Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fr Houghton on 'Loyalty downwards'

Fr Bryan Houghton
This seems an appropriate subject for a post at the beginning of a pontificate; it seems to me that this idea is a key to the crisis in the relationship between bishops, the clergy, and the faithful, exemplified by the Cardinal O'Brien affair.

I quote from the late Fr Bryan Houghton's 1979 novel 'Mitre and Crook' (pp33-34); a traditionally-minded bishop is writing to a fellow bishop who is criticising his programme of restoration.

...I am interested in your accusation of disloyalty. I know exactly what you mean but I happen to see things exactly in reverse. The trouble is that people always think of loyalty as being due to themselves. You automatically think of loyalty as working upwards. Thus is natural as you spring from a well-to-do family... I ... come from an eminently respectable but very poor background... I, consequently, think of loyalty as working downwards. I don't say the Squire wasn't tough--he was--but we knew he would see us through: he was loyal to us humble folk. ...You see the point? You blame me for not being loyal to my superiors. It has never crossed my mind: they are perfectly capable of defending themselves and even of breaking me if they so wish ... I, on the other hand, accuse you of of being disloyal to your inferiors. It has never crossed your mind, although they are totally defenceless against you. And your disloyalty, George, is quite irreparable: thanks to it countless souls are seared in this life and may be lost in the next. My disloyalty to you can do little more than melt your collar--if, in fact, I am disloyal.
A traditional French monk hears a confession on the Chartres Pilgrimage

Our old friends at The Tablet often say that the sex-abuse crisis is fuelled by clericalism: an assumption by bishops and others in authority that members of the clerical club can do no wrong. Well, they need to come up with another explanation for the case of a bishop who abuses his own clergy. But equally clear, and considerably more widespread, is the willingness of bishops and other religious superiors in more recent years to throw their priests to the wolves when accusations of abuse are made: not to defend them, not to get to the bottom of things as quickly as possible, but to act as if they are guilty until proven innocent.

The only explanation which fits both cases -- of ignoring accusations of abuse by priests for decades, and then of showing so little regard for the priests under their care and protection when the smallest accusation is leveled against them -- is the loss of priestly identity. The clergy are a club, if you like, but it is a club bound together by a sense of common identity, and that identity is underpinned by the obligations and ideals of the clerical state. Ignore those obligations and denigrate those ideals, and you just have people with power over each other: as I have written before, the abuse of the power, when stripped of its supernatural purpose, is the root of clerical abuse of all kinds. This is how it is possible that religious superiors are as happy ignoring the suffering of the people immediately beneath them, the clergy, as they are ignoring the suffering of the people at the bottom of the heap, the laity. What difference does it make?

Priest on the Chartres Pilgrimage saying his Office
To repeat: there is no contradiction here. Where justice can be had only by standing up to bullies, taking flack, and by hard work, then unsurprisingly there is a temptation to sacrifice justice for the sake of a quiet life. In the 1980s superiors got a quiet life by ignoring the accusations; in the 2010s they get it by ignoring the protestations of innocence. Ignoring complaints about liturgical abuse has been the easy option throughout the whole period.

The bishops and priests who are not like this are those who take the obligations and the ideals of the clerical state seriously. They take the ideal of self-denial and celibacy seriously. They take the proclamation of the gospel seriously. They take their obligations to their flocks seriously. They reap a harvest of loyalty from those under their care. Without this reciprocal loyalty the Church in this country will collapse like a pack of cards when there is pressure from outside. And there will be pressure from outside.

Almighty and everlasting God, have mercy upon Thy servant Francis, our Supreme Pontiff, and direct him, according to Thy loving-kindness, in the way of eternal salvation; that, of Thy gift, he may ever desire that which is pleasing unto Thee and may accomplish it with all his might. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. 


  1. Anonymous10:41 am

    Excellent post, imho. Thank you.

  2. At least one cardinal elector has argued that there is no such thing as a loss or crisis of priestly identity, because there is no such thing as priestly identity. The identity of the priest is that of Christ, for the priest is alter Christus.

  3. Very perceptive, Joseph. Thanks for sharing this.