Update on Tablet letter

It seems that while my letter to The Tablet was not printed, it has been included in the journal’s online Letters Extra page. I know this because the abbey has received some hate mail about it (hate is too strong a word, but you get my drift).

The email in question was remarkable in seeming to have nothing to do with my letter at all. To refresh your memory, my letter went thus:

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.

Here is the email received by the abbey’s central email address:

re your letter in The Tablet

Thankfully, women and men have had their feet washed over decades in the parishes I’ve attended throughout the country – certainly all my adult life and I’m in my mid-50s!

I realise that over a thousand years ago people thought that women were the result of imperfect seeds, such as a damp wind, but times have moved on. We are not sub-standard human beings but full members of humanity and equal, co-creators.

The Church will get there one day. It just takes a bit of time (eg Gallileo).

She (who shall remain unnamed) implicitly accuses me of misogyny in deciding that I need to be reminded that women are “not sub-standard human beings but full members of humanity and equal, co-creators” (though I ask myself if any human person can be called a “co-creator“). How she can base that on what I wrote is truly beyond me.

Of course, the issue is not about me at all. It is all about her. And that is where this sort of irrational, emotive and often hysterical line of argument emerges from. Liturgy – and morality – have become all about what makes “me” feel good and not what rightly honours God in our lives and our worship, nor what is faithful to the essential meaning and symbolism of theology and liturgy.

To be perfectly honest, to argue like this against what I did not write but merely to vent her unreasoning self-obsession only makes me more and more convinced that the Church is right (not that I need convincing).

PS Some credit should be given to The Tablet for allowing unprinted letters still to be seen, if by potentially a smaller readership.

14 thoughts on “Update on Tablet letter

  1. Mrs. Pepinster does not speak for all women. I for one have never felt that I am a “sub standard human being” – especially not as far as the Church is concerned.

    Sadly many women, usually the product of 60’s feminism and liberalism have serious doubts about their roles as females both in the world and in the Church. As for ‘mysogyny’ – perhaps the sky on her ‘all sisters together’ planet is a different colour from mine, but attitudes like this are very sad, and perhaps the world in London, of journalists, is perhaps encourages this attitude.

    Our Blessed Lady is the only role model any woman can aspire to, and maybe the author of this letter to you might consider this. It certainly provides this poor sinner with an awareness of how short we fall.

    I shall remember her in my prayers, as I pray for all women daily. We have much to do, and though sometimes we might feel undervalued, perhaps because our pride seeks constantly the affirmation of others, our position in the Church is not a judgement on our status as women who are always valued as is the Mother of Our Blessed Lord.

    The Holy See, as you so rightly say is the place to address her concerns – but please, not on behalf of all women in the Church.


    1. Salve!

      You speak for many women (yes, it may shock some, but I do actually know some women) who are quite happy, indeed rejoice in, sexual difference. The implicit equation of equality with uniformity is an insidious feature of modern culture, and inhuman. Love or hate her, Baroness Thatcher proved she was a match for any man while staying very much a woman. She need not be an exception, nor is she.

      These irrational reactions bespeak fear, if nothing else. Of what are they afraid? I truly don’t get it. Maybe you have an insight beyond my ken.



    2. I completely agree with you – the Church honours women in many ways, especially BVM, the best role model. (The Loreto Litanies say it all).
      There are so many inspiring saints full of love and great faith, who happen to be women, honoured with feast days. Plenty of prayers relevant to all situations in a woman’s life. Plenty of opportunities for a woman to be actively involved in living her faith, in whichever way suits her personality.

      But ‘the grass is always greener’, or ‘equality = sameness’ for some; and it makes them unhappy.
      To me it is simple; only men can be priests and only women can have babies.
      I have complete trust and faith that there are really good reasons for that.

      Everything seems to work best when men & women work in partnership together.
      For example, Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop was greatly assisted in her work by Father Julian Tennyson-Woods. Also I think of Saint Francis & Saint Clare, or Saint Benedict & Saint Scholastica.

      I think it is called synergy. Not much is achieved if the partners have the same skill set or do exactly the same tasks.

      Have a good one – how are the lambs ?

      cheers Brigid


      1. To me it is simple; only men can be priests and only women can have babies.
        I have complete trust and faith that there are really good reasons for that.

        To me, Brigid, that is the Catholic answer. Equality is not what we should be focusing on, but complementarity. That is where our true equality and unity lie. Synergy is the apt modern word for it.

        The lambs are vigorous. I took some photos the other day but never seem to get round to posting them! Sorry. Soon, I promise!



  2. This will sound patronising, but it is not actually the fault of many of the women who react in the way your letter-writer does. They have been taught to think this way and made to feel that somehow they do a disservice to all women if they do not take this stance.

    I remember once being on an Easter Retreat and having a discussion with my mother and a couple of her friends. One of them was moaning about the revised translation and lamenting the failure to change the language of the creed to change “for us men” to something more “inclusive”. I asked her whether this had bothered her when she was young and whether she had thought that the Church had intended to signify her exclusion from Christ’s saving act by this language, and she said no, but that she had now been taught that this was discriminatory. My mother (blessed in some ways with no formal education after leaving school at 15) couldn’t understand the lady’s reaction and said that she had no problem with the language. This only served to make the lady angrier as she felt that my mother was stupid for not being angry. Sad that “education” had taught somebody to feel excluded and angry by something which previously they had accepted and felt comforted by.

