Monday, 8 March 2010

Is the bishop (or the parish priest) always right?

One can adopt an attitude which says that the priest or Bishop is always right, and it is never right to say that they have done something in a way that they should not have done. This is, in its most extreme form, an attitude which is simply unable to countenance misconduct, or weakness, on the part of the clergy.

Another attitude is rather the opposite. It is one that can never see anything right in what the priest or Bishop does. They are always wrong; the laity must resist, and some other criterion - as often as not acceptance of homosexual activity and the use of contraception as morally licit - replace that of subservience to the priest and Bishop.

Both attitudes can be extended from the Bishop to the Holy See, the first then becoming an unthinking Papalism and the second becoming an "anti-Roman" complex. In both cases, the result can be a playing off of the authority of the Bishop against that of the Pope; the first attitude asserts the authority of the Holy See over that of the individual Bishop, while the second asserts the authority of the local church against that of the universal.

So, what is the correct answer to this question? Or, more exactly, what is the correct course of action that should be taken when we recognise that parish priests and Bishops can do things that are wrong?

Principle 1: A parish priest or Bishop occupies an office in the Church, and have a dignity that belongs with that office. However, they are also fallible human beings who try their best (we hope) to live up to the demands of the office that they occupy. This distinction between office and person has two consequences for the lay faithful. Firstly, they owe respect to the dignity of the office; and, secondly, this respect for the dignity of the office should determine the manner in which they might challenge the failings of the human person who occupies the office. Communicating something that is of concern to the appropriate authorities, ecclesiastical or otherwise, is one thing; running a campaign in the media is another. The kind of simplistic deference which assumes "it is never right to criticise a priest" can confuse rightful respect for the office with turning a blind eye to human failings that should be the subject of challenge. If it is done in the right way, the human failings can be challenged without attacking the dignity of the office itself.

Principle 2: This was expressed to me a few months ago, in a parish based context, as the need to act in a way that preserves the unity of the parish. Much more readily can this principle be applied to a Bishop, who is the centre of the unity of his Diocese. This principle does not mean that nothing can be said; it does require a certain discretion about how it is said. Again, raising a concern with a parish priest or a Bishop is one thing; running a campaign against him is another.

Principle 3: There is also a need to respect the charism of unity of the whole Church. This charism is not served when the authority of the priest is played off against that of the Bishop, and the authority of the Bishop is then played off against that of the Holy See. Where the Bishop is, despite his failings, is where there is the presence of the universal Church in a particular locality, the Diocese.

In the current context of interest - the reaction of some Catholics to the Children, Schools and Families Bill and the Catholic Bishops approach to it - do I think the criticism of the Bishops and of the Catholic Education Service is right? As readers of this blog will realise, this is not a criticism in which I have taken a part. Let me try to apply the above principles to the context.

Firstly, a lot of the reaction on the blogs is based on the interpretation, not only of the Bill itself but of its likely consequences in schools, from one particular source. There is also an interpretation of the response of the Catholic Bishops Conference, and their agency, the Catholic Education Service. I am not sure that I completely agree with the interpretations being offered from this source. In particular, I believe there is a reflection to be had with regard to the politics - politics as judgement of the possibilities of really achieving something - of the situation, and this is part of the picture that needs to be considered. I also suspect that the view of what happens already in non-Catholic schools underestimates how much (from the Catholic point of view) undesirable practice already takes place, and therefore exaggerates the difference that the provisions of the Bill make. The really decisive factor in my view is the situation in individual schools themselves, and not changes in legislation. However that may be, one might still form a view that the Bishops have not acted as strongly as they should have.

I am afraid, however, that I do see much of what has appeared in terms of criticism of the Bishops in the blogosphere as being of the nature of "campaigning" against the Bishops. I do not think that all criticism has to be private, so it is not the fact that the criticism is public that constitutes a problem. I think it needs to be made in a more temperate way, to take a fuller account of the overall situation that is at stake, and to have a greater consciousness of respect for the unity of the Church.

UPDATE: Having just posted this, I found that Rita has posted this: Silence.


Rita said...

Thank you!

I've been mulling this over for days and hadn't quite found the words.

Patricius said...

I think what you say is sound and I particularly endorse your last paragraph. You seem to me to have a better insight into the situation in schools than many who are quick to criticise the bishops. After some thought, however, I finally came around to supporting the petition not because I agree with the implied criticism of the bishops, but because it occurred to me that the bishops might actually want evidence of lay antipathy to the bill. When so many Catholics in public life -e.g. like the Blair witch- casually dismiss Church teaching on such subjects, I feel it is important to let them know that there is real support out here.

Matthew Hewitt said...

I think you are right to distinguish the office from the individual holding that office. Bishops, Priests (and laity) are all simply human beings and, as such, capable of acting from good motives, but doing the wrong thing. As laity active within the Church we do, I believe, have the right to question the actions of those in leadership positions to the extent that we are seeking to understand the reasons for decisions being made. There is a distinction between questioning matters of doctrine and matters of the tactics in dealing with challenges to our right to live out our beliefs within the public sphere; it is the latter which is taking place at present.

I do not doubt that the Bishops have good reasons for their silence and believe that in being silent in public they are enhancing their ability to influence in private and act for what they believe to be the better long-term outcome. I think the concern of many priests and laity who have been commenting in public and discussing these issues in private is that the CES and the Bishops are complicit in a watering down of the Catholicity of our schools and the education they provide, and that those active in education do not feel they get the active support of the Dioscese and CES - they instead feel that those in positions of authority within the Church spend their time doing the Government's bidding, rather than fighting their corner with Goverment. Whatever the truth, that is the perception.

I believe that the current tactics of the Bishops in terms of how they explain themselves to the laity are backfiring on them, as the laity, upon whom they rely for the wellbeing of the Church both at a practical and financial level are wanting outspoken leadership, or at least reassurance that the Bishops hear their concerns and have good reason for what they do. This is the building up of a long-term feeling that the Church's identity is being eroded (although we must always be wary of the devout who can have a tendency to feel any engagement with the work taints them!) and that if this is not fought actively, over time we lose all that which makes us what we are. Continued apparent silence also gives greater scope to those who seek to read into the Pope's message at the end of the Ad Limima criticism of the Bishops the ability to continue to create mischief.

Reasonable people of good will can disagree, and any frustrations and criticism should be expressed in that light, in my view. When they descent to personal abuse of overt challenges to the fitness in office of those who have been chosen by God to lead us, then we have gone too far.

RJ said...

Like Patricius, I didn't like the implied criticism of the bishops in the petition, but I regarded it as a way of giving encouragement.

Francis said...

Joe, nothing to do with this post but saw this and thought you might be interested:

Blimey, the Word verification for this is MOLOG!!