Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman



The Catholic Renewal Movement has been shaped by its history, which explains its protean character.  Its birth, after a long traumatic pregnancy, dates from January 1969, immediately after Paul VI’s Encyclical, Humanae Vitae of 1968. Opposition to the papal prohibition of artificial means of contraception led logically to challenges to the authoritarian character of the Roman Catholic Church in both structure and outlook. Those who questioned  the Encyclical were inspired by the reformers at the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, whose decisions  were so swiftly betrayed by the Roman Curia.  A casual glance through successive numbers of Renew, the Movement’s journal - the title adopted after the first nine issues of the Bulletin - may convey the impression that the underlying thrust of the  Movement was dissipated over many separate issues, such as the right of the laity to a say in the running of the Church, the need to place papal authority  again within the context of the Council, readiness to accept the guidance of the Holy Spirit, ‘Collegiality’ or the partial devolvement of papal power to the bishops,  women’s ministry in the Church, clerical celibacy and much else.  Although there is no denying the fissiparous character of lay protest, CRM itself has always tried to represent an overall case for reform.  Despite the diverse preoccupations of the  Catholic Renewal Movement, the goals have remained broadly the same throughout nearly forty years.


The Catholic Renewal Movement was largely shaped at its birth  by the McCabe Affair, which provided Catholic intellectuals with experience in organising a protest against repressive policies by Rome and their own hierarchy.  In both cases inspiration came largely from the Church’s leading intellectual order, the Dominicans.  The campaigning initiative, seized by the laity in the first case was continued in the second and mainly by the same people. The McCabe Affair also gave these leaders practice in organising a protest movement.  They learnt, for instance, that a direct and polite approach to distant figures of authority could sometimes disarm the resistance of those inexperienced in defending papal dictats.  It was also during the McCabe Affair that the effectiveness of pray-ins and teach-ins, as a means of publicising a cause was learnt.

The  McCabe Affair was distorted by the lurid reports in the English Catholic Press. Fr Herbert McCabe O.P. himself reinforced these impressions by trailing his cloak, toreador fashion before the Roman bull.   Slant, under his editorship was delightfully provocative in a way which appealed to its intellectual readership, while purposefully offending humourless ecclesiastics with a CTS (Catholic Truth Society) grasp of theology. Nor did McCabe’s personal behaviour help his cause. He was too given to cavorting in parties with male undergraduates, while not even, horribile dictu, wearing a clerical collar, that ultimate guarantor of a cleric’s respectability.

Behind his buffoonery Herbert McCabe’s stand was highly significant in theological terms. As the country’s most accomplished theological populariser, McCabe made a public issue of the charge against the Catholic Church, launched by Charles Davis, the leading British theologian of his day. McCabe had quoted ‘the accusation made by Mr Davis that the official church is racked by fear, insecurity and anxiety, with a consequent intolerance and lack of love and that there is concern for authority at the expense of truth. These charges seem to me to be very well founded, the editorial writer [McCabe] says, and their truth would, on the whole, be taken for granted by English Catholics. The church is quite plainly    corrupt.’ (1)

As if to underline the truth of the charge against the Church, McCabe was relieved of his editorial chair and even for a time suspended as a priest by the Dominican Provincial.  The English Catholic hierarchy was more muted in its response, as if out of respect for the Second Vatican Council, dead and  buried, but with the last rites still to follow. Besides the episcopacy, so unusual for that august body, even numbered some theologians, notably Bishop Butler and Archbishop Roberts.  Cardinal Heenan steered a characteristically middle course, in the tradition of Harold Wilson, with whom he was often compared. Thus, he presided at the teach-in, which was planned in support of Fr Herbert McCabe,  but was politic enough to announce that the mass would be offered ‘for the Church, the clergy and laity and for those who have lapsed from the Faith’. A ‘formula’, as The Guardian noted, ‘for happiness all round.’ (2) Rather surprisingly, at that time the leaders of the English Church thought it worth trying to keep radical Catholics within the fold - an indulgence they were soon to jettison.

