in dioceses run by liberals
Ian Ker regrets that an otherwise perceptive study of Catholic authority is so starry-eyed about episcopal 'collegiality'
Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church: The Future of Catholic Moral Leadership by Quentin de la Becloyere, T & T Clark, £12.99
Twas disconcerted by this hook. On reading the cover and the first chapter, I assumed that I was in
for a predictable liberal lament about the "restoration" of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. I was wrong. De la Bedoyere is clearly a man of the and 70s, but his position is more honest and nuanced than the usual progressive one.
Thus he admits: "Many would argue that these alarming declines [in the Church in the Western world] have been caused by a general loss of identity and a weak-kneed collusion in the so-called progressive attitudes of general society." The "loss in the signs of identity" suffered by Catholics after the Second Vatican Council "should not be minimised". Again, he admits, "There is evidence that an uncompromising stand on tough doctrines attract many people." He reports that statistics show there has not been a comparable decline in the USA among Protestants; but he must surely mean Evangelical Protestants, since the socalled mainline Protestant denominations are in even more serious trouble than the Catholic Church because of liberalisation.
Concerning moral teaching, de la Bedoyere insists that "the law is the guide that God has given us ... to mark the boundary that separates the realm of love from the realm of unlove". Again, it is refreshing to hear that "one should not assume that those who reject orthodox teaching are necessarily exercising a thoughtful autonomy. It is only too easy for rejection to become an end in itself — as though dissent were in some way an expression of adulthood". He points out, too, that "one occasionally gets the impression from current writings that without the note of infallibility a teaching may he virtually ignored". He is not one of those critics who assume infallibility for current opinions: "The briefest survey of history shows a multitude of values which were taken for granted by right-thinking people in the past which today their counterparts would be the first to condemn."
One doesn't have to look very far back. Even secular commentators are beginning to cast doubts on the easy availability of abortion and contraception that the 1960s took for granted, in the face of the breakdown of family and critically low birth rates in western Europe, Indeed, de la Bedoyere acknowledges "the anti-life mentality which seems such a feature of Western society" and admits that "larger rather than smaller families would be seen as the preferential option". These are not the only positive aspects of the book. De la Bedoyere is an authority on marriage counselling and business practice and he has many interesting things to say on how sound practices there can be used as models for communication and relationships within the Church.
The fact, however, remains that he is happy to swallow the basic standard dogmas of the liberal wing of the Church. The most fundamental assumption of these — often voiced by Hans Kling, for example — is that the Holy See is responsible for the crisis of the Church in the West. I myself have no doubt that the opposite is the case and that the Church is in crisis in Northern Europe (the distinction is important) and North America in spite of not because of, the Pope's efforts.
This can be proved by the remarkable differences between individual dioceses. Thus, in Paris last year, Cardinal Lustiger, who is known as "the Pope's man" in France, (typically) ordained 15 new priests. In Brussels, on the other hand, traditionally a far more Catholic city than Paris, Cardinal Danneels, seen by liberals as a "Vatican H bishop". ordained (typically) two. The only diocese in Belgium that has more than a trickle of vocations is Namur, where there is a "conservative" bishop.
The discrepancies are even more obvious within the single culture and nation of the United States. Thus, if de la Bedoyere is correct, you would expect the Church in Milwaukee, where the leading liberal Rembert Weakland was archbishop till his disgrace last year, to be comparatively flourishing; while Denver, where the archbishop is very much a pope's man, you would expect to be in the doldrums. But last year Denver had 64 seminarians, exactly twice the number for Milwaukee, the population of which is nearly twice as large. In other words. the bishop known for his opposition to Roman centralisation (for which he is praised by the author) and encouragement of local and individual autonomy, had nearly four times fewer seminarians.
Or take the diocese of Rome itself, the very seat of this centralisation and authoritarianism. In 1978, the year John Paul became pope, Rome had 21 seminarians; today it has no fewer than 193. How many people know that astonishing statistic? Seminarian statistics are especially revealing because they reflect the level of practice among young people. If anyone had predicted in 1978 that, 25 years later. the Diocese of Rome, one of the least Catholic parts of Italy, would boast of more seminarians than all the dioceses of England and Wales put
together. they would surely have been considered out of their mind.
