A failure of leadership


The question is this: taken as a body, the bishops of England and Wales, of Ireland and of Scotland, despite frequent requests and the findings of questionnaires, have so far refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with lay-led and priest-led organisations on a number of topics considered important for the well-being of the Catholic Church in these countries.  These topics relate centrally to one overriding concern, namely the on-going and inexorable fall in the number of serving priests and the consequent closure and amalgamation of parishes together with the break-up of longstanding communities and the prospect of a Eucharistic famine in the not too distant future.

But alongside this central issue and related to it in some ways are issues such as mandatory celibacy, the ordination of women, the pastoral care of homosexuals, the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, contraception; and the practice of regularly consulting the laity as an issue in its own right.  Notwithstanding the widespread agitation among ordinary Catholics, the bishops have shown a remarkable and, dare I say, cowardly reluctance to grasp any of these nettles.  The message is clear: the bishops are not really bothered about what the Catholic faithful think or believe about these issues; the bishops are in charge and they feel themselves under no obligation to listen to or heed the views of the baptised laity.  In Ireland, where there is a strong Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), the bishops for the most part appear not to want to know what the members of the ACP think on the topics mentioned above.  All three hierarchies give the impression of sleepwalking into a disastrous situation that could see the virtual disappearance of the Catholic Church in these islands.  The issue is as stark as that.  It is a case of failure of leadership on a colossal scale.

How to explain this blatant failure of leadership?  Possibly the explanation is fear or, at least, fear as a habit of mind – diocesan bishops were enfeebled and largely ignored during the long period of time, some 35 years, occupied by the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  As the latter said, when head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in the Vatican, ‘The National Conferences of Bishops have no canonical status.’

Both of these popes maintained and intensified the centralisation of power in the Papacy and the Roman Curia.  Of course, the centralisation of power in Rome had gone on long before their papacies and was a prominent feature of the papacies of the ‘Piuses’, going back to Pius IX in the nineteenth century.  As Pius XII famously remarked: ‘I don’t need collaborators, simply people to carry out my instructions.’

The outstanding American Bishop Bernardin commented that in his time the Roman curial officials treated bishops ‘like altar boys’.

So the enfeeblement of diocesan bishops has a long history, leading perhaps to the mentality of ‘Why bother?  Our views will simply be ignored.  Better not to put your head above the parapet for fear of being branded a dissident’ etc.

But fear of Roman authority is not the only type of fear.  There is also the fear entertained by younger or newer bishops, of bishops or archbishops or Papal Nuncios in commanding positions within national conferences.  Some senior bishops wield a great deal of authority; they are ‘bishop-makers’ who have the power to have an ordinary priest raised to the status of bishop and to promote a mere bishop to the status of archbishop – and the power also to block such promotions!  Authority figures like this very often control the agenda at episcopal conferences and foster what is called ‘group think’, defying and disapproving of any individual who might offer a contrary opinion.

So what to do about this dangerous state of affairs?  I would modestly suggest that the laity make their voice heard, that they should demand that their views are listened to and heeded.  The greatest asset the laity have is their numbers.  They can make their voice heard in face-to-face encounters as well as in letters and articles.  They have no need to restrict their comments to Catholic media since the secular press has shown an interest in issues that concern ‘ordinary Catholics’ and a willingness to express their views, as the recent wide coverage of the scale of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests and religious in Australia illustrates.

It may be the case that some bishops believe that, in asking to be consulted, members of the laity are seeking to usurp the authority that properly belongs to them as bishops.  But we now have in Pope Francis, at long last, a Pope who believes the exact opposite, as he has made clear in his encyclicals, where he roundly condemns the evil of ‘clericalism’, and in his published letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in which he points out that in refusing to consult the laity bishops are, in fact, usurping the authority that belongs to lay members on account of their baptism.

In asking to have their views heeded, lay members of the Church are simply following the precedents to be found in the practice of the early Church, as we can plainly see in the Acts of the Apostles (see, for example, Acts 15:6).  There is lavish theological support to be found in scripture and the early Church for the practice of consulting the baptised faithful on matters concerning the well-being of the Church.  Of course, such consultation might lead to disagreements and a clash of arguments, but remember what Cardinal Newman said in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, that the early dogmas of the Church were the product of ‘The collision of Catholic intellects with Catholic intellects’.

In strict theological terms, the authority of the bishops ultimately derives from the commission they have received from the Church community, and the baptised faithful form the great majority in that community.  The bishops have been placed in a position of leadership: SO LEAD.

Joe Fitzpatrick is a Scot who lives in Yorkshire and is a former Inspector of Schools.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.