While the hierarchy had played its part, it was the initiative of the laity which had carried the day.  John Bryden in his letter to The Tablet recounts how he flew to Rome with 850 of the final 2,100 signatures to support McCabe’s reinstatement. (3) He later reported how Fr. Ancieto, ‘the Master General of the time, a gentle Spanish Dominican, received me most courteously and warmly, promised to look into the matter and said that he was greatly touched that so many influential British Catholics had such high regard for one of his brothers.’ (4) As a direct result, McCabe was reinstated in 1970, when he ‘memorably started his editorial, “as I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted…”’ (5)


‘So oddly interrupted….’  Those words are an apt comment on McCabe’s treatment in flagrant disregard for the intellectual climate of the time.  For most of the English bishops the closure of the Vatican Council could not come too soon.  A small but influential minority of priests and laity had taken a much closer and more positive interest in the sessions of the Council than some of the bishops, who had often slept or sat uncomprehendingly through them.  The disparity between the two sides may well have stemmed from  generational and cultural differences. The bishops in general were older and more deferential to authority than most of their critics.  In the 1960s a new generation had arrived to question authority and accepted ideas - as was mirrored by Hans Küng and other young periti in the Vatican Council itself.The unbridgeable gap between the two cultures forms an essential link between the McCabe Affair and the development of CRM.

The Catholic Renewal Movement, like ‘the old woman’ in Voltaire’s Candide, can claim descent from a pope - Paul VI, to be precise.  The Pope’s encyclical,  Humanae Vitae, in which all artificial means of birth control were condemned, was like a time bomb, all the more devastating, as right up to the last moment,  the Vatican was expected to defuse it.  The immediate response by concerned Catholics was the formation of the London ad hoc group.  Utter consternation ran through the two mimeographed sides of foolscap paper, which comprise the first Bulletin of the ad hoc group and Dr Oliver Pratt’s accompanying letter. Seldom has authority been challenged more  respectfully.  So deferential to the hierarchy was the Group, that it disclaimed any intention ‘to compete with the ordinary church organisation’ and sought ‘only to provide means for expression, communication and constructive debate in the present critical situation’.  The 700 urgent enquirers were simply advised to consult clergy and laity in their area.  Concern was expressed to house priests suspended and turned onto the street for criticising the encyclical.  Yet from the very beginning, the long-term programme of the Catholic Renewal Movement was set out:

‘The aims of the ad hoc group are to open up discussion so that a genuine theology of marriage will be built up through the experience of Catholic couples, and in a more general sense to bring Vatican II off paper into practice.’ (6)

There followed a year later what was to become CRM’s Manifesto.  As it is printed in full as a separate item on the website, it requires no comment here.  Suffice it to say that the Manifesto is a remarkable document, which outlines CRM’s objectives, all of which the membership stands by to this day.  In its ringing declaration that the Church should be answerable to its members and conform to Natural Justice, the Manifesto bears comparison with the Declaration of the Rights of Man  and of the Citizen by the French Revolutionaries in 1789, except that it outstrips the Revolutionaries  by including women.(7)

So phenomenal was the Movement’s growth, that within a year the movement numbered well over 2000, of whom no less than 10% were reckoned to be clerics. In November 1968 teach-ins took place in Twickenham, Nottingham, Leatherhead and Leicester, where assailants of Humanae Vitae were disappointed to find virtually no defenders. The Movement’s  future seemed assured when Burns and Oates, the leading Catholic publisher, backed the Movement  by  bearing  the  cost  of publishing and distributing the Bulletin. (8)

Towards the end of 1968 the Movement appeared triumphant - too triumphant for its own good.  It was reminiscent of the royalist cavalry in the Civil War sweeping all before them and getting lost in the rolling English countryside.  Meanwhile, there was an ominous silence from the hierarchy.  The bishops in the spirit of Cromwell’s New Model Army, prayed to God and kept their powder dry. Their attitude echoed  Dom. David Knowles‘ pronouncement in The Tablet, ‘Peter has spoken’, the bishops held their ground by refusing to entertain criticisms of Humanae Vitae. To keep the protesters at bay, the bishops resorted to a subtle ruse. While insisting that the Encyclical was binding, they conceded against all logic that individual consciences should be respected. In practice, therefore, Catholics were free to search for complaisant confessors, to give them absolution, the validity of which was naturally open to doubt.  By this cynical ploy, the laity were cowed by a lingering feeling of guilt, while the power and prestige of the clergy was exalted.  The whole issue of authority, so central to Vatican II, had been neatly swept aside.  Clergy and laity had colluded in cheating themselves of the spiritual benefits conferred by the Council.

