Bishop criticises "flat and safe" episcopal conference statements

A couple of weeks ago, I received a copy of Bishop O'Donoghue's new document "Fit for Mission? Church". It had been sent to a number of recipients, one of whom forwarded it to me. It was followed up by an email to those recipients saying that it was not released until the end of the month. I understand from Damien Thompson's blog "Holy Smoke" that the release date is today so I hope that I have kept the embargo properly.

Bishop O'Donoghue takes an honest and hard look at the life of the Church in his diocese. He asks why so many Catholics have stopped going to Mass and to Confession, why there are so few Catholic marriages, why the seminaries are almost empty and monasteries and convents closing. He examines the four major documents of Vatican II, emphasising very strongly that they must be read according to a "hermeneutic of continuity." Throughout the document, he upholds the teaching of Humanae Vitae and strongly reaffirms Catholic teaching on family life.

The part of the document likely to generate most interest is where Bishop O'Donoghue shares his concerns about the working of the Conference of Bishops. He says:
I must admit that during my 15 years as a bishop I have increasingly come to share certain concerns about the relationship between individual bishops and the National Conference:
  • Due to the division of areas of responsibility among the bishops, such as education, liturgy, healthcare, migrants etc, there can often be reluctance among the rest of the bishops to speak out on these issues, as if somehow they had handed over their competence in these areas to the responsible bishop and his particular committee. For example, there seemed some surprise in some circles that I had issued my teaching document, Fit for Mission? Schools.
  • I must register, too, my disappointment that our Bishops’ Conference recently could not agree a collegial response to the Government’s legislation on same-sex adoption.
  • The problem with attempting to arrive at a consensus among bishops with, sometimes, divergent views, is that Episcopal Conference statements and documents have a tendency to be often flat and ‘safe’ at a time when we need passionate and courageous public statements that dare to speak the full truth in love. The effort to achieve a consensus results – as Cardinal Ratzinger so aptly expressed it – often in the loss of the ‘scandal’ and the ‘folly’ of the Gospel, so that we are no longer the ‘salt’ and ‘leaven’ so urgently needed. (Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, p. 62)
  • Agencies and Commissions of national conferences must surely uphold the fullness of the Church’s teaching, particularly doctrinal and moral teaching, in their collaboration with secular agencies. I’m thinking in particular of agencies with a responsibility for education or economic development. The staff of these agencies are often in a position to witness to the truth of the Church’s teaching on, say, the theology of the body with its positive refutation of pre-marital sex, ‘safe sex’, or artificial birth control, in their dealings with government departments and committees. There must be no backpeddling on these issues just because certain truths are unwelcome in the corridors of power.
  • Sometimes the Secretariats of Episcopal Conferences forget that they are the servants of the bishops, and so their staff take it upon themselves to decide what is best, i.e. setting the agendas of conference meetings. It needs to be re-iterated that bishops have not delegated their authority to the committees and staff of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
  • In Anthony Howard’s official biography of Cardinal Basil Hume, he writes that his Eminence left behind a ‘semi-autonomous Church’. (Anthony Howard, Basil Hume, p. 321). Leaving aside the question of the truth or otherwise of this observation, I think it succinctly identifies the danger inherent in the workings of national episcopal conferences. We must guard against the Catholic Church degenerating into local churches who consider themselves almost autonomous in some respects from the See of Rome.
  • It is not acceptable for us to dismiss documents issued from Roman Dicasteries, saying, ‘That’s for others, not for us! We don’t have that problem here’. Such an attitude can sometimes result in documents and statements from the Holy Father’s Dicasteries not being given the serious attention they require. There must be an active dialogue between the local church and the Holy See.
  • We must never forget that for each local church to be fully Church, there must be present in it the supreme authority of the Church: the Episcopal College together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith puts it, ‘we must see the ministry of the Successor of Peter, not only as a ‘global’ service, reaching each particular Church from ‘outside’, as it were, but as belonging already to the essence of each particular Church from ‘within’ (CDF, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, 13).
I haven't yet found a copy of the document posted on the internet but I expect it will be available for download soon.

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