Conflict and frustration among members of the Justice and Peace Commission for England and Wales has come to light in an analysis of the Commission's organisation conducted by two sociology researchers from Surrey University.
Mr Michael Hornsby-Smith, a lecturer in sociology, and his assistant Penny Mansfield interviewed 24 of the 27 lay members of the Justice and Peace Commission as part of a 15-month study of the Roman Catholic community in England. In an article written for the Jesuit periodical "The Month" they describe how they found deep differences of opinion within the membership which they had not anticipated when the study began. A central problem highlighted by the study is the diffuse nature of the Commission's task. Although it exists to advise the Bishops' Conference the 40-strong body is also expected to "change the world", which the researchers say implies action and not simply advice.
The difference of approach became overt after news of the Wiriyamu massacre in Mozambique reached Britain in 1973. A group of Commission members tried to galvanise the Commission into taking action by asking for a public statement from the bishops and organising a delegation to the Foreign Office.
Other Commission members, particularly some members of the Steering Committee, thought that this would go beyond the Commission's brief and insisted that a delegation to the government should go in a spirit of fact-finding rather than opinion-giving. Consequently the
"Although the view of the latter group seemed perfectly reasonable in that it merely restated the terms of reference of the Commission, it infuriated other members because they felt that reference was made to the precise meaning of the Commission's mandate only when matters were of a controversial and political nature."
Finally a group of members issued a public statement without the Commission's authority, and this led to considerable reaction within the Commission. But confrontation was avoided by attributing the cause of the dispute to lack of communication.
The researchers believe that fear of accepting the existence of conflict is crucial to proper understanding of the Commission. They found that organisational procedures and time lags were used to "cool out" members who felt that the Commission was failing to face up to uncomfortable problems.
The probleMs of Northern Ireland provided "a good example of the difficulties of the Commission in offering advice in an area of great political controversy and sensitivity, and illustrated the fragility of its relationship with the Bishops' Conference", says the two sociologists. A working party prepared reports for the full Commission which in turn forwarded a number of recommendations for action to the Bishops' Conference.
"These recommendations, however, were not accepted, apparently on the grounds that the working party was not considered to be competent to advise the hierarchy on such matters. In response to this lack of confidence in them the members of the working party decided to resign.
"The full Commission, however, although disturbed by this blow to the Commission's credibility, urged the members of the working party to continue so that the commitment to Northern Ireland might be sustained. To many members, especially the members of the Northern Ireland Working Party, this scenario symbolised the quintessential lack of credibility of the Commission as an authoritative advisory body respected by the episcopal conference and recognised by them as their major source of authoritative advice on all matters of international justice and peace." The -st ciologists conclude that the Bishops' Confererice must "respond more positively" to the Commission's advice if the relationship is to be fruitful. When advice is acceptable the hierarchy should be clearly be seen to act on it. Where there is disagreement a "process of dialogue" should be initiated between the bishops and the Commission "if the Commission it to be publicly recognised as an authoritative advisory body", The study calls for _ clarification the "corrosive ambiguity" in the Commissions • terms of reference. Members of the Commission are also urged to avoid aiming for a "lowest common denominator" consensus in their advice to the bishops and instead to present a "stimulating and comprehensive account of all the relevant facts and arguments," The Surrey sociologists, who carried out their research with the aid of a grant from the Social Science Research Council, emphasise that little attention has been paid in the article to aspects of the Commission's work which "by general consent appear to have been most successful".
But their study tends to bear out some criticisms of the Commission's structure made by Mr Richard Dowden, the Assistant Secretary, in a letter sent earlier this year to the Chairman, Mr George Bull.