The truce with the hierarchy proved almost a death blow to CRM.  Humanae Vitae paradoxically had proved invaluable in arousing many Catholic couples from their lethargy.  Although many people had joined the Movement to parry what they had seen as a priest in the bedroom, without this ‘quick fix’ they might well have remained to lobby for the wider implementation of the Council’s work.  An equivocal offer of self-preservation - the hierarchy’s ‘mess of pottage’ had bought off the majority of protesters. Others left the Church in disgust. The movement which remained was the ghost of its former self.

In view of the crisis of 1969-70, how did the Catholic Renewal Movement survive at all and even go on to become the leaner, but fitter movement of today? At least part of the answer lies in a readiness to learn from past mistakes.

CRM in its origins, like the Council itself, had been driven by heady idealism.  A lack of organisation and discipline had spelt its undoing.  No- where was that more evident than the failure to provide the Movement with a sound financial base.  The first serious challenge came in August 1969 when Burns and Oates withdrew financial support for the Bulletin, which had been the Movement’s heaviest expense. A desperate appeal was launched in  the 9th Bulletin for June 1970:

‘About 400 members, individually or in groups, have sent in their subscriptions for 1970...This leaves 2,500 or more who have not. The result is that we have enough money in the kitty to pay for the Bulletins up to this one, but no more…CRM has to rely absolutely on all its members to play fair…Please don’t let us down.’ (9)

The appeal went virtually unheeded and the problem was compounded by the decision in October 1970, when Conference decided unanimously to cut the cost of publishing and distributing the Bulletin. ‘It is absurd to go on allotting such a large proportion of our small funds’, it was declared, ’to this one activity.’  The sum given was £394 out of a total expenditure of £607 in the past year.  The outgoing editor, Colin MacDonald went on to justify the decision on the grounds that the Bulletin had fulfilled its role of providing CRM with internal cohesion and as a means of communicating CRM to the Church outside.  The editor claimed ‘our activities now will find an audience, and should be the best means of keeping up our own morale; internal communication can be adequately served by an occasional and cheaper, newsletter. Some groups are now producing newsletters of their own and this will doubtless grow. Most important, we need the money for carrying  to  completion  the    many projects that CRM is now engaged upon.’ (10)

Seldom has an inspiring editor, so underestimated his own achievements.   The Bulletin had played a vital role in rallying and directing the many groups of CRM supporters. Many of the members’ letters bear touching witness to the emotional support, which the newsletter had brought them. Despite the valiant efforts of the new editor, Frank Pycroft, the mimeographed A4 sheets were no substitute for the highly legible and informative journal. The hopes placed on the ebullience of local groups were sadly misplaced.  It was especially imprudent for a Movement with dwindling numbers to deploy its depleted resources on such a wide range of projects.  The savaging of  the Bulletin, instead of limiting its circulation to paid-up subscribers, seriously undermined the coherence and direction of the Movement.


The immediate cause was the failure to put the Movement on a sound financial footing.  Enthusiasm, optimism, generosity had been the hallmarks of several revolutionary movements in the 1960s.  The reformers at the Vatican Council of 1962-65 itself had underestimated the opposition of the flint-hearted bureaucrats of the Roman Curia and the simple bewilderment of staid national hierarchies.  The idealistic student revolutionaries of 1968 helped to fire a generation’s imagination, but had remarkably little effect in changing the universities, especially in the epicentre, Paris itself.  The refusal of CRM’s supporters to finance their own periodical may sound a ridiculously trivial reason for the severe check to the Movement.  Yet in all great ventures practicalities can be crucial.  Besides, an insouciant attitude to finance was also a symptom of a wider indiscipline.  There was a serious lack of coordination of CRM’s activities.  The local associations were allowed their head with virtually no direction.  The effective jettisoning of the Bulletin amounted to an information black-out.  In short, spontaneity was valued above all else and spontaneity seldom brings about reform, still less revolution, essential at least as far as attitudes in the Church was concerned.  Reform did in fact follow, though too late, under the prudent  guidance of  Clifford Longley, the distinguished journalist, who as chair introduced the new structure , whereby CRM was governed by a Council, composed of delegates from local groups, which in turn elected the Executive to deal with the day-to-day running of the Movement.  Most important of all, was the introduction of an annual subscription, the lack of which had proved so devastating.     

