Justice and Peace Commission called 'tired and aimless'
By MICHAEL DUGGAN The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of England and Wales is "tired and aimless", says Mr Richard Dowden, assistant secretary of the commission for the past two years, in a letter to Mr George Bull, the commission's chairman.
Mr Dowden says the commission has become "a front" which "gives the impression of action where there is none, and which is therefore preventing change taking place and preventing the bishops themselves and the Catholic community from coming to grips with their responsibilities to work and pray for justice and peace."
One major cause of this malaise, Mr Dowden believes, is the "manipulative and arbitrary" way in which the commission's members are selected.
The four full-time workers on the secretariat are advised by a 35-strong voluntary panel, including Lord Longford, Barbara Jackson, Mr Hugh Fraser, MP, and Mr Kevin McNamara, MP, but these represent "widely divergent points of view' "Where there is a divisive issue, conflict is avoided at all costs for fear that it will become personalised, every attempt is made to avoid key questions and no real effort to face up to the differences of opinion. This prevents the commission ever having to go through the private and public agony of taking a stand on any major issue."
Mr Dowden goes on to write that members of the commission refuse to face up to the true nature of their relations with the Hierarchy. "On most issues the criterion of action is not 'What is a just and Christian response to this situation' but rather 'What will the bishops think of us it we say this?' " Northern Ireland is a case in point, he says. On his return from three months work in Derry last September Mr Dowden prepared papers outlining a policy document for the Church in England and Wales. In these he drew attention to the responsibility of British Catholics on matters such as Army behaviour in Northern Ireland, finance and the constitutional position.
Advisory body His letter describes reaction to the papers: "These were praised and passed on to the bishops, who also praised them. There was no challenge from any commission member or bishop on a single point they contained, yet the commission has not accepted them as commission documents and the bishops' statements have not reflected either the content or the spirit of these documents — if anything, the contrary.
"When the bishops' Northern Ireland group met the commission delegation back in September, no mention was made of their forthcoming visit to Ireland, nor did they ask for our advice. Is this not strange considering that the commission is supposed to be their official advisory body?' The "visit to Ireland" is believed to refer to a meeting held at Maynooth College in January, at the invitation of the Irish Hierarchy. It seems that general policy of the English and Welsh bishops over Northern Ireland is to act in line with the Irish Hierarchy rather than to take an independent stance.
Mr Dowden goes on to tackle the Justice and Peace Commission's educational role within the Catholic community. "With regard to the education of the mass of Catholics in this country and awakening them to their responsibilities I seem to spend more of my time trying to assuage 'awakened' members who are concerned that the Church is not doing anything officially."
Referring to the commission's "commitment campaign" — under which since 1973 Catholics have been invited to sign a form promising to work, pray and study for justice and peace — Mr Dowden says that the work done by the secretariat has been "immeasurable", but he adds: "However, in money terms each signed commitment has cost nearly one pound!
"I think the least the commission could do would be to admit that the campaign has been a disaster and work from there rather than keeping up the pretence that all is well."
He complains that the campaign was in any case of a "vague and unspecific nature", largely because the commission had not faced up to the issues involved.
The decision-making process is a further problem raised in Mr Dowden's letter. Because of the COMmission's unsatisfactory structure and laok of direction, he says that a tiny group of people find themselves making .important policy decisions.
"The reason given for this is that it is impossible to ask each member of the commission for their opinions on every move.
"Yet the small group, the secretariat and certain members of the steering committee, act -not as an executive of decided policy but as a maker of major decisions, retaining a veto on work already completed by working parties."
Richard Dowden makes four recommendations to overcome the problems he has outlined. To clarify relations with the Bishops' Conference he says the commission should be reconstituted to include four or five bishops — instead of the present two — and a group of experts willing to give up their time.
He adds that the commission should abandon attempts to "educate– the Catholic community at grass-roots level until resources are adequate. Furthermore, the commission should conduct its affairs with "maximum openness and frankness" and not seek to avoid differences of opinion.
Finally, Mr Dowden thinks the cornmission's general secretary should have the same status as the general secretary of the British Council of Churches.
"The Church in this country is perhaps more free than any other in the world today," he concludes. "It is neither part of the establishment nor is it oppressed.
"Yet at the present time it seems incapable of giving any clear leadership to its own members and to the society around it on issues of justice and development. The commission could become the spearhead of such leadership were it to face honestly the issues it takes up and the constituents it tries to serve."
Mr Bull declined to comment on Mr Dowden's letter before members of the full commission have discussed it.