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January 2003


Into the Lyons Den

ELLEN FOX

A friend from the Portsmouth Diocese recently lamented that the diocese, like so many others in the country, is suffering from a lack of vocations to the priesthood. The editorial of the February 2002 edition of Christian Order offered insights into this problem - along with the solution - in one simple but proven equation, i.e. Orthodoxy = Vocations. Now, if orthodoxy equals vocations – and we have seen the success in other dioceses around the world, where some measure of orthodoxy has been restored - it follows as surely as night follows day that lack of orthodoxy equals lack of vocations. If we accept this proven equation, then we need to start paying very close attention to those who are directly responsible for the recruitment and formation of our future priests. One such person – whose loudly trumpeted views have been rather difficult to avoid of late – is Fr Ray Lyons, who is listed in the Catholic Directory as being a vocations director in the Portsmouth Diocese, and who regularly writes for Catholic papers and periodicals. He was formerly the executive secretary of the radical and controversial National Conference of Priests.

Fr Lyons was a keynote speaker at a colloquium titled "The Priest Shortage – Threat or Opportunity?" held at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday 27 April 2002. This colloquium was arranged by the People of God Trust, which is part of the dissident Catholics for a Changing Church group. A brief report was published in the Portsmouth diocesan newspaper "Portsmouth People" in June 2002. It would appear that a return to orthodoxy as a panacea for the decline in vocations was certainly not on the agenda, as the report stated that claims were made at this colloquium such as "clerical, hierarchical structures were stunting the fullness of growth and participation", and that Mellitus Lawlor, a woman who apparently runs a parish with no "resident ordained presider" in Hanwell, Middlesex, was reported to have given an "eloquent testimony" that "strengthened the conviction that full collaboration will need to topple gender asymmetry – the most glaring example of hierarchical clericalism – and allow women pastors". There is only one Catholic church in Hanwell listed in the Catholic Directory, which has three priests in residence, so I can only assume that the parish referred to is not Catholic.

The report also quoted the colloquium as being informed that: "The ordained cleric is no more in persona christi than are all Church members", and that "clerical celibacy should become optional. In time, this more communal fully representative model of ministry could allow an enriching gamut of ‘specialist’ callings, such as presiding over the Lord’s Supper . . ." The report stated that "the core arguments" of this meeting "were generally agreed upon". Another report of the same meeting, this time in the Catholic Women’s Ordination newsletter of June 2002, listed the names of those who spoke at this event, and revealed Fr. Lyons’ support for the ordination of women. It stated: "If they (the speakers) were all male except for a woman religious running a parish, this was because in the present situation the ordained in the RC Church are limited to this gender for the present, something openly lamented by all the speakers."

Dissident themes

Let us take at look at Fr Lyons’ recurring themes. Firstly, his view and treatment of orthodox Catholics. Fr Lyons appears to be mistaken in his belief that orthodox Catholics practice a sort of blind obedience, when he states:- "I am tired of being labelled as some kind of ‘fifth columnist’ by those individuals and groups within the Church who demand unquestioning and unthinking obedience to a sometimes flawed use of authority within the Church. Like many others, I refuse to accept their judgement. Becoming a victim of their narrow view of the Church and the Gospel is simply not an option . . ." (The Universe, Sunday 2nd June 2002)

I’m sure that most orthodox Catholics would agree that throughout history there have been, and continue to be, abuses of legitimate authority by individuals at every level in the Church. But because certain individuals fail in their duty does not mean that the whole system is wrong, or that it should be rejected. The same system has helped in the creation of many great saints! Terms such as "flawed use of authority in the Church" are very emotive and subjective and unless applied to specific incidents that can be proven, can safely be ignored. Dissident groups often lament "abuses of authority" in the Church, when what they mean is that they don’t accept the authority of the Church when it refuses to ordain women, approve sodomy, or jettison any other of its teachings in order to suit them.

Whining hypocrite

In the same article, Fr Lyons went on to say:- "I may not agree with some peoples’ or groups’ view of what it is to be Church. I may consider it narrow and restrictive, but I maintain and defend their right to believe it. I only ask the same in return". This platitude about maintaining and defending others’ rights while disagreeing with them sounds like the epitome of tolerance, but the following incident reveals a very different picture – one of monstrous hypocrisy.