Was CRM’s effectiveness reduced by its lack of appeal outside a small  middle-class group of often excessively educated people?  About 93% of members, based on heads of households, may be defined loosely as ‘professionals’, as against about 24% of the Catholic population as a whole, while no less than 28% were teachers in universities or schools.  In Britain’s class-bound and anti-intellectual society, the general run of Catholics presumably just saw members of CRM as rather weird.  As for the majority of the clergy, whose critical faculties seldom survived seminary education, they found it easy to condemn members of CRM, as intellectual snobs who thought too much for their own good and that of the Church.  In the pages of Renew, when dealing with the clergyCRM often exudes that  middle-class trait of over-polite deference towards superiors. Small wonder that the clergy habitually treated CRM as a door mat.  A little working-class directness might have obtained a more respectful  hearing.

The war - civil in both senses - like most civil wars had no victors.  CRM won the argument over Humanae Vitae and the Council.  The institutional church could claim victory in practice, as it managed to preserve the status quo with only the smallest concessions, mainly concerning the liturgy. This is surely  a Pyrrhic  victory, in which the Church retained control of the battlefield, while failing to count the dead.  Among the casualties stand out members of the working class.  Most of their social superiors, when they remained within the Church, rejected the teaching of Humanae Vitae shortly after its promulgation with a more or less easy conscience. The brunt of distress and anxiety was borne by working-class Catholics.  A nun chronicled in the pages of Renew some of the typical sufferings of those for whom the Pope’s dictat was final.  She recounted how one woman continued, despite medical advice, to refrain from using contraceptives with the result that she was driven to despair by the loss of one baby after another through nephritis.  Another mother, whose son was afflicted by Spina Bifida, wheeled him to his First Communion, but retired without receiving the host herself, as the priest had refused her absolution, to punish her for using contraceptives.  ’If the more basic issues [of  charity and understanding] were tackled’, the nun added, ’ then this one [of contraception] would solve itself.’ (11)  It should be no surprise that many of those who suffered these injustices, or just observed them, left the Church.  Who were to blame, the elitist CRM, or the parish priests, who habitually place obedience to superiors above witness to the truth?  No, we are all to blame for not listening to the promptings of our hearts. These cases point to an underlying problem in the  Church.  How did a church which professes the equality of all, come to be so unfeeling and so dominated by class, as it remains to this day?

It was partly a wish on the part of CRM to extend their remit to all Catholics regardless of class, that led the Movement to espouse the cause of Catholic education, effectively in place of the publication of the journal, which had been the staple of CRM.  Considering the earlier betrayal of CRM by the bishops, this venture was to prove ‘a triumph of hope over experience’. At any rate, it was with the best of intentions that CRM sent its recommendations to the Episcopal Council on The Future of Catholic Education in England and Wales. There were strong reasons for putting education at the top of CRM’s agenda.  There was widespread concern at the defection of the young. As Fr. Simon Blake O.P. insisted, ‘unless we find a practical solution now there is going to be a landslide particularly among young people of working class origin…The simple faith of their parents cannot meet their needs. They question every form of authority which does not make sense to them in terms of real life.’  Nor were Catholic schools deemed an answer to the problem. ‘My wife and I’, noted one correspondent…in spite of our efforts to send our three boys to such Catholic education as we could manage, these three boys  have all left the Church in disgust, not so much at HV itself as at the general ‘Kremlinesque set up.‘(12)

