Page 7, 9th March 2001

9th March 2001
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Page 7, 9th March 2001 — What the Comic Relief affair tells us, not only about
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What the Comic Relief affair tells us, not only about

the Church's communications policy, but about the way we are governed

THE CLARIFICATION at last elicited by Catholic Herald reporters of exactly what it was that representatives of the English and Welsh bishops' conference discovered when they were told last year about the past actions and present intentions of Comic Relief, appears to have gone much of the way towards justifying the bishops' guidance on the vexed question of whether or not Catholic individuals and institutions can with a clear conscience support Red Nose Day.

We have received specific assurances that none of the institutions — such as Marie Stopes International, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Population Concern and the Brook Advisory Services— which Comic Relief supported for much of the nineties will this year be funded in any way by Red Nose Day. A decision has been taken — as a result of agitation by pro-life groups and by individual Catholics, and supported by this newspaper — to discontinue the support previously given. Many Catholics whose sole objection to Comic Relief was its support for organisations which fund or procure abortions will now feel justified in supporting an event which, though some doubts persist, nevertheless, as the bishops have rightly said, for the most part funds "work of which the Catholic community can overwhelmingly approve".

That is not, however, the end of the matter: questions remain. Firstly, and most obviously, why has it been so difficult to arrive at this clarification? And why did so many people mistrust the announcement originally issued by those officials of the bishops' conference charged with laying the matter to rest? Why, indeed, did that announcement cause such very widespread outrage?

The answer has to be that few people with any previous involvement in this controversy found the statement satisfactory because on a matter of fundamental importance it was perceived as untrue, or at best equivocal: "The bishops' conference", the announcement said "has sought and received from Comic Relief firm assurances that they do not fund, and have never funded, abortion services or the promotion of abortions". This statement depends crucially on the acceptance of a patent sophistry: that to fund an organisation which counsels and procures abortions is morally acceptable if the funds given are specifically earmarked for some other part of their activities.

But this is wholly unacceptable: to fund even acceptable activities by such agencies is to liberate monies which might otherwise have been diverted away from abortion: there can be no real distinction between funding abortion and funding the organisations which enable abortion. The bishops' statement, with absolute predictability, led to a widespread perception that they had been taken in.

THE STORY NOW moves on. James Caffery, headmaster of The Rosary Primary School in Birmingham — who had initiated the original campaign against Red Nose Day — wrote to the Herald to point out that the event had indeed in the past supported agencies (which he named) "providing and/or facilitating contraception and abortion". This would have been a perfect opportunity for representatives of the bishops to clear the matter up, and to explain that in response to such concerns Comic Relief would in fact now be withdrawing all funding from such agencies.

Instead, Mr Caffery was treated to a display of episcopal hauteur and bureaucratic obfuscation. Mr Caffery, wrote Bishop Hugh Lindsay loftily, had been led "sadly astray". Fr Frank Turner, assistant general secretary to the Bishops' Conference, further confused matters, by appearing to confirm Mr Caffery's worst suspicions. The bishops' representatives, he wrote, "had full access to Comic Relief's project files relating to the very organisations Mr Caffery complains of. On this basis, the bishops are certain that no Red Nose Day funds whatever are allocated to projects that promote or finance abortion." [our italics] The real point is that there has been a change of policy, and a victory for the pro-life cause, which have rendered unnecessary such slippery evasions. If this is the case, why could we not have been told so before? And why did Fr Turner continue to justify the unjustifiable? That such questions should have to be asked opens further questions about two major issues which now have to be faced as a matter of urgency.

FIRSTLY, THE QUESTION of how the official Church communicates, both with the secular world beyond our own boundaries (an issue which Daniel Johnson opened up last month in this newspaper) and — just as importantly — with its own, the faithful people of God, who too often get the impression that they are given just as much information as the bishops' bureaucracy thinks will keep them quiet and off their masters' backs.

The inadequacy of the Church's conununications policy is a function of a much deeper problem: the culture of institutionalised noncommunication which informs everything the bishops collectively do. To give a single, but crucial example: why will the forthcoming Low Week meeting of the bishops' conference take place, like all such meetings, in total secrecy? Why, for instance, will the forthcoming review of the Church's communications policy being carried out in such haste by the controller of Radio 2, James Moir, be presented to them at this conference and accepted or rejected behind closed doors? Why, to take another example, will the directory on the reordering of churches at present being prepared by the committee for art, architecture and heritage be going later this year to the bishops for their approval without any attempt adequately to consult the laity on a matter about which so many of them have such very strong feelings?

Why will consultation on these issues be so rigidly limited? These are certainly matters which the American bishops' conference would discuss publicly, with journalists present: indeed, the deliberations of the American bishops' conference are regularly broadcast by EWTN and other outlets. Why in this country do all such discussions take place in camera? Why does our own bishops' conference have such a secretive and paternalist policy towards the men and women in the pews? Is it not time for the bishops finally to take leave of such pre-conciliar attitudes? Can this collective episcopal clinging to a refusal to consult the People of God really be what the Council meant by collegiality? We take leave to doubt it.




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