    The difficulty is when a sufficiently large number of people feel this way and it becomes impossible to teach them or persuade them otherwise at what point do you say that you’ll change the language?

    Whilst the mandatum is most definitely different, there are some who have reasonably put the point that it’s symbolism is likely to evolve into one which just signifies humility of the servant of the people and loses it’s link to the institution of the Eucharist and the beginning of the priesthood. This is not to say that it is a good thing, but if our language and actions become an obstacle to faith (due to the culture and our failure to transform it), at what point do we consider changing them, if we can do so without changing The Faith. At the same time you need to balance against perceived capitulation and the pressure/expectation this might generate on issues where intransigence is required.

    I realise I’ve gone slightly (or perhaps totally) off point, but these are just some reflections which this whole issue has prompted.

    Incidentally, I’m youngish and a Tablet reader on the basis that you’ve got to understand what its readership is thinking in order to help bring them back to sense. BUT, I never buy it so I don’t contribute to it’s (declinging) revenue streams


    1. Hal, thank you for a thoughtful and enlightening comment.

      The incident involving your mother and her friend is highly revealing. First there is the role of propaganda in shaping reactions, opinions and mindsets. One thing many women accepted was the need to feel outraged. It resulted in a generation of many angry women all looking for things to get upset about, things that never used to offend them at all, as you eloquently demonstrated. Thus theology becomes subject to the emotional imperative, political not spiritual, and replacing the focus on God with a focus on self.

      The mandatum is not a dogma of faith, but its symbolism in the liturgy has been consistently related to priesthood. In days past popes extended the symbolism beyond the liturgical by washing the feet of poor people in St Peter’s Square. In that setting the undeniable meaning of humble service is highlighted and extended to all people, and held up for them all to follow. In the Maundy Thursday liturgy, concerned as it is with commemorating in particular the institution of the Eucharist and also of the ministerial priesthood, this example of humble service is being primarily held up to priests for them to follow.

      That is partly why the mandatum is an optional rite on Maundy Thursday, and also why it is not celebrated at every Mass! Maybe we could honour everyone’s opinion if we omitted it more often in parish liturgies on Maundy Thursday and performed it in other contexts in which the symbolism of humble service to all could be extended legitimately to all.

      Like you, I read the Tablet on the basis that one must know what the enemy is saying (though you do not use the emotive word “enemy”!). That you manage to do it with financially supporting them is canny, and worthy of a cheer!



    1. It certainly can be a depressing read, but one cannot attempt to answer arguments against Christ’s Church and her teaching unless you know what those arguments are.

      And as I have said elsewhere, reading it becomes much less burdensome if one remembers to think of it as an Anglican journal. It works for me! 😉

      Pax semper.


  3. Dom Hugh,

    You mean that even people in the UK are driven by emotions, too, just as in the USA? I thought that there might be a place on earth where reason prevailed. Guess not anymore or anywhere these days. You and your community are in my prayers over this.

    Dom Gregory


  4. Abusing other Catholics, however mistaken they are, is not a course which commends itself, whether the ‘Anglican’ Tablet – written by and for Catholics in good faith – or the bishops of England and Wales. Enemies? They are all brothers and sisters in our Lord, consecrated by their baptism to share in the priesthood of Jesus and they deserve our respect not vituperation!


    1. I suggest you look up “abuse” and “vituperation” because you seem not to know what they actually mean. If you read what I said carefully, you will see that I criticize what is written, not the writer as a person. You seem to be as irrationally emotive as the other correspondent. And note, criticism and correction is not abuse and vituperation, and your misuse of the words cheapens them.

      If you do not like this blog, as I have said before, read something you do like.


  5. I have to say, I find it hard to defend Pope Francis regarding this matter. If, as your letter claims, the pope, as pope, has the power to dispense himself from liturigical laws ‘ad hoc’, then this would, at the very least, require him to issue a public statement to this effect.

    Pope Benedict reminded us with great eloquence that ‘the pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law”: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2005/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20050507_san-giovanni-laterano_en.html .

    With regard to the liturgy, the then Cardinal Ratzinger likened the pope’s task to that of a gardener, who nutures and promotes organic development, rather than that of a technician ‘who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk pile’ (Preface (p11) to the Organic Development of the Liturgy, by Dom Alcuin Reid). Is it so terrible to say that Pope Francis made a mistake? Although he can certainly change liturgical rules, he cannot do so at whim.

    As an aside, everyone appears to have forgotten the following statement pronounced by Pope Benedict at the end of his 2005 homily for the Mass of Possesion of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome: “Thus, I want to try with all my heart to be your Bishop, the Bishop of Rome”.


    1. To be honest, I have been finding it hard to defend the Pope on anything but liberal grounds. I have held always felt that if he does not like the law he should have changed it first.

      In fact I would have said he was subject to these laws, much as Benedict XVI suggests in your excellent reference. However canonists like Ed Peters (http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/page/2/) seem to think that the Pope can set aside or “disregard” laws of a certain type. However Dr Peters also points out the ruinous example set in such a case.

      I would agree that, at least prudentially, Pope Francis made a mistake. I put it down to these early days in his papacy, and his need to grow in awareness that the Bishop of Rome is just not the same as any other bishop. And never will be.



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