He responded by asking them by what authority St John the Baptist baptised. They were stumped: if they said from Heaven, they were condemned out of their own mouths for their lack of belief; but if they said from men, the crowds would be ready to stone them. So they pleaded ignorance.
Which set me thinking about recent events.
I have so far refrained from blogging about the +Conry affair, for several reasons. One is, I think it generally bad form to kick a man when he is down, and I will strive to refrain from doing so, despite my anger, outrage and upset. I have already made my views on various aspects of +Conry's behaviour clear on many occasions, both on this blog (see the tag Conry) and on others (eg here).
So I will refrain from any comment on him, except in so far as it is relevant to my larger concerns. One of which is the whole issue of ignorance.
Various commentators are asking the question 'Who knew?' which has prompted +Conry to announce that no other bishop knew.
Even if we take that statement at face value (and why should we? Is he a reliable witness? Can he actually know what others know?) it seems to me to miss the point.
There are many adjectives that can be placed in front of the word ignorance. They include 'innocent' 'wilful' 'culpable' and 'feigned.' And given the passage from St Luke which I read last night, which set me thinking on these lines, I would add 'political' to that list. And of course, one thinks of the link between ignore and ignorance.
As noted above, many people are asking whether (and if so when) ++Murphy O'Conner or ++Vincent Nichols knew about +Conry's problems. While those are important questions, I suggest that even a negative answer does not let our senior bishops off the hook here. If they were ignorant, which adjectives apply to such ignorance? I don't think 'innocent' quite fits...
It seems to me that they have a responsibility to the faithful in this country to recommend the appointment of good bishops, and to ensure that they remain good bishops (and see the excellent post here by Ttony on the relevant Canon Law). In this case, they have failed to discharge that responsibility, and ignorance is no excuse. "Don't ask, don't tell" is simply not acceptable: indeed it takes us straight back to the culture that allowed the terrible problems of clerical abuse to proliferate.
They also have a responsibility to all the good priests who do behave well, often with heroic effort. Occasionally a rumour reaches me about a priest, and my response is that I do not listen to gossip, but rely on their spiritual superiors to ensure propriety. So when people told me that Fr X had been on holiday with his boyfriend, and pictures had been sent to his bishop, I thought: "Fine: if true, his bishop will deal with it. If untrue, then I should certainly ignore the slander."
But if, in fact, I cannot trust his bishop to deal with it, because he doesn't 'know' and further, definitely doesn't want to know, do I have a duty to investigate myself and speak out to warn others, if I conclude the rumour is true? What if he is being recommended for a bishopric? We learn that the redoubtable Daphne McLeod, amongst others, took the trouble to write to the (previous) Nuncio about +Conry before he was consecrated, but got no reply.
If we cannot trust the bishops to do their job, then the rumours will abound, unchecked, and many good men will have their good name taken from them. What a terrible situation such wilful episcopal ignorance would lead to...
So I think apologies and explanations are due, not just from +Conry, but also for those who were responsible for his promotion and protection. For even if they were not aware of his failings, they had a responsibility for oversight that they failed to discharge. And they also have a responsibility to explain what they have learned, and how they will seek to ensure such a situation will not arise again.
They owe it to the Faithful, they owe it to the priests and bishops of the Church in this country, and above all they owe it to Christ, whose mystical Body they have seen profaned.
Where ignorance is this, 'tis holy to be wise.