The Tablet, and the English bishops: whom do they serve?

Last week in The Tablet the Letters pages were opened to what we were meant to see as a flood of complaints about the statement made by my confrère, Fr Paul Gunter OSB, in his capacity as Secretary of the English Bishops’ Department of Christian Life & Worship. Quoted in the previous edition of The Tablet, he had clarified the status of Pope Francis’ setting aside Church law on reserving the mandatum on Maundy Thursday to males, explaining the reasons behind the law and also why Pope Francis’ actions do not licence clergy to a similar liberty. So he was doing his job.

The gushing stream of outrage from The Tablet’s correspondents was directed at Fr Paul, as if he were imposing his personal opinion on us all. The usual arguments of an emotive, “pastoral” nature were employed. Now Fr Paul is well able to defend himself, and his terse but apposite response has been printed in the latest edition. But I felt it necessary for several reasons, to write in support of Fr Paul for doing his job. My letter has not been printed. I am not surprised. Here is what I wrote:

It seems to be the spirit of the time to return to old simplicities, and many of your correspondents last week (Letters, 20 April) seemed intent on reviving the ancient simplicity of slaying the bearer of unwelcome tidings.

In addressing a clarification issued by my confrère, Fr Paul Gunter OSB, in his capacity as Secretary of the Bishops’ Department for Christian Life & Worship, they gave the impression that they saw Fr Gunter as peddling his own personal opinions. In fact he was doing his official duty in reminding the clergy of the pertinent facts and liturgical laws as they stand with regard to the optional rite of mandatum on Maundy Thursday. These are laws which Fr Gunter has not the power to change. Those who object to them would better serve their cause, and charity, by addressing their complaints to the Holy See.

One point raised against him merits particular attention. Fr Jim Lawlor asks Fr Gunter why “restorationists” allow themselves to see as exemplary the liturgical practice of Benedict XVI, yet refuse to allow Pope Francis’ liturgical praxis to be likewise exemplary.

Surely the answer is clear with but a moment’s reflection. Benedict XVI retrieved legitimate elements of Catholic liturgical tradition to enrich the celebration of the modern liturgy in accord with its proper laws and theology. Pope Francis’ mandatum contravened both current liturgical law and its theology. As pope, Francis has the power to dispense himself from such laws ad hoc. This dispensation does not extend to the rest of the Church.

It may be that Pope Francis will change the theology and rubrics of the mandatum. Until he does, however, priests are obliged to celebrate the Church’s liturgy in its integrity and not their personal versions of it. To the best of my memory neither Vatican II, nor the subsequent reform of the liturgy, gave priests a mandate to do whatever they want in the liturgy.

What is of particular interest to me is that only one letter has been included in the latest Tablet on the subject, Fr Paul’s own reply in his official capacity. To the casual reader the impression might be that a flood of outrage against Fr Paul was received at The Tablet but only a few dribbles in support of him. This is a classic propaganda technique. This impression seems confirmed in another regard, namely Cardinal Schönborn’s recent talk in London, which has been mischievously used by some to convey the impression he supports same-sex civil unions. In last week’s Tablet there was only one letter printed that countered this impression, and that too was a letter from an official of Cardinal Schönborn’s Vienna diocese. Yet I know that at least one other letter was sent in the same vein, by a layman prominent in the City, who wrote in a balanced and reasoned way. His letter was not published.

So, the orthodox line is reduced to representation only by officials; the liberal line (to give it a generous label) is open to clergy and laity in any quantity. So, you can see the propaganda technique here: only officials push the Church’s line – the clergy and laity want change! One thing gives me some cheer though: the vast majority of active young Catholics do not read this quasi-Anglican journal. This does not augur well for the future of The Tablet. Its only hope is to come out of the closet and proclaim its allegiance to Anglicanism, which it serves so well. This should preserve its life a few more years.

The English bishops, too, seem to be serving something/someone other than the Church. It is reported that the General Secretary of the bishops’ conference, speaking on behalf of its president Archbishop Nichols, has assured lawmakers that in the case of a mixed royal marriage the children do not need to be brought up Catholic. Royals are dispensed where commoners are not. There is a long history of making concessions to royalty, so there is no real surprise here. It is being painted as a “pastoral” approach. But it raises two points in my mind:

(1) Do the bishops believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life”; and if so, do they agree with Pope Francis when he preached a few days ago that Jesus cannot be found outside the Church? If so, how can they in good conscience deny royal children born to a Catholic parent the right to find Jesus in his Body the Church? Surely the only truly “pastoral” approach is one that leads to Jesus where he is truly to be found. Unless, of course, you believe that all the churches are basically equal…

(2) As a strategic tactic it is appallingly inept. Just when lawmakers are openly proposing the removal of the infamous bar on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics, the bishops are surrendering the obligation for a Catholic spouse to raise children as Catholics precisely at the moment when there is absolutely no need to do so. In fact, the Church should be keeping up the pressure by insisting on the obligation for Catholic royals just as it insists on it for every other Catholic. The bishops seem intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Tablet, the English bishops – whom do they serve? Jesus and his Church? That seems an increasingly difficult position to argue.

9 thoughts on “The Tablet, and the English bishops: whom do they serve?

  1. I’ve tried my very best over the years to engage with The Tablet and there’s always at least one good sentence in there; I distinctly remember this one time when I read a whole page without rolling my eyes, but it turned out to be an advert for some app or other. Anyway, at 26, with three children and another on the way, I don’t feel so young anymore, but if my experiences and those of my peers are anything to go by, you may well be proved correct in your prophecy…

    Happy Easter!



    1. An ad for an app – LOL!! 😀 That tickled my funny bone.

      At 26 with 3 children and a thinking brain, you are firmly part of the future of the Church, and of society.

      And James, you are still pretty young. #envy 😉

      Peace to you and yours.


  2. July 23, 2013

    Spiritual Directors at the Gregorian University have a message for Pope Francis : unity among Catholics

    Jesuits conduct Spiritual Exercises which are a break with St.Ignatius of Loyola

    Jesuits indicate the Magisterium made a mistake


  3. The comment on royal marriages is probably just Vin Nichols’ take on the matter rather than all the bishops. Was it discussed at the most recent Bishops Conference? I can think of several bishops who would not go along with this latest ex cathedra definition from the Magisterium of Eccleston Square.


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