In the end, it’s obedience, not personal choice, that holds us together as a people

I do not often find myself moved by actual enthusiasm for official utterances emerging from meetings of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. Now I do. A statement they issued on Saturday is not only wonderfully brief (around 400 words), it is written in a powerfully devotional style. Bishops’ Conference statements are sometimes businesslike about the affairs of the church, and sometimes relevant to the needs of society: they rarely convey any concern for the building up and nurture of the spiritual identity of those under their pastoral care—most of whom, frankly, have now come to look for guidance more to their parish priest and to the pope than to their bishops—so much for all the endless Küngian chatter about collegiality.

It’s not just that the pope doesn’t always pay any attention to the decisions of bishops’ conferences; neither do the “People of God”. But if collegiality consistently produced decisions, and English prose, of this quality, they would soon be up and running as a living reality in the life of the faithful. The text of this statement will no doubt be available elsewhere on the Herald’s homepage by the time this post is online. But I’m going to take the liberty of beginning by quoting it myself, in full, here:

By the practice of penance every Catholic identifies with Christ in his death on the cross. We do so in prayer, through uniting the sufferings and sacrifices in our lives with those of Christ’s passion; in fasting, by dying to self in order to be close to Christ; in almsgiving, by demonstrating our solidarity with the sufferings of Christ in those in need. All three forms of penance form a vital part of Christian living. When this is visible in the public arena, then it is also an important act of witness.

Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord. The law of the Church requires Catholics to abstain from meat on Fridays, or some other form of food, or to observe some other form of penance laid down by the Bishops’ Conference.

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The Bishops wish to re-establish the practice of Friday penance in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity. They recognise that the best habits are those which are acquired as part of a common resolve and common witness. It is important that all the faithful be united in a common celebration of Friday penance.

Respectful of this, and in accordance with the mind of the whole Church, the Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.

Many may wish to go beyond this simple act of common witness and mark each Friday with a time of prayer and further self-sacrifice. In all these ways we unite our sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ, who gave up his very life for our salvation.

What has now happened has been gathering momentum ever since the pope’s visit to Britain. It will be recalled that during the papal afterglow some very surprising people started to recommend the restoration of the Friday fast. Bishop Kieran Conry, for instance, argued that abstaining from meat on Friday “…. was one of the most obvious signs of Catholic identity, apart from going to Mass. It determined the diet in places like prison and hospital, and was something that Catholics were instinctively conscious of: we knew that we couldn’t have meat like everybody else that day, and it was a source of a sort of pride – it marked us out as different”.

The point, of course, is not simply that we abstain from meat on Friday (if we do) as a personal devotion: it is that we once did it, and soon will once more, out of obedience to the authority of the Church: it was once, and, deo gratias, will be again, a constant reminder that once we have taken the initial choice of committing ourselves to being Catholics in the first place, we are under obedience; and that it is that obedience that holds us together as a people.

The Church used to make this clear beyond peradventure: a convert was said to “submit” to the authority of the Holy See. This usage was thought, in the heyday of the “Spirit of Vatican II”, unduly forbidding and was quietly dropped in favour of the less daunting usage to “come into full communion” with the Holy See. But downplaying the idea of obedience has had damaging effects on the collective mind of the faithful. “Conscience”, as Newman taught, isn’t an excuse—as so often it seems when used as a Küngspeak neologism—for simply doing as we see fit : a Catholic conscience, on the contrary is something that is shaped and informed by the Church’s teaching; we have to OBEY our conscience, whose dictates will often go against our inclinations.

As I argued in this column at the time, commenting on Bishop Kieran’s remarks last year, nothing stops us from abstaining from meat on a Friday as things stand now. In our household we do already: but the point is that we do it as a private rule of life rather than as an expression of the fact that we are part of the daily life of the Church. We used to do it, in fact, even when we were Catholic-minded Anglicans: that, too, was just a personal devotion. As such, it was a kind of nostalgic tribute to an order within the Church which seemed to have passed away for ever. As I wrote last year, “It would be wonderful if our bishops now actually said, in terms, that the old tradition is now restored by their authority, and formally pronounced that we ought not to eat meat on a Friday without good reason”. Now they have.

The bishops might now turn their attention to building on their achievement: what about restoring our midweek Holydays of Obligation? They too, were once as Bishop Conry said of the Friday fast, “a source of a sort of pride – [they] marked us out as different”. To walk into Church on a Sunday and find that it is not one of the Sundays in ordinary time but Corpus Christi, a kind of bonus for our Sunday obedience rather than something we have to pay for by the sacrifice of our time and freedom of action on a weekday—(rather like a supermarket bogof offer, two for the price of one)—is , I find, not merely intensely irritating, it just feels wrong , it’s almost insulting: an implicit declaration that, since you probably can’t be bothered to observe Corpus Christi on its proper day, here it is without any extra effort to you.

But that’s a subject to return to at greater length some other time. It’s a bit unfair, now the bishops have done something really substantial towards the restoration of what was lost from the spiritual life of the faithful through the reductionism of the post-Conciliar period (not, I hasten to insist, through the Council itself) to carry on as though they had done nothing. This is not nothing. It’s a splendid beginning. We’re not there yet. But now, we can feel that under the guidance of the present Holy Father, the journey continues. We’re on our way: Deo Gratias.

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