus is God ... I have reverted to the biblical way of speaking, where the word God is reserved for the mystery whom Jesus called "Father". Of that mystery Jesus may be called the Son, or Mirror, or Servant, or Words, but he never claimed identity."

But of course, Jesus repeatedly claimed identity with the Father: we can only deny this if we accept a now increasingly discredited liberal Protestant biblical criticism which denies the authenticity of almost everything the Gospels represent Jesus as saying. For Catholics,the great Johannine claim "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (and it Synoptic equivalents) authentically represents Jesus's teaching on the matter.

For Richards and those who think like her, Jesus is something very different: not a God to be worshipped but a "mirror". "Jesus is not the object of our searching or journeying", she asserts: "he points us to the Father (he is my signpost)."

To say that "Jesus is God", she insists, is to speak in "Trinitarian language, a legacy of fifth-century and mediaeval philosophical speculation". (The doctrine, of course, is not only biblical in its origins but was philosophically fully developed by the Council of Nicaea (AD 325); not the least of Clare Richards's problems is her extensive lack of basic knowl edge.) Similarly, she denies the Real Presence because she finds it difficult: she teaches her pupils that the Mass is the same kind of liturgical event as the Jewish Passover meal.

This is because her nonpractising Catholic pupils have identified the Real Presence as an area of difficulty. Richards refers to the doctrine (and others) as "the party line" and declines to teach it: "I have to wrestle with my own problems here," she explains, "because I sympathise with my pupils and share their criticisms" including the one, it is made clear, that to see Christ as being truly present in the Eucharistic elements is "unreal and distasteful".

HE RICHARDS AFFAIR has almost certainly not gone away. The Bishops would naturally like it to too; Bishops are constitutionally inclined to keep a damper on

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