Fr Lyons was present at a meeting that took place in Portsmouth Cathedral Hall on Saturday 25th September 1999, titled "A Day for Catechists – Renewal", featuring Dr Kevin Treston as the keynote speaker. Dr Treston has written several books on catechesis, in which he is quite open about his rejection of key areas of Catholic doctrine. He made this rejection very evident during the talk, and when some of those present politely questioned Dr Treston about some of the dissenting statements he was making, Fr Lyons launched into a virulent attack on those who were trying to defend Catholic teaching, shouting that he had "had enough of the thought police in the front row" and that they were "the dying embers of a Church I want nothing to do with". One woman pointed out that the concerned Catholics had only spoken when invited to, and although they strongly disagreed with what Dr Treston was saying, had remained courteous at all times. She asked if everyone could listen to each other with tolerance, but Fr Lyons remained very angry and continued to shout at them. At the end of the day, when they left the building, Fr Lyons again shouted at these people, calling them "whitened sepulchres". If this is how Fr Lyons maintains and defends peoples’ right to their beliefs, then Lord help those who he wishes to undermine. If there was a flawed use of authority here, it was that Bishop Crispian Hollis allowed a man who openly rejects key Catholic doctrines to speak on Catholic premises in his diocese, but Fr Lyons apparently had no problem with this.

Fr Lyons often exhorts people to rise up and speak out against injustice, but appears to be very selective in who he thinks should speak out, and what injustices they should speak out against. An example of this is when he fulminated against those Catholics who complain to the Vatican about abuses in this country, accusing them of "sending anonymous and often inaccurate reports on individuals to what they regard as the corporate HQ in Rome". He goes on to say "unfortunately, instead of returning them to the sender, the mandarins play their game. Together they tackle, even foul, their fellow team members instead of tackling those who attack the Church from outside". (The Universe, Sunday 30th June 2002)

It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would take any notice of "anonymous" reports, and if a report were found to be "inaccurate" it would therefore be discredited and ignored, so Fr Lyons needn’t worry about such things. If there are indeed any "anonymous" or "inaccurate" reports received by Rome, there must be many more accurate reports of abuses received, to which people have put their names. Conveniently, Fr Lyons prefers not to differentiate between alleged "anonymous and inaccurate" reports, and factual reports of legitimate grievances from orthodox Catholics.

In making a blanket suggestion that the Vatican should ignore complaints, he also resorts to the sort of clericalist mentality – i.e. treating the laity with disdain and ignoring their genuine concerns - that he claims to despise in others. Once again, divine admonitions about "whited sepulchres" spring to mind.

Closet Clericalist

But this brings us to "clericalism" - the second theme about which Fr Lyons is so concerned. At this stage, should Fr Lyons think that I might be giving an "inaccurate report" of his views on this matter, I will restrict myself to direct quotes from his column. Of course, in using quotes, one always runs the risk of being accused of selectively quoting out of context, but I think when one sees what has been written, no orthodox Catholic will be able to find any context in which such statements would be acceptable:-

"Instead of creating a radical alternative to pagan/worldly models of authority, we have taken them on wholesale. We have then overlaid them with bogus claims of divine intention, making them inviolable. But they should be fundamentally questioned. Indeed, let’s eject all such authority models from the Church and the clerical culture that feeds on them." (The Universe, Sunday 14th July 2002)

"Although the 1985 Code (of Canon Law) recognises the inherent dignity of all the baptised it still carefully maintains a clerical control of power and authority in the Church. If we are to move forward as a Church then we need to re-balance the centre of authority within the Church. No longer can all authority be vested in the tiny minority of the Church who happen to be ordained. Other men and women who exercise ministry within our Catholic community have to have authority to enable them to enact the gospel precepts of justice, peace and compassion." (The Universe, Sunday 21st July 2002)

"It gives me no pleasure as a priest at the start of the third Christian millennium to say that it is hard to over-estimate the sin of clericalism that still besets the modern Church. It is so deeply ingrained in our Church’s psyche that despite the teachings of Vatican Two it seems highly resistant to treatment . . . " (The Universe, Sunday 15th September 2002)

"Unhealthy clericalism is also uncomfortably evident among seminarians and recently ordained priests who seek security in so-called certainties of a past era where the collar gave position and status in a fast-changing world . . ." (The Universe, Sunday 15th September 2002)

"Clericalism is a system, deeply embedded in our structures and Canon Law, whereby all Church decisions are the sole preserve of its ordained members. Allowing ourselves to be called Father, My Lord, Your Grace and Your Eminence is the most prevalent manifestation of this systemic sin. Excessive reliance, and even deference to, a centralised curia are the logical and most serious consequence of such a tendency . . ." (The Universe, Sunday 15th September 2002)

