In this must read column Deacon Nick Donnelly argues the double standards being applied by bishops to dissenting Catholics and faithful Catholics is not only undermining the obedience of faith that should bind us all together, but is also harming the relationship between faithful clergy and laity with their bishops. What is at stake is the sacred communion of the Church and the obligation of the obedience of faith.  

I had no doubts during my formation as a permanent deacon that I had a vocation to serve our Lord and His Church as an ordained minister. The only time I had doubtswas just prior to, and during, my candidacy retreat —which in my diocese occurs towards the end of formation and is when the bishop finally decides to accept men for ordination or not. The reason for my moment of hesitation was the realisation that by accepting to be ordained I would have to make a promise before God, and His people, to be obedient to my bishop and to his, unknown successors.  During the rite of ordination clergy make the following declaration, kneeling before their bishop, their hands placed in his hands as an act of submission and fealty; then the bishop asks ‘Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors? And we must answer, ‘I do’. 


I was very aware that I was surrendering something very precious to me, my freedom to act and speak as I judged best. My freedom was not something that I could give away lightly. Others attempted to reassure me that bishops take seriously the fact that priests and deacons entrust their freedom to them, and would never ask me to do something wrong or demand that I act against my conscience informed by the doctrine and discipline of the Church. Two things occurred during my candidacy retreat that helped me overcome my reservations and decide to freely make the promise of obedience:


Jesus entrusts His freedom to the Father


I reflected on the gospel accounts of Jesus’agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and one sentence in particularly, “Andimg 0497 going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Mt 26:39). Our Lord gave me the grace to realise that by accepting obedience I was imitating Jesus and participating, in my small and weak way, in the obedience of the Son to the Father. Obedience is essential to the relationships of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit Therefore, obedience in the Church should be first and foremost about building up and sustaining relationships, our relationships with each other and God, our relationship with Divine Truth and love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the fundamental role of obedience to the Christian life:


‘"Although he was a Son, [Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered." How much more reason have we sinful creatures to learn obedience - we who in him have become children of adoption. We ask our Father to unite our will to his Son's, in order to fulfil his will, his plan of salvation for the life of the world. We are radically incapable of this, but united with Jesus and with the power of his Holy Spirit, we can surrender our will to him and decide to choose what his Son has always chosen: to do what is pleasing to the Father.’(CCC 2825).


The obedience of faith is an obligation on all


images2The other insight that helped me accept making the promise of obedience was the realisation that every member of the Church is bound by the obedience of faith. St Paul writes about the essential role of the obedience of faith to the nature of the Church, and especially to the role of apostles and their successors, the bishops (Romans 1:5). The Catechism explains the fundamental role of the obedience of faith:


“Our moral life has its source in faith in God who reveals his love to us. St. Paul speaks of the "obedience of faith”as our first obligation. He shows that "ignorance of God" is the principle and explanation of all moral deviations.Our duty toward God is to believe in him and to bear witness to him. The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it.”(CCC 2087-2088).


The essential role of the obedience of faith in the life of bishops and clergy is further enshrined in the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity, which we solemnly profess and sign before ordination and assuming office in the Church, part of which explicitly states:


“In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it. I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.”


Guarantees that the promise of obedience is not abused


Obedience works in the Church when the bishops respect this delicate network of obedience, with its checks and balances, to which they must submit when they exercise authority. Clearly bishops should only expect obedience from clergy and laity within the context of their own submission to the obedience of faith. Bishops should not expect or seek to impose blind obedience to the diktat of their own personal agendas, tastes and preferences. The ultimate guarantee that enables us to entrust our freedom to bishops is Jesus’solemn command to the apostles and their successors:


“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Mark 10:42-45).


For all these reasons I felt reassured that I could go ahead and entrust my freedom to my bishop and his successors. This has meant that I have obeyed my bishop and his successor to honour my promise of obedience and respect his office as my bishop.


However, over the eleven years since my ordination I have witnessed some bishops behaving in ways that I cannot square with the Church’s ecclesiology of obedience. It appears that there are bishops who apply different standards in their exercise of authority. On the one hand they seem patient and lax in their approach towards dissenting clergy and laity who flout the obedience of faith and on the other they are impatient and severe in their approach to faithful clergy and laity who live by the obedience of faith. 


The state of obedience in Ireland


Diarmuid Martin World Economic Forum 2013An increasing number of faithful Catholics in Ireland are responding to the imperative to defend the sanctity of life of unborn babies against the threat of them being murdered through abortion. At some personal cost these pro-life Catholics are obeying Pope St John Paul II’s call to defend the sanctity of life of unborn babies. The Holy Father re-iterated the Church’s perennial teaching that “we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), translating this to mean in our generation, ‘in the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it”’(EV 73). 


