Sunday 5 October 2014

Toxic Ignorance

I was reading St Luke Chapter 20 yesterday, in which Our Lord is challenged by the Pharisees about his authority to do 'these things' - these things including, presumably, to teach, heal, cast out moneylenders...

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.


Patricius said...

The question of who knew regarding Bishop Conry's "broken promises" is mistaken. One cannot, in simple charity, assume that because an individual cleric is seen in the company of a woman he is necessarily fornicating/adulterating. What IS shameful is the fact that this bishop was constantly spouting utter garbage/heresy for all the world to hear and was not taken to task over THAT!

Ben Trovato said...


I think in this case, it is both... and..

It was not simply that he was seen with a woman. By many accounts it was an 'open secret' and was brought to the attention of those who should have oversight by many people.

But I quite agree that his pernicious undermining of the Faith on multiple occasions should also have been addressed.

umblepie said...

Thank you for this balanced and pertinent post. I hope that it reaches the target.

Part-time Pilgrim said...

Who (in Canon Law) is responsible for challenging Bishops when their conduct or teaching fall short of what is required? Is it the local conference? His archbishop? Rome?

Ttony said...

IANACL, but according to Can. 395 §4:"If a bishop has been illegitimately absent from the diocese for more than six months, the metropolitan is to inform the Apostolic See of his absence; if it concerns the metropolitan, the senior suffragan is to do so."

In the section on Impeded Sees we read:

Canon 415 If an ecclesiastical penalty prevents a diocesan bishop from exercising his function, the metropolitan or, if there is none or it concerns him, the suffragan senior in promotion, is to have recourse immediately to the Holy See so that it will make provision.

I think that there is no provision for "bad Bishops" or for assessing Bishops at all. There is an assumption (historically unsound, I'd have thought) that Bishops are always good men.

(I wonder what the 1917 Code said.)

Part-time Pilgrim said...

Interesting. There seems to be some possible underlying principles:
1. Bishops are their brothers' keepers
2. Metropolitans and senior suffragan bishops have particular responsibilities.

Ttony said...

PTP: this is why I want to get hold of the 1917 Code, as Ed Peters says the 1983 Code has to be interpreted in the light of the 1917 Code. But, I reiterate, IANACL.

Matthew Hazell said...

Ttony: in the absence of a print copy of Dr Peter's work, you might want to try this commentary on

Jonathan Marshall said...


Your +Conry tag is empty....

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks Jonathan: a Blogger blip. I had tagged the posts, and the label showed the number of posts tagged - but as you pointed out, when clicked, nothing came up.

So I have changed the label to Conry, and that is working.

I think that now his resignation has been accepted, it is OK to label him thus.