"Clericalism and patronage ignore the radical Gospel equality of Baptism in favour of a hierarchical order based on the "ordained" versus the "non-ordained" – not my terms but those of a recent Vatican paper disingenuously describing the 99 per cent-plus who enjoy the dignity of baptism but are not in ordained ministry . . ." (The Universe, Sunday 15th September 2002)

"Both laity and clergy frequently buy into this monopoly of power, consciously or unconsciously. In effect, the authority given by Jesus to the Church, through Peter, to open the gates of the Kingdom to others has been subverted into a clerical power structure . . ." (The Universe, Sunday 15th September 2002)

Papal Bogeyman

Fr Lyons’ third theme is his relentless attacks on the Roman Curia. Again, I will refrain from comment and just let Father do the talking:

"But do we have an over-dominant institution? Has an ‘unconstitutional’ and centralising curia, by misuse of rapid modern communications, emasculated the successors of the Apostles in their local church? Do they interfere at a local level, treating bishops as mere functionaries rather than as principal collaborators with the Pope in the Universal Church? Has the Mystical Communion become little more than a corporate body where HQ simply tells ‘branch managers’ what to think and say? What has happened to creative dialogue, the only process by which real communion can be built to enrich any organisation."

(The Universe, Sunday 14th July 2002)

"Over the past two decades there have also been far too many cases of theologians, priests and religious, who have tried to engage in the ancient and traditional process of debate, being silenced."

(The Universe, Sunday 14th July 2002)

"Far too many people today feel the Church seems much too concerned with adherence to law above the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus himself. Canon Law and personal moral standards are too often put above principles Jesus himself gave us. A blind, even benign, attitude of pandering to such narrow and pharisaical attitudes seems to pervade parts of the Church. At the same time the radical edge of the Gospel is often ridiculed, silenced by authority, and declared unorthodox, even heretical. Its proponents are refused the right to debate the received wisdom currently accepted by those who exercise authority in the Church today. One of the most heinous sins now besetting our Church is that mandarins who staff the Congregations of the Holy See have personal and internal Church politics as their primary agenda. They are not interested in the common good, but in the good of their cause!"

(The Universe, Sunday 23rd June 2002)

"Under the present Congregation for Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, the priority seems to be re-establishing a mythical central control over the language and rubrics."

(The Universe, Sunday 19th May 2002)

"Perhaps the most serious defect of (Pope John Paul II’s) papal policy has been the relentless advance in the power of the Roman Curia over the rights of the Bishops. This is a tragedy, because Vatican II is widely seen as having restored a proper balance of power following an exaggerated papacy in the aftermath of Ultramontanism and the unfinished Vatican I. To the average Catholic, the technocrats and civil servants of the Church seem more important than the Holy Spirit’s chosen successors to the apostles. The truth came out in the row following the Synod of Oceania debacle when elements of the Curia claimed to be ‘the chief collaborators’ with the Pope in running the Church. Wrong, wrong, wrong…!"

(The Universe, Sunday 19th May 2002)

An article in the national Catholic Life magazine saw Fr Lyons calling for major reform of seminary tradition. This article reported that Fr Lyons had, in his weekly column in The Universe, called for a radical overhaul of the present arrangement and questioned whether residential seminaries have a future at all. (Catholic Life July 2002)

In view of all the quotes above – made by Fr Lyons himself – one has to question the wisdom of permitting him to remain as a Vocations Director in the Portsmouth Diocese. There is already a dearth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in that beleaguered diocese, along with undue influence on priestly formation by radical dissenting feminists like Ms Vicky Cosstick – an influence that is fully sanctioned by Bishop Hollis (see Christian Order January 2002). What chance do young men have of a proper priestly formation under such impossible circumstances, being "supervised" by the likes of Ms Cosstick and her friends, and having the Roman Curia undermined by a Vocations Director – the very man who should be inculcating in them a sense of loyalty and devotion to the Holy See? Many fear that the situation will continue to worsen until Fr Lyons is removed from this influential post. Let us pray that will happen sooner rather than later.

And if Father feels a little downcast after reading this, I have a snippet of news that will no doubt cheer him up. The dissident We Are Church group, which openly rejects many areas of Catholic teaching on faith and morals, has posted a piece on its website proclaiming that Fr Lyons’ articles in The Universe are "recommended reading"! Enough said.