Tension builds between the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales and orthodox Catholics.
By Dominic Scarborough
The Holy Father’s September visit to the United Kingdom was widely regarded as a great success, both as a tonic to British lay Catholics and as a wake-up call to the country’s secular society. But the visit also highlighted the tension that exists between his pontificate and what dismayed English Catholics call the liberal “Magic Circle” of bishops who make up the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (BCEW).
Several of its number are known to be deeply opposed both to this papacy and to that of John Paul II. The first reason for this opposition is that the members of the BCEW have been largely self-selecting from a small pool of like-minded “insiders” who come through lines of patronage that can be traced back to one man, the late Archbishop Derek Worlock of Liverpool. At the Second Vatican Council, Worlock had been one of the first of the English bishops to promote a new liberal vision for the Church.
The vision appropriated the structures, cultural loyalties, and financial contributions of the old, inward-looking, triumphalist “ghetto” Church to build a new, outward-facing Catholicism that focused on social climbing and liberal politics. Ultimately, Worlock’s vision aimed for the broader acceptance of Catholicism by the secular elite.
This post-conciliar vision of a more visible Catholic presence is, however, at odds with Pope Benedict’s conceptions of what visibility and presence require. The BCEW’s vision ever since the days of Archbishop Worlock has aimed at “liberating” Catholics from their past and helping them to embrace the values of secular society. But Pope Benedict’s vision aims at fostering orthodox Catholics who can act as a “creative minority” in the wider culture. The differences between these two visions are ultimately irreconcilable and go to the heart of the debate over the meaning of Vatican II.
The second reason for the tensions with the Pope is the structure of the BCEW, which appears to undercut the individual bishop’s teaching role in favor of presenting a common front on every issue. The BCEW has mimicked the power structures of the traditional British trade unions that look anachronistic today. The BCEW is a rigid bureaucratic structure centered on the idea of the central committee and employs a plethora of professional lay and clerical sub-committees, all paid for by the ordinary Catholics it claims to represent. The irony is that the pursuit of this agenda has been to the detriment of halting the decline of the very working-class, “grass-roots” Catholicism that once gave the bishops a legitimate voice on issues of real social concern.
This “grass-roots” Catholicism has been decimated by a collapse in religious practice among the indigenous Catholic population, which, if it were not being buoyed up by massive levels of immigration from Eastern Europe and the developing world, would have already signaled the end for many parishes and even dioceses.
The BCEW may have succeeded in opening up the doors of the Church to the world, but instead of the world walking in, Catholics have walked out, especially those who have grown up in the post-conciliar era never knowing the safety of the “ghetto” Church and who prefer to take their worldliness from the world itself rather than from a self-consciously worldly Catholicism. For many Catholics the Church now exists only to “hatch, match, and dispatch” and retains the nominal membership that it does largely because it runs the best free schools in the country.
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- Fr. Christopher George Phillips
- Fr. Phillips is the founding pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church, the first Anglican Use parish, established on August 15, 1983. Not that there is any confusion, but he is on the left, shown in his younger, less gray-headed days.