IWAS NOT among those celebrating the sesquicentenary of the "Restoration of the Hierarchy in England and Wales", because 1 do not believe that is what happened in 1850.
True, this country once more had Catholic dioceses and Catholic diocesan bishops, and these bishops are often collectively called "the Hierarchy'. But in truth, a hierarchy is more than an undifferentiated group. Hierarchy is structure. When the Second Vatican Council in its decree on ecumenism used the metaphor of a "hierarchy of truths", it had in mind a group of interconnected doctrines, some subordinate to others.
Our hierarchy, properly speaking, comprises not only the bishops, but those subordinate to them who share with them the government of the Church. It is, to borrow the definition given in The Oxford English Dictionary, "the collective body of ecclesiastical rulers; an organised body of priests or clergy in successive orders or grades".
A true restoration of hierarchy would have restored the relationship between the bishops and the lower clergy that existed before the Reformation. The benefices available to clergy in those days gave them rights, including security of tenure, that protected them from the whims of prelates, and bishops were bound by law to respect those rights. Now, only bishops have the security that once belonged to all the clergy.
When 1 was involved in seminary education, I gave some thought to obedience. The religious orders, I found, had well-developed traditions regarding obedience, which varied from one institute to , another. There are many ways of looking at obedience. Furthermore, the religious had structures of consultation and appeal that safeguarded the rights of subordinates and helped ensure that authority was exercised in a humane manner. But among the diocesan clergy, nobody had much to say on the matter. The expectation seemed to be that the diocesan priest owed his bishop an unquestioning, heelclicking obedience, and that was one of the skills a semi
narian should learn in his training, if he had not brought it with him. This led to difficulties in forming men from widely differing ages and backgrounds whose education had led them to expect a higher degree of freedom and respect than they were offered. When authority over them was exercised in an autocratic and unexplained way, they reacted with incomprehension and resentment. I believe that many potential candidates are put off the priesthood by the fear that their human rights will not be respected.
Outside the seminary, I find that clergy often approach an encounter with authority with fear. Men sit trembling outside the bishop's study, knowing that in the next few minutes their whole lives may be changed. The authorities themselves can too easily manipulate this situation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a better model: "The promise of obedience (priests) make to the bishop at the moment of ordination and the kiss of peace from him at the end of the ordination liturgy mean that the bishop considers them his coworkers, his sons, his brothers, and his friends, and that they in return owe him love and obedience."(1567) Obedience is bipolar. Obedience is dialogue.
Such dialogue is surely the key to a true restoration of hierarchy, which the church in our country still awaits. I am not thinking of a return to the medieval system of benefices, but of a move forward to a system like those in place in many dioceses abroad, where the clergy know clearly what their bishop expects of them and what they can expect of their bishop, and make their own contribution, by means of appropriate structures, to the process of government.
This is what is envisaged in the Code of Canon Law. It should be protected by Councils of Priests, elected from the presbyterate of a diocese to advise the bishop. These need strengthening, for a bishop is to easily tempted to consult his own appointees.
There has recently been talk of the introduction of a system of appraisal for the clergy. This will be welcome if it brings greater responsibility and accountability from both subordinates and superiors. It could help us develop a properly structured hierarchy, and that really will be something to celebrate.