Another characteristic that Denver, Paris, and Rome have in common is that they encourage rather than discourage or forbid the new ecclesial communities and movements. And that brings me to another criticism of this book, which makes much of how the Church could gain from sound business methods, but which ignores one vital factor. For surely any successful business depends, cmcially, on finding and making use of people with flair and ideas. And exactly the same is true of the Church, which, as the Pope has emphasised, rediscovered the all-important charismatic dimension at Vatican II. A Church which is seen in purely hierarchical terms — bishops, clergy, and laity — is a clerical preVatican II Church. According to de la Bedoyere, centralised authority inhibits the Spirit. and yet the history of the Church shows that it is the popes, not the bishops, who have encouraged the great charismatic movements — monasticism, the mendicants, the Jesuits. and now the new movements and communities.
Like other liberals, de la Bedoyere seems to me very starry-eyed about episcopal collegiality, as though everything would be fine if local bishops were allowed to tun their o \Nil show. Does he think that autocracy is the preserve of the Roman Curia? Every bishop has his own smaller version, as does the episcopal conference. The "zero tolerance" policy adopted by the American bishops, which contravened both canon law and human rights, required Roman intervention.
' Newman said that liberals are the worst persecutors. and liberal bishops are not known for their liberality. Repeating a favourite liberal theme, de la Becloyere calls for a greater say by the local church in the appointment of bishops. But that would inevitably mean either the appointment of priests from within the diocese (because known to local clergy and laity), or else the bishops themselves co-opting congenial candidates for what becomes the episcopal club. The result would be parochialism and in-breeding.
The author should reflect that Basil Hume, for example, would never have been appointed to Westminster had there not been a proactive nuncio who was not content with being the appointments secretary for the episcopal club. After all, does not a good business use headhunters? Another point he might bear in mind when criticising centralisation is that, so far as Latin-rite Catholics are concerned, the pope is our patriarch as well and has, for example, a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the Latin liturgy in translation when the bishops through ICEL had failed to do so.
Inevitably, Newman's view on conscience is cited — and distorted. He never maintained "the right of conscience to reject authoritative teaching in 'extreme' cases". 'When he said, "Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it", he was talking precisely about injunctions — Wen, not teachings — so infallibility doesn't enter into it. It is true that Newman held that the individual conscience has to apply the general teaching, so that a Catholic airman engaged in war over Irk' has to make his own judgment about whether the action is an immoral act of indiscriminate warfare. But Newman never envisaged Catholics denying Church teachings, although he did recognise that general teachings call for careful interpretation, as well as admit of exceptions in their application, and also of development.
There is a curious inconsistency running through the hook. On the very page that de la Bedoyere points out that the laity is not synonymous with "articulate Catholic[s] with an agenda", he quotes the editor of the liberal American National Catholic Reporter on the "disenchantment" of American Catholics with their bishops because of their subservience to Rome. Yes, the readers of the National Catholic Reporter (or Distorter, to its critics) are doubtless disenchanted; but they are not representative of all the American laity, any more than the readers of the Guardian are representative of the British public.
But this is another liberal assumption the book takes for granted: that "The Church has lost what authority it retained for its legalistic system" and "There is a large and growing gap between the Church as a moral authority and its members", whose "disaffection is explicit and so widespread".
Is that the case? I hear on all sides — not just among Catholics — profound gratitude for the firmness with which the Pope upholds Christian morality and tradition. And the Pope's incredibly popular world youth days remind us that today's younger generation is completely different from de la Brkloyere's. True, a very large number of young Catholics are lapsed or indifferent, hut that is not because of the Pope but because of secularism, poor religious education, dreary liturgy and banal sermons. The bitterness and disaffection Of those over the age of 60 who live in the memory of the Vatican II "revolution" are not, in my experience, shared by young Catholics today.