CRM’s The Future of Catholic Education in England and Wales., drawn up by Anthony Spencer after widespread consultation with experts in the field, promised to transform Catholic Education. The effectiveness of Catholic schools was to be closely vetted, while alternative methods of religious instruction for both children and adults was to reinforce the work of the schools.  The close cooperation between schools and parents, who were to have an important input through active Parents Teachers Associations, was an exciting innovation.  Special emphasis was given to the responsibility to cater for the spiritual needs of some 400,000 pupils in the state           system,  while  cooperation  with  the  Church  of  England was  also recommended. (13)  CRM’s  proposals read as if they came from a sub-committee of the Vatican Council, which indeed is not far from the truth.  Had CRM’s recommendations been followed, it might have transformed Catholic education.  It would also have introduced the Second Vatican Council through the back door.  No wonder the bishops were unenthusiastic!  Nonetheless CRM was taken aback when the Bishops’ Education Commission lacked even the courtesy to inform them about the outcome of their deliberations. Respectfully pressed for an answer, Archbishop Beck explained that the Commission ’had not felt that it had the authority at that stage to consider a document from “an unofficial group which was not recognised as representing Catholic opinion.” (14)

Not for the first time, nor the last, the leaders of CRM had failed to grasp that they were just amateurs dealing with professional politicians in dog collars.  The bishops’ lode star appears to have been financial prudence, which they valued - and not for the first time - above purely pastoral considerations.  It is probable that the bishops feared that  were the Catholic Church to receive special terms for religious instruction in state schools, subsidies for Catholic schools would be  reduced.  Yet, had the authoritarian catechetics of the 1950s been updated to fit the needs of a  more questioning age, of which most of the bishops were oblivious, the defection of the young might well have been partially halted.  Today there are many parish priests who believe that Catholics in the state system are more likely to keep their faith than those in Catholic schools - hardly what the bishops intended.

The lordly way in which the bishops brushed aside these and other representations by CRM raised the question of whether the Movement should resort to more abrasive tactics. ‘What worries me about the Movement’, wrote a correspondent, ‘is that in its efforts to avoid being accused of trouble-making…it seems to lack any cutting edge at all. Shall we ever make any impact if we are so inoffensive we can be ignored? Forming groups or reading Bulletins of like-minded people isn’t very productive, if the complacent ordinary parish “life” goes on quite unaware….I think we may have to be more “unpleasant” and active if we really want to create a church we can honestly support.’ (15)


Sometimes a lesson has to be taught many times before it is fully understood.  It was at the National Pastoral Conference at Liverpool in May 1980, and more especially its aftermath, that it became clear finally to all but a few incurable optimists, that the institutional church in the foreseeable future was highly unlikely to accept the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council .

At the time, the groundswell of optimism hid disagreeable realities. For CRM which had been assiduously developing its positions in the light of the Council, the Conference was seen as their long-awaited opportunity to articulate their ideas before a national audience. While CRM’s representations to the Conference, ably presented by Martin Prendergast,  stood out as the fullest and most cogently argued,  they expressed  the largely inchoate aspirations of many of the 2000 delegates, whose enthusiasm appeared to be shared by the bishops.  For Cardinal Hume, appointed four years earlier as Archbishop of Westminster, ’the Holy Spirit was manifestly at work’, while the Conference’s chairman, Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool has been described as ‘self-consciously…the very model of a post-conciliar ecclesiastic.‘ (16)

Why were the high hopes of May 1980 betrayed? Principally,  because these hopes lacked firm foundations.  After the long cooling off period of fifteen years since the closure of the Vatican Council, very few  Catholics were conversant with its decrees, still less with its aspirations. The vast majority of Catholics were quite content with the existing state of their religion, as is clear from a most impressive survey of 1979 by Michael P. Hornsby-Smith and Raymond M. Lee. In the case of cradle Catholics 44.9% considered the amount of changes about right, 15.8% too many and only 23% too few, while converts were naturally even more satisfied with the status quo. (17) The National Priests’ Conference was more enlightened about the need for change.  That was hardly surprising, as the delegates   comprised the more enterprising clergy.  Yet the vast majority of parish priests were still cast in the Vatican I mould.  As for the bishops, with very few exceptions, they were ill-equipped intellectually to discuss the very issues thrown up by the Conference. There was widespread  failure to understand the radical break that would be needed to put the proposed changes into practice. The acceptance of artificial contraception, re-marriage, homosexuality, abrogation of compulsory clerical celibacy, increased role of women in the Church, inter-communion with other Christian churches, all ran counter to the dictats of a reactionary papacy.  It is difficult to see how the Church could move in that direction without an upheaval comparable in magnitude to the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century. Few of all the well-intentioned members of the Conference seemed to appreciate that the making of an omelette requires the cracking of eggs.

