AND HE SAID, ‘MARY’
If, as they say, a week is a long time in politics, it is doubly true of the contemporary Catholic Church in Britain. A lot can happen in seven days, let alone throughout an entire year. It can thus be a risky business predicting that an event which transpires in January will certainly constitute the major Catholic news story of the coming twelve months bar none. Yet when, in the early weeks of this year, news broke about Rome ordering Bishop Peter Smith of East Anglia to remove the Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from Clare Richards’ book Roman Catholic Christianity, there was never any doubt as to its pre-eminent significance in 1998. A Cardinal might take a wife, several English bishops might step out in full masonic regalia, but whatever scandals awaited us in the coming year none were going to overshadow the fact and manner of Bishop Smith’s humiliating backdown; nothing was going to lay bare as rudely the de-facto schismatic state of the English Church.
That being the case, the virtual wall of silence which enfolded the major news item of ’98 was wholly predictable. It began with Bishop Smith’s furtive ‘public’ statement (initially uncovered by Internet browsers), quickly followed by desperate private pleas and/or directives from Mrs Richards and the Bishop which yielded them an acceptable lack of headlines and debate in the docile "Catholic" press. In other words, under the pathetic pretext of shielding Clare from public scrutiny, the episcopal media machine gave a cursory nod to this pivotal affair before shutting down the no holds barred debate it merited.
Yet, clearly, this damage limitation exercise was never concerned with protecting Clare Richards from "hurtful" criticism. It was all about saving face: for Bishop Smith and his predecessor Bishop Alan Clarke (who originally issued the Imprimatur) in particular, and the episcopate in general. It was to do with evading, as far as possible in the damning circumstances, the decisive question posed by Elizabeth Morrow in her masterly expose of the Richards saga in the November 1996 Christian Order: "Do the Catholic Bishops of England no longer believe the teachings of the Catholic Church?" Mrs Richards herself, as Morrow documented, claims they do not. This latest development has surely confirmed her assessment way beyond any reasonable doubt.
Right from the start, a stream of ordinary Catholics without the benefit of His Lordship’s theological and legal training had recognised and pointed out to him, usually in great detail, Richards’ open disaffection for the Church and her rejection or undermining of Catholic teaching on Original Sin, Baptism, the Real Presence, the Sacrament of Penance, Marriage, et. al. Specialists of the calibre of the late Canon Ripley had written about the unprecedented number of "errors, falsehoods, misrepresentations and inexactitudes" coursing through Richards’ book. In his review of the booklet Roman Catholic Christianity: The Facts They Don’t Want You To Know, the hierarchy’s biblical expert, Fr. John Redford, had accepted that Roman Catholic Christianity "fails to explain, even affirm, many fundamental Catholic doctrines" (duly listing 11 such ‘failures’ which left precious little Catholic doctrine at all!). In no mood for finessing, Fr Crane had concluded in his November 1996 editorial that it was "crystal clear to anyone with a modicum of Catholic faith that Mrs Richards, her books and her new religion have no place in the True Church, let alone on its payroll!" And yet, despite all that, it took no less an authority than the Vicar of Christ and his Congregation for the Clergy to win the argument; to drag this confused and obstinate prelate kicking and screaming into the realms of commonsense Catholic orthodoxy.
The resentful, non serviam tone of Bishop Smith’s compliance with the Vatican directive and his ongoing defence of the indefensible – especially his impossible claim that a serial dissenter "remains in good standing with the Church" - is all on display in his official statement and the accompanying notification to his peers. Reprinted herein, this astonishing document is an object lesson in false-charity and an abdication of the Bishop’s God-given "authority (cf. Mt 7:29), [which] grace is given to him so that he can confirm the Faith of the disciples and correct their errors ‘in season and out’ (2 Tim 4:2)".(1) In sum, it positively embodies that spirit of schism long attributed to the English hierarchy by this magazine and never more pointedly so than in Fr Crane’s above-mentioned editorial. Largely dedicated to the Richards affair, readers may wish to reacquaint themselves with that November 1996 edition while assessing Smith’s reaction for themselves (bearing in mind, too, that he once oversighted the formation of our future priests at Wonersh Seminary!).
It is especially sobering to ponder all of this as we prepare to celebrate Easter, since the woman Bishop Smith has championed to his early episcopal grave does not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. In her essay Behind the Clare Richards Saga, Elizabeth Morrow contrasts Mrs Richards’ view of the Resurrection with St Paul’s definitive assessment that "… if Christ be not risen again, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is also in vain" (1 Cor. 15:14)." Asked during a television discussion on Easter Sunday 1996 whether such Gospel miracles as the Resurrection are true or merely fairy stories, Mrs Richards responded: "… does it really matter?" Well, if the cornerstone of the Catholic faith doesn’t really matter all that much to Mrs Richards, then I guess her former pupils - the ones Bishop Smith believes "will have much to thank her for" - are of similar mind. In which case, based on St Paul’s understanding, their "faith is vain" and they are now easy prey for Protestant and New Age sects.
Magdalene must be weeping anew. For when "Jesus said to her, Mary" (Jn 20:16), it was not the disembodied voice of some fantastic hologram, conjured up to alleviate her grief, which greeted her. It was, in fact, a foretaste of that ineffable Reality which finally awaits those blessed "who have not seen, and yet have learned to believe" (Jn 20:29); a personal, physical encounter with the risen Lord. May the special Graces flowing from that same glorified body during this Easter Time pierce the accursed veil of pride which blinds the dissenters and their sponsoring prelates, and in His infinite mercy may Christ heal the scars of doubt and unbelief they have etched on the souls of His little ones.
(1) John Paul II's exhortation to the Australian Bishops on their 1993 Ad Limina