It’s urgent that he explains his speech to the General Synod


Bishop George Stack has been appointed Archbishop of Cardiff, to rumblings from certain quarters. The first thing to be said is that even if the rumblings do have substance, this might well turn out to be another occasion on which an auxiliary bishop from the Diocese of Westminster has been made an archbishop to accompanying doubts over his record, and grew successfully into his new ministry.

Before he is installed, however, Bishop Stack would be wise to do what he can to reassure the people of Cardiff (and the rest of us). There are two main issues, one more complicated than the other. The more complicated issue first, that of the controversy over the future of one of the best Catholic schools in the country, the Cardinal Vaughan School, in which the prime mover in recent years on the part of the Westminster diocese has been Bishop Stack. The complex case was succinctly and trenchantly summed up in his Telegraph blog by Damian Thompson:

The dispute over the Catholic ethos of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in West London has been simmering for the best part of 25 years now. To cut a long story short, it pits devout Catholic parents against Left-leaning Westminster diocesan bureaucrats who are sniffing round like detectives for any evidence of the ultimate crime, “selection”. But it’s not academic selection that the diocese is rooting out: it’s the school’s policy of giving preference to pupils whose families are demonstrably Catholic. Alas, the diocesan wreckers now have the upper hand.

The point here is how much responsibility did Bishop Stack have in so actively aiming this diocesan policy against the Cardinal Vaughan; and will he continue the same policy in Cardiff? What, come to think of it, is the existing policy for entrance to Catholic schools in Cardiff? Perhaps Bishop Stack won’t make any difference anyway.

So that brings us on to the next big rumble, potentially much more damaging, and therefore more necessary for the archbishop-designate to address squarely. The indictment is that he does not believe in the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that (to add insult to injury) he declared as much to the General Synod of the Church of England. Or was he, in fact, simply talking about distortions of Catholic doctrine? If you want to, you can listen to the whole speech here; and I have to say that taken as a whole it sounds pretty reductionist to me, in the discredited ecumenical style which seeks to reassure non-Catholics that we don’t believe quite as much as they may think we do. But perhaps I am being unjust. Out of context, here are the words which have caused widespread controversy; and I think that before he goes to Cardiff, Bishop Stack would be wise to (as they say) “clarify” them:

The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary may sometimes seem to distort or misunderstand the role of Jesus as the unique mediator between God and the human race. An example of such a distortion would be the development of a theology which places her as an intercessor by the side of her Son.

Would be”? But the theology is already there, surely, firmly established in the spiritual life of every Catholic. “Pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death”: what does that mean? But perhaps Bishop Stack is talking about something else: perhaps he is saying that our Lord “mediates” between God and Man in a way that Mary can’t. Well, of course: Our Lord “mediates” by actually being both God and man. Mary mediates of course in a wholly different way. But she does mediate, and there’s no point in telling Anglicans that Catholics aren’t sure whether she does or not.

Bishop Stack quoted Pope John Paul as saying that her role needs more study, and it sounded to me as though he meant (maybe I’m wrong) that that indicated uncertainty on the late pope’s part; he also quoted Lumen Gentium with the same apparent intention. Well, here’s Pope John Paul (September 24 1997, during a General Audience): “The Christian people invoke Mary as Advocate, Helper, Benefactress and Mediatrix. She intercedes for us, defends and protects us; she assists us in our needs; she supports those who are falling; and she presents our prayers to Christ, pleading continually on our behalf.”

And here’s Lumen Gentium (§62):

[The] maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty …. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

It also has to be said, of course, as the next sentence makes clear (and as Bishop Stack would presumably claim in his defence) that this paragraph “neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator”. But what we have to understand (and what the whole paragraph clearly intends us to understand) is that the expression “the one Mediator” is to be understood in a declarative and not in an exclusive sense: it doesn’t mean that nobody else mediates; it means that Christ mediates in a unique way. In Latin it’s “Quod tamen ita intelligitur, ut dignitati et efficacitati Christi unius Mediatoris nihil deroget, nihil superaddat”: “unius”, you notice, not “solus”, the only: the Protestant formulation is “the only mediator”: perhaps “unique” might have been a better translation.

To be fair, that’s the word Bishop Stack used; and all he has to do now is explain that when he said to the General Synod that Our Lady wasn’t “an intercessor by the side of her Son” all he meant was not in the same way as her son. Yes? Job done? Or did he actually mean what so many people accuse him of saying – was he in fact denying Our Lady’s intercession? I simply can’t believe that of a Catholic bishop. It’s a very important question: and for the sake of the people of Cardiff, I beg him to respond to it now. His silence will, I can tell him now, speak louder than any words; and it will be taken as meaning only one thing.