Worlock and particularly Hume were far more aware of the dangers ahead.  Pope John Paul II had been recently elected and it was soon apparent that he was transferring his animus against the Soviets in the cold war to the liberals in the Church.  When Cardinal Hume presented the Conference report to the Pope, he had held it open at the section dealing with birth control, only to see it waved aside. (18)  At the subsequent Synod in Rome ‘hand-picked lay people [were] primed to sing the praises of Humanae Vitae in the most triumphalistic manner, while Hume and Worlock both ‘felt that the synod  had been steered to foregone…conclusions’.  Shortly afterwards Hume spoke with extraordinary frankness to the National Conference of Priests. ‘Hume told them that the liberal shutters were going up in the Church.  If the English Catholic community was to hold on to what progress it had made so far, it was going to have to proceed very carefully in future.  Already there were signs of their own positions [Humes’s and Worlock’s] being under attack.’ (19)

Cardinal Hume was obviously at a disadvantage in dealing with an ultramontane pope, who could exploit his vow of obedience, as a Benedictine, to try to put him in pawn to Rome. (20) Cardinal Hume was surely correct  in believing that there were too few English supporters of the Council, to challenge the well entrenched forces of reaction.  Was the Cardinal right in advising reformers to avoid open conflict and consolidate the few gains they had made to date?  Was this a counsel of prudence or despair?  This issue still divides those who seek  reform in the Church…


To avoid causing confusion in the minds of  those tracing the history of the Catholic Renewal Movement, it is worth noting that a change of name to Catholics for a Changing Church (CCC) was announced at the AGM in November 1993. (21) The change was undertaken to avoid confusion with a group which was gaining prominence at the time, known as the Charismatic Renewal Movement. In this history CRM for Catholic Renewal Movement will continue to be used.

From this historical sketch  the Catholic Renewal Movement emerges as a cat with nine lives.  Why is the story of the Movement’s vicissitudes relevant to the present?  In the first place it shows that CRM’s objectives, of which more can be read below on this website, have stood the test of time.  Virtually all are backed today by substantial minorities of the People of God - baptised Catholics.  Christian inter-communion, the practice in good conscience of contraception, the removal of compulsory clerical celibacy, the ordination of women priests are all close to receiving the consensus fidelium - acceptance by the Church as a whole. CRM’s tenacity may have played a small part in that achievement.

The second lesson which the CRM, as the cat with nine lives, needs to bear in mind is that the lives it has lost to date have almost all been through showing naive  trust in the  clergy.  It was the Roman Curia and bishops  who betrayed the Vatican Council.  Again, it was the English hierarchy who were largely responsible for the defection of so many supporters of CRM by deceiving them over Humanae Vitae. The Episcopal Conference on Catholic Education nearly succeeded in bankrupting  CRM by rejecting - and in the most insulting way possible -  its far sighted proposals, which had cost the Movement so much money and effort to research.  In 1980 it was Rome’s turn to sabotage the findings of the National Pastoral Conference in which CRM played a leading part.  Will CRM be duped again when the clergy offer another saucer of cream, or will the Movement be prudent enough to flee like a cat, scalded too often?

Rabidly anticlerical to the last man, even more  to the last woman, is that the public face of CRM? If so, that image is belied by the number of clerics who support us.  CRM’s quarrel is with  clericalism, not with individual clerics, who mainly devote themselves with exemplary zeal to a difficult job in a way which few laity could match.  Clericalism may be defined as  the tendency of clerics to run the Church, as if it were their private property.  CRM along with most other lay organisations insists that the Church includes all its members, women too, not just the clergy.  As Frank Regan points out in a thought provoking article on the website, Jesus himself was a layman….

