Thursday 27 December 2012

What's in a name?

While I am glad that a number of bishops are now speaking out in support of the Church's teaching on marriage, I have been a little surprised that it is this issue that has fired them up.  There are any number of issues that, shall we say, have not necessarily been highlighted and defended with all the vigour that could be brought to bear.  Not all our bishops have been fired up for all areas of the Church's teaching - from morals to liturgy.

However, that aside, in the reporting over Christmas one (of my many) pet peeves has been rubbed up the wrong way.  Again and again the TV news and the print media refer to Archbishop Nichols as the "Head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales"( eg the Guardian) or "the Leader of the Country's Roman Catholics".  Of course, he is not and I'm sure would not lay claim to such a title. He is one of the Archbishops whose sees cover the capital and because the UK is covered by more than one hierarchy, he is not even the senior cleric, as at this point in time he has not been elevated to the cardinalate   It may be that the Archbishop of Westminster has a a higher profile by virtue of being in the capital and that he is usually a cardinal; he may chair the meetings of the Bishop's Conference of England and Wales.  For all these reasons, we might expect a certain leadership from whoever occupies the see of Westminster.  However, he has no direct control over any other diocese than his own; he not the CEO of the various provincial branches of a company, as if the diocese of Liverpool were a regional branch of Tesco. He cannot lead any diocese other than his own anywhere.  (as a Metropolitan he has certain oversight duties over his province in very limited ways - not the whole country and Westminster is not a Primatial See - and even if he were, Canon 438 makes it clear that the title of "Primate gives a prerogative of honour, but in the latin Church does not carry with it any power of governance").  If someone had a complaint against the bishop in their own diocese, they cannot take it to the Archbishop of Westminster.  If they cannot resolve it with their own bishop then the next level of authority is is in Rome with the appropriate Congregation representing the Holy Father.

Each bishop is a successor of the Apostles and apart from Peter, none was marked out with any governance over the others.  It is, I think, another ill-effect resulting from the rise to prominence of bishop's conference within each nation state - making national churches in some countries think of themselves as semi-autonomous bodies from the wider universal Church.  Although in the United Kingdom we have three hierarchies - which again militate against referring to the Archbishop of Westminster as "Head" or "Leader".   In fact, the only Primate, who would therefore have a prerogative of honour, resides in Northern Ireland, as the Primate of all Ireland. At this point in time Scotland has a Cardinal - again who could with more legitimacy have a leadership role ascribed to him.  While obviously some collective approach within a country can have uses at a practical level, the primacy of the Bishop's Conference mentality has robbed the individual bishop of the power to act alone; it appears to have made individual bishops beholden to the national conference instead of to the wider Church, to Rome, to the Holy Father or even to their own flock.  They must issue a statement through the bishop's conference and inevitably, in getting 20+ individual bishops to agree to something, the statement has to be a compromise and is watered down or policy making is farmed out to committees, who again would have to have an eye to keeping everyone on-board.  The "Leader" or "Head" in any diocese is only the bishop of that diocese.


Anonymous said...

Thomas, Cardinal Winning when referred to as "head" or "leader" of the Scottish Catholic Church would always say the Catholic Church has only one head, that is Jesus Christ.

Popes have always claimed merely to be Christ's Vicar on Earth, never his replacement, that seems to be something Protestants want, with title like "Supreme Governor of the Church" at one end or "Church Leader" at the other end.

Genty said...

Father, If all the bishops were fully signed-up members of the teaching of the Catholic Church, they wouldn't have to compromise or water down their statements.
Just my tuppence-worth.

Sixupman said...


Have the bishops not subsumed their individual authority and duty to the confounded bishops' conference?

Ttony said...

Father, the Bull Si Quia Est of 1911 said that the Archbishop of Westminster was Praeses Perpetuus of the Church in England and Wales. Even if this was superseded by the establishment of the CBCEW (was it, by the way?) the fact that the Church never bothered to inform the world at large that the status quo had been changed in this regard makes the problem Eccleston Square's, rather than that of the Press.

Ttony said...

I don't think a statement like this in the Catholic Herald works as a statement that all has changed.

GOR said...

Yes Father, the debilitating effect of bishops’ conferences on the role, responsibility and authority of individual bishops has been discussed for some time – not least by the current Holy Father some 27 years ago!

So if an individual bishop’s role has become confused (invisible, in some cases…) for the faithful, it’s not surprising that the secular world also gets it wrong. When, to most outward appearances, the hierarchies act like business corporations, it is not to be wondered that people come to regard them as such.

Not quite the impression St. Paul would have allowed some time ago!

Anonymous said...


I am aware that His Grace Patrick Kelly is currently recovering from a stroke (I am praying for his health) but I am not aware that the Apostolic Administrator, acting in his stead, has said anything on the subject of the sanctity of marriage. Of course I may be wrong.

Having heard the sermon broadcast at Midnight Mass - one might have thought that Archbishop Kelly had written it as it seemed very much to be in his own inimitable style.

Does Bishop Williams, as the Aposotlic Administrator, have the authority or the ability to speak on such important issues, such as the sanctity of marriage?

Just a thought?

Fr Francis Marsden said...

An Apostolic Administrator is only appointed when a see is vacant. (Canon 419) Liverpool is not vacant. +Patrick is ill.

Nor is Liverpool impeded: the Archbishop is not completely prevented from exercising the pastoral office by reason of imprisonment, banishment, exile or incapacity (Canon 412) so far as we know.

Canon 405.2 stipulates that the auxiliary bishop takes the place of the diocesan Bishop when the latter is absent or impeded. The Archbishop is absent through illness for a short while.

In fact, according to Canon 413.1, the diocesan Bishop is obliged to draw up a list of persons in order upon whom the governance of the diocese devolves should he be impeded. (Coadjutor, Auxiliary, VG, Ep Vic etc) The Chancellor has to keep this list secret, and the Metropolitan should have a copy.

Bishop Williams is not the Apostolic Administrator. He is the auxiliary bishop standing in for the diocesan bishop during a temporary illness.

Anonymous, unless he is Pope Benedict XVI, does not have authority to declare +Thomas Williams to be Apostolic Administrator.

Quod erat demonstrandum....

Anthony Radice said...

Thank you Father for an informative and thought-provoking post. I think some of the misunderstanding probably arises from a mistaken analogy between the Archbishop of Canterbury's role in the Church of England with that of the Archbishop of Westminster in the Catholic Church. And it brings to mind something Bishop Mark Davies said: when he was a young man during the seventies, he was advised that what he must do is stay close to the Pope. Advice we can all heed with great profit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the corrections Fr - much appreciated. I was mis-informed.

Though I do still wonder why no-one in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, regardless of what they are called, are saying anything about SSM.

Their silence is deafening! Southwark, Westminster, Birmingham have all made some form of statement yet nothing from Liverpool, unless I am again mistaken (which of course I may be). It is all sad, so very sad.

God bless and Happy New Year.

Rhoslyn said...


I have only just discovered your blog and I am enjoying your posts. Thank you for writing them.

I am glad that you were surprised that of all the issues which could rile Catholic priests in the UK, gay marriage has been the one to unite many of them. I find that few people have made this observation. Similarly, when the Coalition for Marriage campaign began, I was quite annoyed that many conservatives (small c) were only now coming out of the woodwork when, I think, the 1967 Abortion Act is what should have done that. Better later never, I suppose!