A Catholic liberal just isn’t the same thing as an Anglican one

I’m getting a little worried about some of the comments I’m getting beneath my posts. Not necessarily with those who disagree with me (though some of them are exceptionally ill-mannered) since I can usually rely on sensible mainstream Catholics to redress the balance. No, what I’m worried about is those who agree with me, or at least some of them.

For instance, in my last post I criticised Cardinal Maradiaga who made comments in a homily at the climate change conference in Durban which could be taken as implying that those who don’t support the IPCC generated global warming cult were supporting something as morally repugnant as apartheid. I opined that he was simply wrong: but one of those supporting me went further than that: “he shows himself to be a Marxist,” he declared, “by promoting the global-warming cultism.” He then asserted that “most ‘cardinals’ made by Wojtyla are degenerate”. Degenerate?

But it’s some of the comments agreeing with my criticisms of Archbishop Nichols over civil unions, this week and also last, that are worrying me at the moment. It seems to me that he is supporting civil unions in a way the Church condemns, and that he ought to be more attentive to maintaining the truth of the Magisterium he is there to teach and defend. And it has seemed to me that as a Catholic bishop, he is too responsive to the notion that at some point in the future the Magisterium itself might selectively change (and so, it sometimes seems he thinks, he might as well do it now).


As one of my correspondents pointed out beneath my last piece, “when interviewed by the BBC, ++Nichols was asked whether the Catholic Church will follow the Anglican Communion in being ‘flexible’ on such questions as women priests, homosexual partnerships etc, his response was ‘Who knows what is down the road?’ What kind of ‘Catholic’ archbishop is he?”

Well, it’s a good question. “The Archbishop would make a good Anglican!” declared another correspondent. Well, would he? I used to be an Anglican: and when I was, I was consistently critical of my bishops, as indeed were most Anglo-Catholics, over a whole range of issues, mostly involving their faithfulness to the basic Christian revelation of the incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, but also including such matters as the “ordination” of women as priests. We made a bit of a nuisance of ourselves, I am glad to say; so much so that when the idea of a collective reception of Anglo-Catholics into the Catholic Church was mooted in the early 90s (to come to fruition only two decades later), it was greeted with horror (and subsequently squashed) by such Catholic bishops as Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, who assumed (I suppose noting how papalist we all were) that we would all be just as activist against the English Catholic establishment as we had been against the Anglican one. He was wrong; most of us were desperate to be members of a Church to which we could be loyal; and most of us were content to learn the ropes and leave the business of coping with the English bishops to the Pope, whose job it was, after all.

I remember a fierce argument I had with Peter Hebblethwaite in Oxford on just this subject (I think he had taken Bishop Hollis’s line in the Tablet and had had a go at me personally): what you don’t understand, I said, is that, much as you and I disagree about many things, I can see that we both believe in, and are united within, the same religion. My difficulty with so many Anglicans, I continued, is that I just don’t, at a fundamental level, believe what they believe. I pointed to the annual Sea of Faith conference, with which about 200 Anglican priests were affiliated, which was based on a disbelief in the very existence of God. That, I said, is tolerated by the Anglican bishops in the name of “Anglican comprehensiveness” in a way it could never be tolerated within the Catholic Church. He agreed. And I still think that there is a fundamental difference between an Anglican liberal and a Catholic one. They all read the Tablet; but the Tiber still flows strongly between them.

I really do not believe – I just have an instinct about this – that Archbishop Nichols could ever be an Anglican (though I do now think – as I didn’t when he was at Birmingham – that he has distinct tendencies in a Hebblethwaiteian direction); so it seemed to me, in the interests of fairness, that I had better try to find the original context of that now notorious “who knows what’s down the road”?

Interestingly, it occurred in the course of an argument with the fierce BBC journalist Stephen Sackur, most of which shows Archbishop Nichols fighting a valiant defensive action against a very aggressive secularist attack, in defence of the Catholic idea of truth. Here’s part of it:

S. You see you will know as well as I do there are social trend surveys in the United Kingdom and many other western developed nations which suggest that on issues like the view of homosexuality the general population is getting more and more “liberal”.

N. Certainly.

S. And yet you and the Pope are sticking to a deeply traditional, small “conservative” line. Therefore the disconnect between the general population and the Roman Catholic Church appears to be getting wider. Does that not worry you?

