Bare-knuckle Catholics, immortalised in the Hardman stained glass of Belmont Abbey Church:
left to right, Bl Thomas Percy, martyred leader of the Northern Rising,
Bl John Beche, martyred Abbot of Gloucester, and
Bl Adrian Fortescue, martyred Knight of Malta.
Since the first post in this series Bishop Campbell has issued a press release explaining the reasons for his action. A key sentence is this:
It is my view that bishops, priests and deacons of the Church – ordained and ‘public’ persons – are free to express themselves and their personal views, but never in a way that divides the community of the Church i.e. through ad hominem and personal challenges.
The word 'personal' is italicised in the original, and the phrase is repeated later in the statement. It would seem that Bishop Campbell would be happy for Deacon Donnelly to write about the teaching of the Church, but not to name those who appear to dissent from this teachings, in order to raise questions about them or warn Catholics against them.
It is not for me to criticise Bishop Campbell's decision, and of course he is not Mgr Loftus' ordinary, so the contrast I have drawn between these cases does not imply any personal inconsistency for Bishop Campbell. I want, nevertheless, to understand the institutional culture which has tolerated Loftus' column for more than two decades, but exhibits such discomfort about blogs.
Deacon Donnelly's blog was bad, we're told: fine. But what about this newspaper column? In a newspaper with episcopal approval, sold in the back of churches. Do Loftus' columns not 'divide the church'? Do they not include 'ad hominem and personal challenges'?
When Loftus called, in a letter to the Tablet in June 2013, for 'anger' about a sermon preached by Bishop Mark Davies?
When he described Cardinal Ranjith, in November 2013, as 'the Sri Lankan cappa magna fetishist and Tridentine-rite devotee'?
Did it not 'divide the Church' and make use of 'caricaturing or stereotyping' (phrases used by Bishop Campbell) when Loftus described the Roman Curia as having a 'culture of ‘Vatican II-bashing’ in May 2012, and of 'Legalism in law, overly-literal interpretations of Scripture, rubrical straightjackets round the liturgy, fossilisation of what should be living doctrine, and general over-objectification of faith and morals' in June 2012?
Examples could be multiplied.
The suggestion of my last post was that, since it is perfectly obvious that no one could suggest that Protect the Pope was less orthodox, or less respectful of bishops and prelates, or more scornful and uncharitable towards its opponents, than Basil Loftus' column - and the same is true of all the other Catholic blogs worth mentioning - lack of orthodoxy and lack of respect for persons cannot be the reason for bishops' unease about blogs.
But my next claim, which is perhaps more shocking, is that I don't think it is necessarily a liberal conspiracy among bishops which led to Protect the Pope's closure. I don't think it shows that Bishop Campbell, or anyone else in the hierarchy who has expressed unease about blogs, like Cardinal Müller, are at heart sympathisers of the likes of Loftus.
Those who have been involved in Catholic activism over they years know the pattern of behaviour very well. Bishop X is attacked by dissidents, who support attacks on his public positions by the state and the secular media, who defy his commands, and who dissent from his teachings. Groups of loyal Catholics go on a counter-offensive: they make public responses defending the teaching of the Church in the media, they engage in hand-to-hand struggles with the dissidents in forums such as boards of school governors, they gather information which would make it possible for Bishop X to apply canonical penalties against the dissidents, if he wanted to. And you know what? It is the dissidents who have cosy chats over tea with Bishop X. They get appointed to jobs and committees. They get space in the diocesan newspaper and links from the website. The loyalists, on the other hand, are frozen out. This has happened again, and again, and again, most famously after the publication of Humanae Vitae, when Pope Paul VI refused to support bishops who disciplined dissenters.
What is going on? I shall identify three minor reasons, and one major one. Minor ones first.
'Leave it to us, chaps.' Many bishops, religious superiors, and people in the Curia who are basically rather conservative, and would like to steer things in the direction of sanity, find themselves involved in a very complicated game of chess with their opponents. The last thing they want is interventions from third parties, even if those parties are essentially on their side. Suppose that, say, conservative activists suddenly publicised the dissent of a liberal who for tactical reasons was helping to deal with an even worse liberal. The bishops are worried that anything they aren't in complete control of will make their lives more complicated, their jobs harder, and their prospects of success dimmer.
'I don't know what effect they have on the enemy, but by God they terrify me.' The more conservative side of the discussion in the upper reaches of the hierarchy doesn't necessarily look like the more conservative side of the discussion on the blogs. Conservatives in the former may well have perfectly sincere misgivings about the views and tactics of the latter. They have, after all, spent a lifetime adapting themselves to liberals, whereas the orthodox crusaders have spent a lifetime trying to enthuse the troops about how bad things are. That doesn't mean that the more conservative bishops have lost the Faith, but they may well not only not want to distance themselves from the conservative activists, but, when possible, actually get them to shut up.
'Did I really say that?' What conservative Catholics tend to do is look for authoritative statements from Rome, or from local bishops, which show as clearly as possible that the words and actions of the dissidents are wrong. Making such statements is easy, however; enforcing them is hard work. Many essentially conservative prelates adopt softly-softly approaches to dealing with problems - say, removing a dissident from a sensitive post by offering him a more senior and better paid job elsewhere. The last thing the prelate wants to be reminded of in the midst of this kind of task are the less nuanced statements he or others have made: they have the potential to make him look, and perhaps feel, a fool. I mean heck, he's trying to deal with the problem, ok? Just let him get on with it.
But the biggest reason is this.
'Dissidents must be attracted with honey, not forced into open schism.' To adopt a political parallel, the conservatives are regarded as the core vote, and the dissenters as the people who could be lost, or won, depending on how cleverly and charmingly the bishop handles them. The parallel seems apt since the dissidents tend to have the support of the secular media, and this makes it look as though what pleases the dissidents pleases the whole non-Catholic world. If only, the bishop thinks, I can, without compromising on theological principles, but just by being nice, establish friendly relations with these dissidents, then I can draw not just them but to an extent the whole culture towards the Church's orbit, where of course they can be influenced in a positive way by all sorts of things. To condemn them would just force them into more extreme positions, more open opposition to the Church, and ultimately either into schism or lapsation. And that can't be good, can it?
The net result of this sort of reasoning is that, everywhere you look, conservatives are sidelined, and dissidents are made much of. Liberals who want conservative faithful to think they are on their side, when actually they aren't, can use these arguments to explain their lack of action. I am convinced, however, they are also used by those who are genuinely conservative in theology.
But I am also convinced that the lines of reasoning I have outlined are wrongheaded. This I must explain in another post.