Proposals for the reform of the Church inevitably touch on the role of the clergy.  The hierarchy’s continued rejection of the decrees and spirit of the Second Vatican Council, deprives the bulk of the faithful of spiritual nourishment with the consequent  loss to the Church of many, especially the young.  The clergy themselves are often the chief losers.  It is their leaders - if they deserve that name - who are responsible for the poor education of ordinands in seminaries, usually of significantly sub-university standard. As a result, many priests are poor communicators and lack social skills. Ageing parish priests are often deprived of in-training, which most other professionals habitually receive.  Those parish priests who are denied the emotional support of belonging to a team are apt to become burnt-out, lonely, demoralised and depressed.  Faced by all these difficulties,  many of them manage to do little more than  ‘keep the show on the road’. These priests, effectively abandoned by their superiors, deserve the laity’s sympathy and support.  Yet, this is surely no way to run a church. For an excellent analysis of the problems see a pamphlet by a sympathetic Methodist Minister, Kenneth Wilson. (22)

Is the situation in the Catholic Church so parlous that there are sound  grounds for leaving it altogether?  This is necessarily  a matter of individual choice.  On matters of doctrine it often takes an eagle-eyed theologian to spot differences in belief between the various Christian denominations.  The rival claims by clerics in their turf wars are a less reliable guide.  The belief that any one sect holds a monopoly of the truth is mainly confined to Rome and not entertained seriously by thinking Christians of any denomination.  That said, the Roman Catholic Church has a long tradition behind it, including a body of theology unrivalled by any other church. There is a wealth of Catholic religious orders, which between them offer a wide  variety of spiritual insights.  

For those who stick with the Catholic Church, what contribution can CRM and like minded people make to its reform?  Some urge, along with the Consilio Movement in Spain, agitation for a third Vatican Council.  Yet it was precisely through lack of preparation that the last council failed.  Furthermore, the curia, which engineered that collapse, have had four decades in which to consolidate their power.  It was the periti, the theological experts who guided the Council and since then the theological seedbed has been ravaged by John Paul II, ably supported by his henchman, Cardinal Ratzinger, the present pope. Between them they have silenced or marginalised  almost all the leading theologians, except Ratzinger himself, who by suppressing other theologians now reigns in lonely isolation as practically the Church’s only official theologian. As for the bishops themselves, the prospective council fathers, they have been selected on the basis of their regressive characteristics for nearly thirty years.  Reform from above is no more than a utopian dream. It is true that the occasional reformist prelate or bishop - Cardinal Daneels of Belgium for instance - slips through the net of papal patronage.  Yet, for every one such advocate of reform, a hundred  pull the other way.

If reform from above is impossible, could it work from below?  A direct approach hardly seems feasible.  Protests in the ‘We Are Church’ tradition, mounted by a few middle-class malcontents, are all too likely to remind  episcopal synods and the like of the support they enjoy among the silent  majority.  A subtler approach, more in tune with the talents of CRM and the ’thinking church’, is preferable.  It was the philosophes before the French  Revolution, who did so much by ‘changing the way of thinking’ to create an intellectual climate in which old-style absolutism proved both laughable and unworkable.  The same approach might work in the Church and possibly more easily. Clericalism too has its own absolutist pretensions. Nonetheless,  the clergy as ‘men of God’ tend to defend their privileged positions, less to safeguard their personal prestige, than because they genuinely believe that the laity need a hierarchical clergy to keep them in order. Clerical intransigence of this sort  could struggle to survive in a climate where everything from theology to the practical running of the Church were open to discussion.    

