If Mark Dowd's programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning does nothing else, it will create a lot of discussion. I dare say that is a good thing. It's as well to know what the 'other side' is thinking, and, boy, we certainly got that!
Dowd definitely did his homework for The Pope's British Divisions. He interviewed people from Inverness in Scotland to Blackfen in Kent, via Catholic youth services, the Archbishop of Westminster, and Bernard Wynne of Stand Up for Vatican II. Though a competent journalist, Dowd is not above the odd clanger of colossal proportions; he remarked at one point that you knew the game was up when David Cameron said even Jesus would be for gay rights ... Personally, I feel that if there is anything more ludicrous than Cameron spouting theological opinions, it is people who think Cameron's theological opinions are remotely normative.
Of course, Cameron's opinions might be indicative rather than normative, and Dowd indeed gave us a soberingly varied picture of the leading indicators in the Church, at least as he sees them. On the positive side we can note the extraordinary way in which immigration has changed the Catholic Church in England since 1982. Some might of course have found in Vincent Nichols's description of the multipication of tongues a pretext for advancing the cause of a universal Church language - say, Latin? - but the immigrants' biggest impact probably results from the fact they tend not to be carriers of liberal Western opinions.
There followed sometime later a little section on Fr Tim Finigan's parish at Blackfen, Kent. Fr Finigan is of course one of the ablest voices in favour of the Benedictine reforms in the Church, though I found myself a little agitated by his defence of Latin for which he questioned whether anyone could understand the liturgy in English anyway! It's a fair point but in the circumstances it looked like a case of playing the man, rather than playing the ball. Of course I would have done no better. Dowd also interviewed a female parishioner - was it Mac? - who quoted the then-Cardinal Ratzinger's remark that truth wasn't about numbers.
It was a thoroughly apposite comment given the rest of Dowd's documentary which ranged in alarming detail over the kind of consensus Catholicism which Cardinal Ratzinger was in fact targeting.One of the major changes since 1982 is surely the large numbers of people who like the Catholic brand but appear to have no qualms of conscience about what they stick under it. This flexibility has been sold under the cover of being 'not judgmental', but nobody appeared to appreciate the problem which the Ratzingerian position poses: you cannot believe in total individual expressiveness and the Catholic faith. Somewhere Catholic belief is an obedience. Who said that? Oh, yeah, it was St Paul.
There was a serious degree of self-deception in advocates of non-judgmentalism in the programme. Fr Joe Wheat who works with Catholic youth didn't want to make value judgments about who was Catholic and who wasn't. But, I thought, isn't he making a value judgment about value judgments? Fr Wheat described the situation of young Catholic people who disagreed with Catholic truths as a 'struggle', but judging by the young people who were interviewed, their struggle seemed to be in understanding how Pope Benedict could be so out of touch with the 21st century. They seemed not to be involved in a moral struggle at all; more of a knowledge struggle in what was to them an incomprehensible Church. I don't want to make judgments, of course, but why do I have the feeling they needn't look to Fr Joe Wheat for enlightement?
'Elastic' is how Dowd qualified Fr Wheat's approach to Catholicism, and it was an epithet that might have been applied to many others in the programme. To the sound of twanging rubber, Andy Burnham, the ex-Labour minister, commented on how rigid the Church was over certain health issues. Burnham too doesn't quite see what is wrong with both calling yourself Catholic and conducting pragmatist politics. Pontius Pilate would have been proud. More elastic pings could be heard when Bernard Wynne was rolled on to say how the Latin Mass symbolised a return to 1950s clericalism. Here was another example of self deception; anyone who thinks clericalism died with Vatican II clearly never tried to cross a priest in sandals and rainbow stole. One man's clericalist is another man's freedom fighter. I suppose it is no consolation that Wynne's groupuscule will soon have to rename itself Zimmers for Vatican II. Still, it is ultimately no laughing matter, especially when one listens to the young Catholic people Dowd interviewed in a Catholic school who said they had no problem with abortion and same-sex marriage. Somehow, somewhere, Wynne's Church failed, but he thinks the problem is bossy priests? The mind boggles.
No more was the self-deception issue more acute than in Vincent Nichols's defence of the Soho gay Masses. No priest makes Communion a moment of judgment but trusts that people come forward in good conscience. Thus, said His Grace. The principle is fine in isolation. But when Dowd interviewed people who attend the Mass, at least one of those he spoke to felt not only accepted in her lesbianism, but also that it was fine to believe the Church had got it wrong on this issue. Perhaps some people go to the Soho Masses honestly wishing to lead a chaste life. Was it Dowd's fault that he didn't interview them? Did he interview them and decide to suppress their comments? Or was the person inteviewed more indicative of the kind of gay person that attends the Mass? What I want to know is whether the word 'acceptance' is code for 'no evangelisation here'. Where is the evidence that this congregation understands why this Mass has been allowed? And where is the justification for allowing it without ensuring a constant, gentle, but determined call to keep them on the straight and narrow - that narrow path which is the aim of the rest of us sinners who have proclivities not to homosexuality but to violence, drink, racism, or just sheer nastiness? One protestor outside said that we had become the Church of Accommodation. One can understand why. In this light, Vincent Nichols's telling 'judgmental' people they should just 'learn to hold their tongue', sounds like pastoral bullying, not honest leadership.
Ultimately, Dowd's picture suggested that the coming battle will be not so much between the Wynnes and the Finigans but between the Wheats and the kinds of seminarians that were interviewed towards the end of the progamme. The Wynnes are in the minority. So too sadly are the Finigans. The programme, however, sounded a vague note of hope through the voices of students from Oscott. They, it turned out, were optimistic. They were also clearly the pope's men and hoped his message would be heard during his visit.
But is it their business to hold this mosaic of Catholicism together, as Dowd concludes? The mosaic model - code again for theological incompatibilities - sounds much too much like the latitudinarianism which has turned Anglicanism into a sort of religious whitewash. Nobody, of course, wants to see division, and the human race is all too prone to want to wage war on its nearest and dearest. But latitudinarianism is a counterfeit of charity or ecclesial unity. To be honest, the word 'pastoral' is looking like a blanket with the end thread pulled loose. Still, who with a mitre has noticed that it is getting alarmingly short?
Frankly, my Lords, we need a different model which is gentle of heart but hard of head; not this praxis of disaster with our heads stuck in the ground.