This isn’t about the morality of gay relationships: it’s about obedience—to the Magisterium, and to Conscience properly understood

This isn’t about the morality of gay relationships: it’s about obedience—to the Magisterium, and to Conscience properly understood

The Pope has announced a consistory for next month. Since this is the second consistory at which our own Archbishop of Westminster might feasibly have received his red hat, the omission of his name has occasioned a certain amount of ill-conditioned comment, almost certainly unjustified. This is an unusually small consistory: and others who might have appeared (and were indeed expected to appear) are also missing.

So the idea that by omitting his name yet again Rome is showing its displeasure at the Archbishop’s, shall we say, lack of entire conformity with the Holy Father’s teaching and specific intentions, by withholding the desirable headgear in question is premature. Most notably, the newly appointed prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, who is known to be close to the Holy Father, isn’t there either but certainly will be soon; neither are Archbishop Chaput and several others known to be high in the Pope’s favour. In its own comment, Protect the Pope “cautions readers who post on this to exercise restraint and charity”: and so do I.

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The mention of the new Prefect of the CDF, Gerhard Ludwig Müller does, however, inevitably raise the question which remains the most potentially inflammatory source of division between Rome and Westminster: the Soho Masses. The previous prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Levada, obviously decided to tread softly around the question, much to the mystification of many. It looks as though his successor has decided to confront it. The question for him (and for what follows here, too) is not, except indirectly, that of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. I have written about that, heaven knows, before and certainly don’t intend to repeat myself yet again now.

That isn’t the problem for the Church; we know what the teaching is, what faithful Catholics believe. The problem is that old “Spirit of Vatican II” distortion redefining conscience  as being not, in Newman’s majestic words, “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, a prophet in its informations, a monarch in its peremptoriness, a priest in its blessings and anathemas”, the inborn voice of God, restraining us and leading us to Him—but on the contrary a principle justifying the gratification of every individual desire, a procedure implicitly and sometimes explicitly claiming precedence even for Catholics over the authority of the Magisterium of the Church. How many times have I read in The Tablet a suggestion that Newman’s famous remark in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk –“Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, …. I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards” – can be held to justify virtually any dissent from papal teaching?

But that was not at all what Newman was saying in the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. He makes that quite clear (§4):

I have to say again, lest I should be misunderstood, that when I speak of Conscience, I mean conscience truly so called. When it has the right of opposing the supreme, though not infallible Authority of the Pope, it must be something more than that miserable counterfeit which, as I have said above, now goes by the name. If in a particular case it is to be taken as a sacred and sovereign monitor, its dictate, in order to prevail against the voice of the Pope, must follow upon serious thought, prayer, and all available means of arriving at a right judgment on the matter in question. And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called “in possession;” that is, the onus probandi of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it. Primâ facie it is his bounden duty, even from a sentiment of loyalty, to believe the Pope right and to act accordingly. He must vanquish that mean, ungenerous, selfish, vulgar spirit of his nature, which, at the very first rumour of a command, places itself in opposition to the Superior who gives it…. He must have no wilful determination to exercise a right of thinking, saying, doing just what he pleases, the question of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, the duty if possible of obedience, the love of speaking as his Head speaks, and of standing in all cases on his Head’s side, being simply discarded. If this necessary rule were observed, collisions between the Pope’s authority and the authority of conscience would be very rare….

I have consulted several sources, who have good contacts in Rome and who know about Archbishop Müller. What they all say is that the new prefect has very firm views on obedience, and intends to take a very clear line on disobedience to the Holy See. And a German publication which appears to have good sources of information, the Katholisches Magazin für Kirche und Kultur, reports under the headline “Homo-Messen: Glaubenspräfekt Müller will Klarheit” that “The new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Ludwig Müller, intends, very firmly, to address the problem of the Mass which is celebrated twice a month in London, Warwick Street in Soho for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people which has the approval of the Archbishop of Westminster, Mgr. Vincent Nichols. It seems that in the recent past other agencies of the Roman Curia, at the request and solicitation of Catholics in London, have asked for clarification and noted the concerns associated with such an initiative. Among other things, an expert on the liturgy and theology noted there is a danger that the initiative will lead to a ghettoization of the persons concerned”.

Fr Ray Blake comments that “These Masses were designed to give pastoral care to particular groups who sought help from the Church; instead people who attended, vulnerable people, some of my parishioners, have been there, they found a lobby group for dissent against the Church’s teaching “and rather than spiritual help, a gay dating agency”, as one said. The real problem has been a very serious lack of leadership and pastoral oversight. This, and the grave dissent is presumably what Archbishop Müller will want to deal with.”

A very serious lack of leadership and pastoral help, says Fr Blake. That, and the “ghettoisation” of those attending certainly need archbishop Müller’s pastoral guidance. The prefect’s intervention will be seen by his enemies (of whom I am NOT one) as a slap on the wrist for archbishop Nichols. But surely, the opposite could be the case: it could be a lifeline. The archbishop is in an unenviable position. He has, as one priest said to me, not unsympathetically, painted himself into a corner. He has accepted the assurances given to him by the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, that those attending them are chaste and faithful Catholics, and he has therefore given them firm support: it is difficult for him now to turn round and to say that he has been given good reason to withdraw that support: that would be an open accusation of deceit, one which he could not actually PROVE. He may well still himself believe the assurances he has been given. It’s all a mess. But firm guidance from the prefect of the CDF would get him off the hook: he could then obey the Church’s clear instruction by withdrawing the support of the diocese, and, just as important for Catholics in that diocese, thereby remove a major source of friction with the Holy See. He could then quietly ask for the Prefect’s guidance on the subject of civil unions, and in a low-key way announce archbishop Müller’s response, together with his own warm assent. Job done.

We could all then, with warm anticipation, look forward to reading his name in the BOLLETINO’s announcement, perhaps next year, of the next major consistory.

There is some talk of the abolition of the institution of the Cardinalatial See. But that is surely a nonsense. There are some Sees which because of their importance within their national Church should normally be headed by a Cardinal Archbishop, and Westminster is one of them. That has certainly always been the assumption; and I hope that we see it borne out yet again in the not too distant future.

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