On BBC Radio 2 a little while ago, as part of a series of interviews with the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party, Jeremy Vine described Andy Burnham, Labour MP for Leigh, as "one of the most prominent Catholics in the country". In an interview in the Tablet recently, Andy Burnham indicated that his Catholic faith "made me who I am"; but the interview also pointed out that he was at odds with the Catholic Church over equalities legislation and that he would like to see gay marriage in the UK.
Lord Patten, another prominent Catholic, is leading for Her Majesty's Government in the planning of Pope Benedict's forthcoming visit to the UK. He is quoted describing himself as a "tortured liberal Catholic" in a recent Tablet interview.
More recently, Tina Beattie, another prominent Catholic has made an appeal to Pope Benedict. This appeal has attracted some strong comment from the Catholic blogosphere; but I think the most interesting thing is the range of the comments that have been made at Tina's own blog post of her appeal. I think the points made in those posts represent a dialogue that is much needed, and is reflected in Tina's willingness to post all comments received (bar one) - see her concluding comment of 18th July. I posted on the theme of unity in the Church here - I think Tina's post and its comments represent an intersection of "tradosphere" and "trendosphere" as I suggest in this earlier post. But, this having been said, Tina Beattie does propose ideas that are not in accord with Catholic teaching.
So what are we to make of prominent Catholics who are well known for holding and arguing for positions that are at odds with Catholic teaching? [and, in asking the question in this way, I am putting in Husserlian brackets the different question of being a well known Catholic and living a life at odds with Catholic teaching -that is a different question which needs a different answer, one that recognises we all go there whenever we commit sin, though for most of us our sinfulness does not emerge into the public sphere].
1. Should we say to these prominent Catholics that, if they are not comfortable with Catholic teaching, they should simply leave the Catholic Church? I think not, since to make that call is not at the service of the unity of the Church.
2. Should we view the positions being advocated by these prominent Catholics as being acceptable in the Catholic Church? Well, no. In some respects these positions are directly at odds with what the Church teaches, and we should recognise that that is the case.
Or, to put these two together, we might say that, though they are prominent Catholics, they are not good advocates of the Catholic position to their fellow Catholics or to the wider world, and should not therefore be seen as Catholic spokesmen and spokeswomen. This isn't the same as saying they should be "silenced", but does suggest that their prominence and their Catholicity need to be clearly distinguished.
3. Who then is a good advocate of the Catholic position? Those who would criticise these prominent Catholics do not usually themselves have an explicit mandate to speak for the Church. The practical touchstone against which all their contributions can be measured, I would suggest, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The person with a mandate to represent the Church in a particular locality is the Bishop, and that mandate should be experienced as a serious responsibility.
4. I think there is useful reflection to be had about the office of the Bishop in regard to prominent Catholics who are not good advocates of the Catholic position. The priority of the Bishop should be to act in the interests of the unity of the Church, which needs clarity and firmness of teaching but not necessarily condemnation of the individual.
From the chapter on "Christianity and Scientific Investigation" in Idea of a University:
This is how I should account for a circumstance, which has sometimes caused surprise, that so many great Catholic thinkers have in some points or other incurred the criticism or animadversion of theologians or of ecclesiastical authority. It must be so in the nature of things; there is indeed an animadversion which implies a condemnation of the author; but there is another which means not much more than the "piè legendum" written against passages in the Fathers. The author may not be to blame; yet the ecclesiastical authority would be to blame, if it did not give notice of his imperfections....
I am supposing all along good faith, honest intentions, a loyal Catholic spirit, and a deep sense of responsibility. I am supposing, in the scientific inquirer, a due fear of giving scandal, of seeming to countenance views which he does not really countenance, and of siding with parties from whom he heartily differs. I am supposing that he is fully alive to the existence and the power of the infidelity of the age; that he keeps in mind the moral weakness and the intellectual confusion of the majority of men; and that he has no wish at all that any one soul should get harm from certain speculations today, though he may have the satisfaction of being sure that those speculations will, as far as they are erroneous or misunderstood, be corrected in the course of the next half-century.