However, the contrast between the bishops’exercise of authority over Catholics on the issue of abortion couldn’t be starker. No bishop has publicly challenged or criticised Enda Kenny or other Catholic politicians for promoting and legalising abortion, but a bishop has publicly criticised the Irish pro-life movement, unfairly caricaturing them as strident and unreasonable. Donal McKeown, the Bishop of Derry, is reported as dressing down pro-life campaigners, ‘You can't hate people into loving life’, and ‘screaming at one another is not acceptable from people who are pro-life’. Though ready to unjustly criticise pro-life Catholics we are still waiting for Bishop McKeown’s response to the Mater Hospital and other Catholic hospitals publicly agreeing to co-operate with Kenny’s immoral abortion law.


Archbishop Diarmuid Martin appears ready to criticise priests for defending the doctrines of the Church, but less willing to directly challenge those priests who publicly dissent from the doctrines of the Faith. In a speech his Excellency referred to a young curate as representing “a very conformist and closed Catholicism”. The reason for Archbishop Martin’s opprobrium was that the young priest had confided to his parish priest that he was not “at all happy with some things”Pope Francis had said, because he felt that the Holy Father’s words “were not in line with what he had learned in the seminary”. The curate also observed that Pope Francis was “making the faithful insecure and even encouraging those who do not hold the orthodox Catholic beliefs to challenge traditional teaching.”Archbishop Martin accused the young curate, and Catholics like him, of being fearful and insecure, of being “trapped in traditions without fully realising it”.


By contrast, faithful Catholics are still waiting to hear Archbishop Martin’s response to one of his own priests publicly declaring from the pulpit that he was a homosexual and that he intended to vote for so called same-sex “marriage”. Fr Martin Dolan not only publicly repudiated the Irish bishops’defence of marriage he also later used the media to directly challenge doctrine over homosexuality after the same sex “marriage” referendum. The Irish Times reports that the Dublin priest took issue with archbishop’s comments that the Catholic Church needed a new language in light of the vote in favour of so called same-sex "marriage", “With great respect, it is not a new language that we need but a new way of being and living.”


The state of obedience in England


cardinal nicholsTwo events have recently taken place in England that raise questions about the exercise of episcopal authority, suggesting that different standards are being applied to dissenting Catholics and faithful Catholics. Simply put, bishops avoid challenging dissenting Catholics, but act decisively to impose their personal agendas and preferences on faithful Catholics.

During the months of May and June the English Church was faced by the scandal that Dr Tina Beattie, Director of Catholic Studies, Roehampton University, organised and signed an Open Letter to the Polish Bishops demanding early, safe and legal abortions of disabled babies.


Evidence also emerged that Dr Beattie supports abortion on demand during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. Over 5,000 people signed a petition that Dr Beattie be removed from her position as a theological adviser to CAFOD, an agency of the Bishops’Conference. Cardinal Nichols did obliquely touch upon the scandal during his homily for the Polish Catholics in England during which he defended the sanctity of life, but without mentioning the Open Letter to the Polish Bishops’by name. Despite all the evidence that Dr Beattie held a pro-abortion position, and despite the petition and letters and phone calls, CAFOD’s episcopal trustees, Bishop John Arnold and Bishop John Sherrington, decided to retain Dr Beattie’s services as a theological adviser. 


In contrast to the bishops’decision not to uphold the obedience of faith regarding Dr Beattie, Cardinal Nichols acted quickly and publicly in the month of July.  The event that inspired His Eminence to act so decisively was Cardinal Sarah’s address to the Sacra Liturgia Conference held in London. The Prefect of the Congregation for Sacred Worship tentatively suggested that priests consider celebrating Mass ad orientem, the tradition of facing East during the Eucharistic canon. Cardinal Sarah did not issue a directive or an instruction, he merely asked priests to consider pastorally if the time was right to re-introduce a perennial liturgical practice that is legally allowed.


Cardinal Nichols was quick to issue a letter to the priests of his archdiocese that sought to discourage them from following Cardinal Sarah's advice. He cautioned priests that the celebration of the Mass was not the time to “exercise personal preference or taste”. To support his rebuttal of Cardinal Sarah's recommendation the Archbishop of Westminster quoted from the most authoritative reference of Catholic liturgy:


"the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, approved by the highest authority in the Church, states in paragraph 299 that ‘The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the centre toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated."


However, this English translation of the original Latin of the General Instruction is disputed by many respected liturgical experts who claim GIRM 299 states that moving the altar apart from the wall is 'desirable wherever possible', not celebrating the Mass 'facing the people'. This understanding of GIRM 299 was confirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2002 (Prot. No 2036/00/L). 


What is remarkable is that Cardinal Nichols not only acted immediately to challenge the Church’s chief liturgist but he was not reticent in naming Cardinal Sarah in his letter of repudiation to priests. Again, the contrast between his handling of Dr Beattie’s support for abortion and Cardinal Sarah’s legitimate suggestions about ad orientem couldn’t be starker.


The double standards being applied by bishops to dissenting Catholics and faithful Catholics is not only undermining the obedience of faith that should bind us all together, but is also harming the relationship between faithful clergy and laity with their bishops. What is at stake is the sacred communion of the Church and the obligation of the obedience of faith.