In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger then, ‘what are the English bishops afraid of?’
On Saturday evening, I received a telephone call from a Catholic priest, formerly an Anglican clergyman, who had been one of a group of influential Anglo-Catholics (the most senior being the Rt Rev Graham Leonard, formerly Bishop of London) who in the early 90s had entered into negotiation with a group of Catholic bishops led by Cardinal Hume, on the possibility of devising a method whereby Anglicans might convert to the Catholic Church not individually, but in parish-based groups. My caller was clearly excited, having learned in more detail than has yet been published, the terms under which the Ordinariate will be set up. “They’ve given us everything we were asking for,” he said. “It’s all there.”
I had been in contact with him throughout those long-ago negotiations, about which he had kept me fully informed as each meeting took place. I kept copious notes, later confirmed by the minutes of the meetings, which were leaked to me by more than one participant. This information formed the basis of a detailed and accurate account of what had happened, which appeared in my book The Roman Option some time after the whole thing had been torpedoed by the opposition of certain English Catholic bishops, as a result of which Cardinal Hume – who in the negotiations had been entirely supportive of the Anglican negotiators – lost his nerve and withdrew his support. The scheme foundered and sank, some thought without trace. In Rome, Cardinal Ratzinger asked “what are the English bishops afraid of?” Pope John Paul asked the former Bishop Leonard: “Why are the English bishops so unapostolic?”
When my book appeared the cardinal issued a categorical denial of my account (strongly implying that my report of Cardinal Ratzinger’s and the Pope’s words were a blatant fabrication) and a condemnation of my book – which he issued as a statement by the Catholic bishops of England and Wales even though few of the bishops can possibly have read it at the time.
So, I was publicly branded by my own bishops as a liar. I was able to have this statement withdrawn after a long correspondence with the statement’s author (one of Westminster’s auxiliary bishops), by insisting that if it was not I would publish the minutes of the meetings to show that I had been telling the truth. Since I was very unwilling to imply that Cardinal Hume had himself been lying, or even wholly in error, I was profoundly relieved when this was agreed, though the damage to my book had been done.
Why had I bothered? What was the use of those years of work on the book, I wondered. Far fewer people would know about the statement’s withdrawal than about the book’s formal condemnation. There was one interesting answer to that question, however, which made me feel a little better. I received a fascinating phone call from my publisher, HarperCollins: the papal nuncio had ordered six copies of my book: so, The Roman Option would be read in Rome. But by whom? It was an intriguing question.
Time passed. Women priests were ordained. A sort of church within the Church of England, which declared itself out of communion with women priests and those bishops who ordained them, emerged. It had its own non-territorial bishops, certain of whom, after more than a decade, reopened negotiations with the Catholic Church: not, this time with the English bishops, whom they now did not trust, but very quietly, in Rome itself.
One day, I received a phone call from Rome. It was from a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose former prefect was now Pope. I was asked for an undertaking to mention to nobody either the name of my interlocutor or, at that time, even the fact that the conversation had taken place. Things were at an early and delicate stage, he said: but there was a real possibility of movement along the lines of the former negotiations. They had read my book. Could we talk?
I told them that I wasn’t as closely in contact with the Anglican side as I had been, for obvious reasons. But there was one thing I was sure of: that the whole thing would be sunk unless the English bishops were kept firmly out of the loop: they should be told nothing. There was a silence. “Your remarks are noted,” he said. But it was clear to me that if the English bishops hadn’t been told yet, that was a decision that had already been made.
Time passed again, though less of it, this time. To the astonishment and dismay of some Catholic bishops Anglicanorum coetibus was published. And now, we are told (I had to smile) that in the words of the Herald report, “The dioceses of England and Wales have pooled a quarter of a million pounds to fund the Ordinariate” and that in “places in which groups were formed, the local dioceses would provide help to Anglican clergy coming over both in terms of housing and financial aid”. Cor! Does that mean in every diocese, even on the south coast?
I have explained in previous blogs why I think this is an entirely desirable development. I just have one question. Why could this not have happened 15 years ago? And what is the answer to Pope John Paul’s and the then Cardinal Ratzinger’s questions: What [were] the English bishops afraid of? And, a tougher question: why [were] the English bishops so unapostolic?
Perhaps things are different now. We must all earnestly pray that they are.