New Zealand: tensions between Rome and the Bishops

New Zealand: tensions between Rome and the Bishops

John Kennedy OBE

This is the second of two articles on the state of the Church in New Zealand. The writer, John Kennedy OBE, was for 22 years editor of the country's national Catholic weekly, 'The Tablet.' Mr Kennedy examines ecumenism, relations between New Zealand's Catholic bishops and the Vatican, the priesthood and the incursions of feminism into seminary training.

A couple of years ago the Anglican Primate of New Zealand, Archbishop Brian Davis, told an Otago Daily Times interviewer that if the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops of New Zealand were left to themselves, they would come together in unity forthwith.

It was a highly significant statement, not only because of its source, but, even more, because of its implications. It has never been challenged by anyone from the Catholic side as misrepresenting the position of the Catholic bishops, though obviously it does. Indeed, it must for they have said repeatedly that their program on ecumenism is Rome's program. Yet, it is certainly not Rome's program to have unity with the Anglican communion willy-nilly.

It is good that relations between the two groups of bishops should be close but that good vanishes if the closeness is taken to suggest that they are at one on such vital matters as the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the exercise of papal authority, the Petrine Primacy, infallibility, the Marian dogmas and other major teachings or disciplines.

Probably it was felt that it would be unecumenical to make an issue of the statement by Archbishop Davis. But the incident is important in that it illustrates a point which is becoming more and more pronounced in the religious situation in New Zealand.

No longer distinctive

This is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the Roman Catholic Church apart from other mainline Churches. Catholicism is no longer seen as being in any way distinctive, as different, as making demands and advancing propositions on their intrinsic merit and not just because they may sound pleasing to modern secular society.

This fudging, if you like, is being reflected in various ways. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear people, even priests, say that they find the discipline on inter-communion "embarrassing", that it is "discourteous" and that one should not have to rebuff people of goodwill on such matters. For that to be able to happen, there has to have been a lessening of the traditional Catholic belief in, and reverence for the Eucharist. Moreover, it suggests a failure to realise that the Catholic belief in the Real Presence is at the heart of the matter. For what else, in most persecutions, did people throughout the centuries die, if not for the faith in the Mass and all it stood for?

This blurring of fundamental beliefs has come, alas, at a time when doubts have arisen in another area that is absolutely basic to Catholicism. That has to do with the position, power and personality of the Pope.

We forget that for many outside the Church the Pope is one of the distinctive things about our faith. No Protestant or pagan faith has anything like him. He is accepted by Catholics as the Vicar of Christ on earth, and his words, when he speaks ex cathedra, bind all with a mandate conferred by Christ himself.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes forgotten that the Pope has spoken ex cathedra only twice in the last 150 years, and both these pronouncements had to do with Marian dogmas.

The first Sunday in February this year saw Catholics being read what I suppose was the equivalent of a pastoral letter from the bishops. The catch, however, was that it was about a secular topic - the Treaty of Waitangi. One bishop, the Cardinal, had signed it on behalf of all Catholics, along with the leaders of seven other mainline religions.

The document's sentiments were worthy enough, but they certainly would not reflect the views of all the people for whom they purported to speak. In some respects it could probably have been stronger, but the trouble when eight religions try to speak with one voice is that individual faiths have to compromise. So the Gospel message of truth gets blurred.

A consequence of this is a growing doubt about authority. Who speaks for whom? And by what right? This is one of the problem areas in the Catholic Church here today as, more and more, traditional teaching, especially in difficult areas, such as personal morality, is challenged, or disciplines such as celibacy are attacked. The confusion is enhanced because of the reluctance of bishops to state the teaching of the Church firmly and without any equivocation.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, the classic example is the teaching so clearly pronounced in Pope Paul VI's great encyclical, Humanae Vitae. It is simply not being practised and materials published on it with the approval of most of the bishops leave loopholes you could fly a Starlifter through.

The bishops have a splendid record on abortion, but where contraception is concerned, they, and as a consequence, the priesthood, have sadly lagged over the years. The further consequence is that we have a falling Catholic birthrate and such absurdities as a diocese spending a million on a school for 70 children, if that, when it opens.

So it is not surprising that there are real tensions between Rome and the bishops. I alluded to them on a number of occasions in my latter years at The Tablet and was about as popular as a Gestapo captain at a bar mitzvah as a consequence. But the split is there, and it should be worrying every New Zealand Catholic.

I did not realise how deep it was until a few years ago the secretary of the Bishops' Conference, Bishop Cullinane, upraided me for being "too Roman". He was concerned at what he saw as my "obsessive" respect for the Pope. Not everything that came out of Rome was to be obeyed, he said. Rome was remote, Rome did not understand us culturally and so on.

This surfaced officially when, in their papal visit publication, the bishops referred to the Pope as primus inter pares - first among equals. That was withdrawn after the direct intervention of Rome. The Cardinal issued a correction in his diocese, the only bishop as far as I could find at the time to do so.

An article in the current issue of Zealandia, the Auckland diocesan monthly, neatly encapsulates the position. In it layman Des Swain assails the Curia and snidely puts John Paul II down, while those who urge the Church to hasten slowly and to apply the true spirit of Vatican II are written off as blind traditionalists opposed to the freedom and growth of the individual.

But the article is right in one respect. It says there are struggles on two fronts. The first is between "the Magisterium, the authority of the all-male, all-clerical hierarchy, and the freedom to make choices in conscience". The second is the "tension between the centralised government, the bureaucracy of Rome and its departments and the development (or redevelopment) of local Church."

The principal qualification needed to the statement is that a majority of the hierarchy are being apologetic about that "all-male, all-clerical" tag when instead they should be firmly reasserting their position as the teachers and fathers in God of their people.

The feminist thrust is very important in the Catholic Church here. The religious orders have capitulated to it almost entirely, save for a handful of orders such as the Little Sisters of the Poor - increasingly isolated and shunned by fellow religious - and the Carmelite nuns. There is in progress a major year-long inquiry into women's issues in the Church, funded by the orders, but having the backing and approval of the bishops.

But there is a silver lining to every cloud and, in the case of this inquiry, we have to thank it for having produced material on the national seminary in Mosgiel. Holy Cross College has been worrying many people for quite some time, especially since its emphasis shifted more to the academic and veered away from traditional priestly formation. The defection from the priesthood in recent years, notably in the Wellington Archdiocese, of recently ordained priests, is a matter which should be receiving the close attention of the bishops.

It is not easy to get material on what is happening in Mosgiel, but the submissions to the feminism commission produced a compelling statement from a former seminarian, Christopher J. Rodley. He spent more than four years at Holy Cross before being told he was unsuitable material for the priesthood because of his attitudes towards feminism - he had some questions - authority, which he believed should be obeyed, and the liturgy - he protested unauthorised departures. I know him personally; I view him as a man of calm, prudent judgement.

Points from his submission noted that during his third and fourth years "the running of the seminary was gradually altered as Masses were replaced by women's liturgies and students began to be confronted for not changing what were judged by some to be exclusive words in Scripture and liturgy. There were sometimes walkouts when a masculine term was not altered.

"Students were advised to explore the feminine feeling side of themselves, a side which their upbringing had taught them to inhibit. A few of us thought this to be a somewhat dangerous instruction, due to the problems being caused by certain fellows who had identified themselves as homosexuals.

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