Friday, 20 August 2010

Sturat Reid's Charterhouse column

The Catholic Herald - Stuart Ried - 20.8.2010

What a miserable place the Church is at the moment.  With less than a month to go before Pope Benedict XVI lands at Heathrow the bickering among excitable Catholics has reached almost frenzied proportions.
     Things are especially miserable in Birmingham, which will be the focus of attention when the Holy Father presides over the beatification of Cardinal Newman there on September 19.  Proximate cause of the misery is the removal from the Birmingham Oratory of Fr Philip Cleevely, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Brother Lewis Berry, together known as the Birmingham Three.
     Many Catholics will no doubt have heard of strange goings on in the Midlands, but very few will have anything but the vaguest idea what all the fuss is about.  In the blogosphere, however, rumours about the Birmingham Three have been flying about since May; howling indignation is accompanied by bizarre conspiracy theories.  Now the whole thing is about to go mainstream. 
     Next week Standpoint magazine will carry an article on the Birmingham Three by Ruth Dudley Edwards, a libertarian Irish atheist.  On the magazine's website Ms Dudley Edwards has promised to write "venomously about the scandalous way in which these men have been treated".  In consequence she now enjoys something like Guardian Angel status among some Catholics.
     More of Ms Dudley Edwards in a moment.  Let me first tell the story so far: the Birmingham Three were sent on indefinite leave in May following an official investigation into unhappiness at the Oratory.  Apparently there had been tensions for some time.  Earlier this year Fr Paul Chavasse was replaced as Provost by Fr Richard Duffield, from the Oxford Oratory.
     Since the expulsions, Catholic zealots have been creating a narrative of martyrdom.  The Birmingham Three, according to the narrative, were outspokenly orthodox men - especially on matters of sexual morality - and have been removed from the scene precisely because they were orthodox and might have caused embarrassment to the hierarchy by speaking out of turn during the Pope's visit.
     Now the Bishops of England and Wales are by no means above reproach, but their occasional equivocations and their reluctance to silence dissidents does not mean that they have embraced a Cherie Blair view of the Church.
     In some quarters, however, the hierarchy is thought to be so steeped in perfidy that our old friend, the Nazi analogy, is again being pressed into service.  A reader of one blog, for example, offered a "little history lesson" to all those who wanted to lead a peaceful life and keep quiet about the Birmingham Three: "Hitler took Sudetenland - we said nothing.  Hitler took Rhineland - we said nothing.  Hitler took Austria - we said nothing.  Hitler took Czechoslovakia - we said nothing.  Hitler took Poland - we realised there might be a bit of a problem.  Six years later six million Jews and millions of other innocent people had been murdered because we said nothing when we had the chance to.  Did we learn nothing from Hitler?... For the sake of our own freedom as Christians and that of our children we have the moral obligation to speak out and to act."
     Even the reputable Catholic Family News has clambered aboard the Nazi bandwagon by asking St Maximillion Kolbe to intercede on behalf of the Birmingham Three.  As CF News notes, St Maximillion, patron saint of political prisoners, "teaches us that we are called to give testimony to the truth and to the Light and to boldly oppose the dark powers that curse the radiance of Christ's love with tyranny, injustice and cruelty".  The dark powers are those ranged against the Birmingham Three - ie,  the bishops.
     Whether Ruth Dudley Edwards will take the Nazi route remains to be seen.  But her undertaking to write "venomously" suggests that she does not plan to walk the road of sunny moderation.  On the Standpoint blog last week she said that Jack Valero, spokesman for the Birmingham Oratory, had "confirmed unequivocally that the Three are entirely guiltless of any wrongdoing whatsoever, including, specifically, sexual misdemeanours or homophobia".  That sentence has been seized on by conspiracy-theorists as definitive, since in vindicates their view that the Birmingham Three are victims of gross injustice.  In some places the phrase "entirely guiltless" is now attributed to Jack Valero, whereas in truth it occurs as part of a summary by Ms Dudley Edwards of what Jack Valero said.
     Did he use exactly the words she uses in her summary?  It is possible, I suppose; but does it really matter?  Wrong-doing - moral turpitude - is not the only thing that can cause bad blood, and one can see how psych-social problems might easily arise among good, holy and perhaps sometimes pedantic men living together in a hierarchical community.
     At any rate Mr Valero has been consistent in this matter.  In the first place his concern was to avoid lewd speculation in the secular press by making it clear that no one involved in this case has been guilty of sexual impropriety - or any form of moral turpitude.  In the second place, his concern was to protect the right of the Oratory to handle its own affairs in private.  The Church is not a democracy, after all; it is not accountable.
     In the meantime, it was announced last week that Brother Lewis was being sent to Port Elizabeth in South Africa.  Poor soul, said some of the bloggers.  Excuse me?  Lucky blighter is more like it.  It's not as though he was being sent to Wolverhampton.  Port Elizabeth is a lovely place.  It has fabulous surfing beaches, and pretty soon it will be summer there.
     It's hard not to be flippant at times.  The Birmingham Three have clearly been unlucky and are perhaps the victims of circumstances.  The excitable Catholic bloggers are right to be worried about the state of the Church, but they seem inclined to believe rather too passionately not only in their own righteousness but in the wickedness of those they see as their opponents.  It is anyway dangerous to turn speculation into truth and to damn good people on the basis of what is no more than surmise.  It might be nice if we were all a bit less - look out, here comes the word - judgmental.