There are indications that the Church is already changing for many different reasons. There is general agreement that the decline in organised religion is matched by a new thirst for spirituality.  That is evidenced  by the rapid increase in those going on religious retreats and taking courses in spirituality and theology.  Retreats and courses are usually organised by the religious orders, who largely fall outside papal control and who draw on theologians, including those ranked  personae non gratae in Rome.  In at least some Catholic parishes the shortage of priests has led to more active lay participation in parish work, which itself has sometimes wrought a positive effect on parish priests. It seems likely that as the shortage of priests increases, those who remain will be less closely supervised and retained more readily, even if their minds are more open to new ideas than the hierarchy would wish. Nor, at least at the moment, are there signs that  Pope Benedict XVI intends to face down ‘heretics’, as he used to do with such relish in the Holy Office.  In a recent analysis the experienced Vatican Watcher, John Allen shows that the Pope stands by all his hard line positions, while often modifying them in practice. (23) Is that orthodoxy’s tribute to heresy? Perhaps the papal hard line is less often enforced because the Vatican is beginning to understand that there are limits to the punishment the European Church is prepared to take.

An independent voice in the Catholic Church - such is the role of the Catholic Renewal Movement.  We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, as some of the testier clerics accuse us.  We hardly expect a hearing in those quarters.  Our appeal on the contrary is to thinking Catholics, who wish to make sense of the Church’s role in today’s world.  We obstinately believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Second Vatican Council with guidance to all Christians.  There were contradictions and ambiguities in the decisions of the Council Fathers, which need to be explored  in the light of events since those distant days in the 1960s.  The ideas for which CRM stands - ecumenism, government of the pope in a general council, with greater consultation at all levels, free discussion of ideas by theologians, freedom of priests to marry, ordination of women priests, acceptance of same sex relationships - have stood the test of forty years of debate and will surely come to pass before the century has ended.  Those with the requisite energy will doubtless continue to pursue these arguments. In the meantime, not just Christians, but all people of good will, face today’s stiffest challenges.  First and foremost, how could a country with a long tradition of liberal democracy and nominally Christian to boot, launch an unjust attack on Iraq?  Over a million people marched against that invasion to no avail.  Urgent thought needs to be given about how Christians and other people of good will can restrain bellicose governments in future.   Britain itself is a country rife with social injustice, as countless studies of the law and more especially the prisons show.  Poverty is sometimes worse here than in the United States itself.  There are also the problems of world poverty, about which there are  papal pronouncements and more to the point Christian societies, which generally give far more effective aid than governments contributing money to improve their image.  There are deeper questions about how to share the world’s resources more fairly and, of course, how to  preserve the environment.  These are all issues where a Christian perspective is needed.

It would be absurd to suggest that CRM could play more than a tiny part in searching for solutions to all these problems.  Nonetheless, more can be done by people of good will when acting together than alone.  CRM’s journal, Renew offers a forum for the exchange of ideas, which might be all the better for your own contribution.
John Mackrel

1. Daily Telegraph, 18 Feb 1967  
2. The Guardian, 28 Feb 1967
3. The Tablet, 18 Mar 1967, 300
4. The Newman, obit of Fr Herbert McCabe by John Bryden
5. Obit of Fr Herbert McCabe by Adrian Cunningham
6. Bulletin 1, Aug 1968, 1 and letter
7. Bulletin 4, May 1969, 5-6
8. Bulletin 3, Jan 1969, 1-2
9. Renew 9, June 1970, 1
10. Renew 10, Dec 1970, 1
11. Bulletin 5, June 1969, 20-23
12. Renew 7, Dec 1969, 20-23
13. Renew 9, June 1970, 5-8
14. Renew 10, Dec 1970, 13
15. Bulletin 7, Dec 1969, 21
16. Adrian Hastings, A History pf English Christianity, 1920-1990, 1991,
17. Michael P. Hornsby-Smith & Raymond M. Lee, Roman Catholic
Opinion: a study of Roman Catholics in England and Wales in the
1970s, 1979, 185
18. Clifford Longley, The Warlock Archive, 2000, 287
19. Clifford Longley, 292-93
20. Adrian Hastings, 646-47
21. Renew 88, Dec 1993, 1
22. Kenneth Wilson, Power in the Church, Catholics for a Changing
Church, pamphlet no 22, 2003 
23. John L. Allen Jr, ‘Benedict’s First Year’, National Catholic Reporter, 21
Apr 2006

JoomBall - Cookies