Patrick O’Donoghue, Bishop Emeritus of Lancaster
Negative developments for the priesthood since Vatican II
· Loss of brother priests. The staggering and heart-breaking loss of priests in the aftermath of Vatican II has left painful wounds in the Church, including grief and a loss of confidence among many of that generation who remained. Also, the decline in the number of new priests being ordained has a disheartening and discouraging effect.
· Dissent and disobedience. We are living in an unprecedented period in the life of the Church when countless individual priests, and laity, even bishops, believe they are free to decide what it means to be Catholic for themselves. For example, we have witnessed a wholesale rejection of the Church’s perennial teaching against contraception. This is the litmus test of the acceptance of obedience in the Church. How many priests support Gaudium et Spes’ crystal clear rejection of contraception, upheld by successive Popes – Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI? If we reject their teaching on this matter we are saying, as
priests, that we know better than the successor to Peter! Is this tenable in a priest?
· Disloyalty. This is related to dissent and disobedience but is to do with the relationship between priest and bishop, and bishop and Pope. It is not uncommon for cliques to grow up among priests against the current bishop, that ignore with disdain directives and advice from their bishop. Sometimes it seems that the parish priest and parish declare UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence] from the bishop and the diocese. There is also danger of this developing in a group of bishops attitude to the reigning Pope. The idea that there could be theological differences between a bishop and the Pope is just an incredible thing to admit, but it is the truth. I suppose if priests see bishops showing disloyalty to the Pope it is hardly surprising that they, in turn, show disloyalty to their bishop. We all know what Jesus said about a divided house.
· Conspiracy of silence. This cocktail of dissent, disobedience and disloyalty has resulted in what I call a ‘conspiracy of silence’ amongst groups in the Church. There is no real dialogue or willingness to talk openly and honestly about our differences. For example, I don’t know why my Fit for Mission? documents hit a wall of silence among the bishops in this country. All I did was re-iterate the teaching of the Church, but this has been treated as unacceptable and unspeakable. Why?
· Secularisation. Last year Pope Benedict warned us to be on our guard against the secularisation of the Church. By this he meant that priests and people were accepting consumerism and hedonism as a way of life. Can we truly say that our lives are known as examples of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘service’? It seems to me that we, too, have accepted pop-psychology thinking that dismisses ‘self-denial’ and selfsacrifice as harmful and ‘sado-masochistic’.
· Anti-intellectualism. One of the most surprising things to hear is that it’s a waste of time to write, say, a 130 page document on the Church, because the priests will not read it. It is even possible to hear, in the Church of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, priests use the words ‘theology’ and ‘theologian’ as pejoratives! Often ‘pastoral experience’ is held up against ‘theology’ as if they were mutually exclusive. In my opinion, this is deeply unhealthy and harmful to the Church. There is much good, sound, faithful theology being undertaken at present that will enrich the Church if, and only if, the priests start engaging with it.
· Sex abuse scandals. Don’t all our hearts sink when we hear those words! How much unspeakable harm has been done to children by these predatory paedophiles, who are also our brother priests? The harm they have done the spreading of the Gospel and the mission of the Church is incalculable. The Church is not the same after these past two decades, and hopefully children are better protected, but we have to live with the consequences of suspicion and distrust, which for the majority of us is undeserved and so very hurtful. This is the reality of Sin.
· Liturgism. By this I mean the tendency among clergy and some laity to solely focus on the liturgy and sacramental life, ignoring our mission to go out of the church building into the world where suffering humanity lives! For a century the Church has been saying that social justice should be a concern of Catholics equal to attending Mass on Sunday. How many believe this? How many priests encourage this?
Despite all this I remain a man of hope! By disposition and experience I seek to see the positive, the rumour of grace in situation no matter how bad it first appears. I am not a prophet of doom, and in my Fit for Mission? documents I have not sought to be a Jeremiah announcing the impending destruction of the Church in this country. We have much to be grateful for as a result of the Second Vatican Council, which was truly a marvellous work of the Holy Spirit.
But as well as being a man of hope, I am also a realist who strongly believes that we have to speak the truth about the health of the Church in this country. I do not believe that I am exaggerating when I say that the Catholic Church in this country and in the West, is in danger of splitting into factions openly at war with each other.
The simple fact is that for the first time in the history of the Church we have a significant number of practising Catholics – both liberals and traditionalists – who believe that they can decide what it means to be Catholic. We have priests, laity and even some bishops who believe they have the right to decide what doctrines and morals to affirm or ignore.
As I’ve said elsewhere, many Catholics hold that if – in conscience – they disagree with any teaching of the Church then they have the freedom – even the duty – to reject that teaching. For many, the authority of the autonomous conscience has overthrown the authority of Christ given to Peter and the Apostles. In some circles the infallibility of the Pope has been replaced by the infallibility of individual conscience.
So on the liberal side, we have Catholics assuming in their day-to-day lives that their opinions about doctrine and morals are right, and the Pope and the Church’s 2,000 years reflection on God’s revelation is wrong about so many things, like contraception, IVF, homosexuality, the divinity of Jesus, the importance of devotion to Mary, and the Saints, the necessity of regular confession, the importance of ‘objective’ morality, and much more.