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Another episcopal attack on Catholic blogs. But we will not hold our tongues: and Aquinas and Newman are with us

‘If the faith is in imminent peril,’ said St Thomas, ‘prelates ought to be accused by their subjects, even in public.’ What a blogger he would have made…

By on Friday, 19 April 2013

The bishops' conference of England and Wales attend a general audience with Pope Francis (Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

The bishops' conference of England and Wales attend a general audience with Pope Francis (Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

Not for the first time in his own indispensable blog, Protect the Pope, Deacon Nick has drawn our attention to another attack on Catholic blogs, coming from a familiar prelatical source.

In a homily given during the Diocese of Westminster’s recent Mass following the election of Pope Francis, Archbishop Nichols quoted the new Pope’s reflection on the disciples complaining on their journey to Emmaus and extended it to make it look as though Pope Francis had been criticising Catholic blogs for spreading complaints and destroying love in the Church.

“Pope Francis,” he said, “has already identified two kinds of behaviour that destroy love in the Church. They are complaining and gossiping. He is a practical man. He knows that we live in a society in which complaining and gossip is a standard fare. They sell newspapers and attract us to blogs because we love hear complaints and to read gossip. But Pope Francis is clear: they should have no place in the Church.”

What, blogs? Pope Francis was saying that blogs should have no place in the Church? But he doesn’t say anything at all about blogs. “We, as Catholics,” concluded the archbishop, “are always ready to profess our love for the Lord. But now Pope Francis is calling us to show that love in down-to-earth ways. How wonderful it would be if our Church was known to be a place that was free of the sound of complaining and the whisper of gossip! Then the light of Christ would indeed shine brightly.”

Free of the sound of complaining, eh? No blogs, eh? But as Deacon Nick points out, Pope Francis’s reflection on complaining was actually about difficulties in our life of faith, and not about complaints about the Church and the way it is conducted. The Holy Father said this: “I think that many times when difficult things happen, including when we are visited by the cross, we run the risk of closing ourselves off in complaints… They were afraid. All of the disciples were afraid,” he said. As they walked toward Emmaus and discussed everything that had happened, they were sad and complaining. “And the more they complained, the more they were closed in on themselves: they did not have a horizon before them, only a wall,” the Pope explained.

I was wondering what Catholic blogs the archbishop had in mind; then I read this comment by Deacon Nick: “Archbishop Nichols has pushed Pope Francis’s words beyond their original meaning to express his own personal desire that ‘the Church would be free from the sound of complaining’. Here Archbishop Nichols’s words echo his intemperate demand that faithful Catholics complaining about the Soho Masses should ‘hold their tongues’. Is this the silence that he hopes for in the Church of England and Wales?”

Who knows? – but I have good reason to believe that that remark about critics of the Soho Masses “holding their tongues” was aimed at this particular column among others. So one has to ask again what the duty of a layman is when he firmly believes that duly constituted local authority is setting itself against Church teaching. The usual response on such occasions is rightly and appositely to quote St Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum: “If the faith is in imminent peril, prelates ought to be accused by their subjects, even in public.” St Thomas also said that “Augustine says in his Rule: ‘Show mercy not only to yourselves, but also to him who, being in the higher position among you, is therefore in greater danger.’ But fraternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.” [Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 4, Sed Contra].

One could also recall Newman’s writings about various times in the history of the Church when it was the faithful rather than their bishops who were the defenders of faith, times when “there was a temporary suspense of the functions of the ‘Ecclesia docens’, when, “the body of Bishops failed in the confession of the faith. They spoke variously, one against another; there was nothing, after Nicæa, of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony, for nearly 60 years. There were untrustworthy Councils, unfaithful bishops; there was weakness, fear of consequences, misguidance, delusion, hallucination, endless, hopeless, extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic Church. The comparatively few who remained faithfu1 were discredited and driven into exile; the rest were either deceivers or were deceived.”

You may say that things are not so desperate now: but are there no bishops who, for instance, allow known and blatant heretics to teach the faithful, with their support and within the curtilage of their own cathedral? We know that there are many and that precisely this has happened here recently: and that the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, in what is still a post-conciliar period, are lightly regarded or set at nought by some in positions of authority in our own Church. The times we are living in are not so very far from the history of the Church in the times Newman so famously described in Arians of the Fourth Century.

“The episcopate,” he wrote, “whose action was so prompt and concordant at Nicæa on the rise of Arianism, did not, as a class or order of men, play a good part in the troubles consequent upon the Council; and the laity did. The Catholic people, in the length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Catholic truth, and the bishops were not… on the whole, taking a wide view of the history, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the Church came short, and the governed were pre-eminent in faith, zeal, courage, and constancy.”

Can we not say something similar – not about all the bishops or about all the laity, but certainly about many of them – to describe the English Church over the last 30 years and more? There is, certainly, good reason for hope today, largely because of the pontificate which has now, regretfully, come to a premature end. But until these hopes come to fruition, the laity should not “hold their tongue” when they believe that the faith is in peril through the actions of those set over them. Certainly, I shall not, for as long as my arthritic fingers can, even feebly, still press down on the keyboard.