N. Well no, what would worry me more frankly is to try and refashion a message simply to suit a time. I think there is if you like a critical distance to be held between how the Church struggles to understand a revealed truth and how a society is moving. If they’re too close there’s no light. If they’re too far apart there’s no light.

S. There’s no Church. If they’re too far apart frankly there’s no Church

N. There might be no Church. That’s true.

S. There’ll be nobody in the pews.

N. That’s true.

S. And let me first just quote [to] you, sorry to interrupt but it is important, the Pope in his letter to Irish Catholics in which he expressed great remorse for what happened in Ireland going back to the child sex abuse scandals. He said and I’m quoting his words now: “Fast-paced social change has occurred often affecting peoples’ traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values.” The Pope himself surely recognises there is a problem here and is the Church not going to have to respond to it?

N. Well let me quote the Pope back to you in 1986, I think it was, as a theologian he said he could foresee the day when the Church in some parts of the world had shrunk so much that it would become a small flock.

S. He used the word “remnant”

N. Yes he probably did. That’s a very biblical expression. So he’s not … afraid of that. He would put fidelity over success so the criteria we’re here for is not success.

S. You say he’s not afraid of becoming “a remnant” he would put orthodoxy, loyalty, purity

N. No, no a search for truth

S. OK so maybe purity of theology before …

N. [interrupting] That is the experience of every Christian. That’s the experience of everybody who loses their security loses their status in a society loses their life in martyrdom. It’s the whole pathway of fidelity to Christ. It’s just the way it is.

That’s the high point, for me, of the archbishop’s argument. The trouble is that he has an impulse towards agreement not only wherever it’s possible, but even sometimes where it shouldn’t be. Having said “It’s just the way it is”, he seems to need to appear reasonable, even to a secularist like Sackur; and my hunch is (I hope this isn’t unfair) that that leads him into danger (it has also, incidentally, led to his refusal to face the facts over the Soho Masses). This need to appear reasonable is the explanation of that now notorious remark about the possibility of the Church changing its views on such issues as women priests and homosexual partnerships. But even after he’s uttered it, you can see him trying to unsay it, and return to his anti-secularising stance. And it has to be said that, overall, most of what I have quoted and will now quote is hardly the kind of argument you can imagine from an Anglican bishop: but here he momentarily stumbles. The trouble is that this is the kind if argument in which if you once lose your footing, you’ve lost everything, even if you recover: it’s a bit like Torville and Dean both coming a cropper on the ice, even if they immediately recover and skate on. This is how the interview continues:

S. The Church of England for example in this country is taking a rather different view. They believe there has to be some flexibility. The church has to be a reflection of society’s values to a certain extent and therefore we see women priests, women vicars, and there’s obviously in some parts of the Anglican Communion, women bishops.

N. Certainly.

S. Some of their vicars are also prepared to sanction gay unions. That church is showing flexibility. Is the Catholic Church not going to have to do the same eventually?

N. I don’t know. Who knows what’s down the road?

S. Well I’m just asking you. You’re rather an important player in the Catholic Church. What do you believe it should be?

N. No no. There’s no doubt in my mind that our first call is to faithfulness and not to success. And if faithfulness involves that kind of shrinking then so be it. But it’s not as if the Church has policies and then focus groups then tries to re-shape so that it captures the mood of the day or the wind and therefore gets momentum behind it. That’s not simply the way the Catholic Church understands itself.

I fear that when it comes to responding to an invitation to confront a known enemy, there are only two possible alternatives. Either (and I suspect that this is the wise course) the encounter should be avoided entirely: if they’re out to get you, they’ll probably succeed – it’s what they’re good at. But if you do get involved in such a conversation, don’t try to come over as reasonable, it’s not what they’re interested in. Just state the Catholic view clearly and stick to it. Make no concessions. Keep a straight bat: and don’t be tempted to try to hit the ball to the boundary unless you’re sure that it’s a really weak one. These people bowl fast and tricky. Your job isn’t to score a century: it’s to defend your wicket and avoid being bowled out. That’s the most you can hope for against an aggressive enemy: you’re not going to convince him, get used to that. Your short-term priority is survival. “It’s just the way it is.”


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