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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 3 Michaelmas 2004
Celebrating 20 Years - 1984-2004

View from Britain
Bishops and CARITAS


by Joanna Bogle 

Watching episcopal bureaucracy at work, one is irresistibly reminded of scenes from the British TV series "Yes Minister". It is so easy for the paid bureaucrats to be able to run rings around the man nominally in authority, especially when it is known that he might be subjected to heavy public controversy if he takes a clear and principled stand.

A comparative newcomer to the bureaucracy scene in Britain is CARITAS -- not the long-established international organization through which charitable aid is sometimes directed in times of natural disaster -- but a relatively new agency of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales which, confusingly, has been given the same name.

The Catholic Faith is a glorious truth that is the same throughout the world, but bishops in Africa, Asia, and the Americas will surely be bemused to learn that one of their brothers here in England -- acting as spokesman for an agency called CARITAS, no less! -- has taken it upon himself to announce that parents should be legally punished for smacking naughty children.

Unless this confused bishop is going to claim some sort of national and cultural superiority for the line he has taken, he has some complicated explaining to do, as in taking his stance he opposes the whole approach to child-rearing that has been taken by our Church, across the globe and down the ages. Today, and every day, children in Catholic families and schools across America, Africa, Asia and most of Europe will be smacked if they are naughty, just as children in Catholic homes and schools have been for centuries. But in England, in a shrinking church where young people are the most noticeable absentees from the pews and from active Catholic life, a Catholic bishop speaks out to impose legal penalties on Catholic parents who use their parental authority in this traditional, loving, and normal way.

Of course the good bishop is not really speaking for himself. A glance at the CARITAS statement tells us that he is speaking in the jargon that organization provided: announcing that as adults cannot be physically punished, nor should children be. But this is nonsense, and he must know it. Adults are not subjected to being passed around as newborn babies are, for cooing and cuddles from strangers, nor are they dressed in uniforms and sent off for lessons in algebra and French and geography against their will, or tossed in the air by energetic uncles on family visits, or made to dance in circles singing repetitive songs. (Oops -- make an exception about that last one -- it is sometimes imposed on adults at gatherings organized by liturgical "experts").

The point is that this poor bishop isn't an expert on child care, and he knows he isn't. He was put in charge of CARITAS, and when faced with all their arguments about smacking (they are part of a lobby group on the subject) he found himself going along with it all. Actually, he speaks with no authority on the subject, since the authority he carries comes when he speaks as a bishop upholding the teachings of the Church, and on this subject the Church does not support his point of view. So his opinions do not really matter -- any more than they matter when he proclaims a preference for his favorite cake or his personal choice of holiday destination. But his experience with CARITAS is nevertheless instructive. He has dug himself into a hole and it is going to be rather difficult for him to be extricated.

The Catechism is of help here in establishing the real Catholic teaching on this subject. After stating that Catholic parents have a duty to create a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity and a spirit of service are the rule, it goes on to quote Scripture: "He who loves his son will not spare the rod.... He who disciplines his son will profit by him". This does not mean that Catholics have an absolute duty to use physical punishment -- the "rod" could presumably be interpreted in a wider and more general sense to mean various sorts of discipline -- but it most emphatically means that no Catholic bishop has any authority to ban it completely.

Our bishops do need to get a grip on their bureaucracy. The recent travesty of the Day for Life showed an even worse example of the nonsense to which they are being subjected. Following a request from Rome, the bishops of England and Wales announced that one Sunday in the year would be a Day for Life. But the 2004 event was a non-event. The material produced did not mention abortion or euthanasia. The official reason given was that the theme for this year was "families" -- and apparently families include no pregnant mothers or unborn babies, no sick or frail people, no vulnerable elderly. So abortion and euthanasia are irrelevant to families.

The good bishop (not the same one as speaks for CARITAS) who chaired the Committee on this subject was put in a bind. Not one pro-life group was represented on it nor were they in any way consulted about the material being produced. Instead, the committee was dominated by people with no specific interest in pro-life issues -- including salaried staff employed by CARITAS, and the Bishops Conference.

An excellent item for the planned Day for Life brochure was produced by the Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics -- but this was rejected, to the obvious embarrassment and distress of the presiding bishop. The Linacre contribution had included, among other things, a useful summary of the Church's teaching against the artificial creation of life using in-vitro techniques. The committee was told that this teaching would be offensive to childless couples. When I spoke up, as a childless woman, saying that I found the Church's teaching wise and helpful, I was ignored.

In the end, the Day for Life brochure consisted largely of material on topics such as migration and foster-parenting, together with (the biggest item) promotion of "Listening 2004", a CARITAS social justice project aimed at families -- and on which a great deal of promotional material has been pushed at parishes.

"Listening 2004" is a plan for parish groups extending over several weeks. Each session consists of a prayer service and a "listening session" with a set of questions for the discussion, and some printed prayers. Here is a sample:

"This year every Catholic diocese has set aside a special day to listen to you and other families in your area. You can help to shape this day by responding to the questions in the Listening 2004 leaflet.

"Why? Sharing our difficulties, our blessings and our hopes will help us all to see more clearly what we can do together, with God's help, to build a stronger future for families, at home, in the wider community and in our church".


A typical prayer from one section conveys the flavor of these sessions:
"Lord God, you are Father and Mother to us.

"Our life begins in you.
"You chose to make your home among us.
"Bless this home, and your people who live here.
"Be here today, as you were yesterday.
"Be here tomorrow. Be our shelter, our walls to protect us.
"Be our windows; let us see the world through you.
"Be our warmth, to share with all who come in and go out.
"This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen."

As a result the confusion, the Day for Life brochure was, of course, ignored and left untouched at the back of churches across Britain: about now the last ones will have been thrown away, unread like all the others.

We need to let our bishops know that volunteers are available who will, for free, help them in the production of pastorally useful material, and in other tasks relating to their work.

We don't need an "agency" that tells them what to say about disciplining children, or indeed about a good many other everyday matters belonging to the life and work of the Catholic laity. Indeed, on some subjects they don't need to say anything at all, as there are social, political, and family matters that can be tackled by the laity.

There are rich resources available within our Catholic community, with people deeply and passionately involved in many worthwhile groups, ranging from movements such as Opus Dei to pro-life groups, and similar organizations.

These are the people that do the work of passing on the Faith. Bishops, whose job is to safeguard that Faith for us, need to be aware of and make use of this human resource at their fingertips. The bishops might be surprised to find that this can be far more productive than responding to the usual lobby groups.

Joanna Bogle, Voices contributing editor, lives in London, is active in Catholic movements in England, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television. Mrs. Bogle was featured on EWTN radio's "Catholic Heritage" series. Excerpts from A Book of Feasts and Seasons (1988) appear on several pages of the Prayers and Devotions section on our web site.

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