THE BISHOPS of England and Wales, at their annual Low Week Conference this week, have been taking into direct consideration, for the first time, the findings and recommendations of various lay experts. This has come about as a result of the newly structured committee system whereby the Bishops' Conference receives advice and help from such persons.
This represents yet another advance in that openness of discussion that has characterised the hierarchical approach to matters of vital concern for the faithful, and which was given notable impetus by the Liverpool National Pastoral Congress of 1980.
That great Congress was followed by widespread euphoria but then, later on, by some disappointment that certain courageous initiatives proposed at the Congress were seemingly not being followed through and were even, in some cases, being "brushed under the carpet.
Events this week, however, have enabled us not to take a cynical view of progress. Never before has communication been better between laity and hierarchy even though all is not yet perfect. It is often the fault of the laity that progress is not quicker. Passive complaining is no substitute for constructive petitioning and greater real interest in the everyday affairs of the Catholic Church in England. The Liverpool Congress proved that when the laity speak with sincerity, the bishops listen. They will continue to listen if the laity will continue to speak.
The member of the hierarchy, moreover, charged to set up the Pastoral Congress has proved himself, in the last four years, to be a heroically courageous champion of Christian morality in social and even political life. He is most unworthily criticised in some quarters but never thereby deterred from his outspokenness and eloquence. We are referring, orcourse, to Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool who said of the Pastoral Congress that he knew "it could only succeed with God's blessing and with the effective and enthusiastic help of collaborators prepared to share our vision of where Christ's way might lie for us."
This, then, is surely a good moment to recall some of that Congress's objectives. Matters given priority included Church unity and various aspects of social morality. These have been two of the three subjects singled out for special attention during the Low Week meeting to which, as already mentioned, lay experts have been invited for the first time.
We must await the results with patience but have cause for doing so with optimism. This is true despite the particular difficulty that has been present for some time for the Bishops of England and Wales. Despite the devolutionary promptings of the Vatican Council, national hierarchies often find themselves brought back with a jerk to the thinking of Rome. Thus, for the sake of example, the recent survey finding that only 15 per cent of Britain's young Catholics could accept the Church's official ruling on contraception is part of an on-going situation that not only cannot be ignored by the bishops, but never has been. Several members of the hierarchy are known to have views on the subject which cannot be stated publicly for fear of misunderstanding. This does not mean that there is direct conflictkbetween themselves and Rome. It means that a solution to so painful a dilemma can only come through patient pastoral action at the level of interpretation and application of agreed norms.
Cardinal Hume, in fact, must now feel more strongly than ever the truth of what he said soon after becoming Archbishop of Westminster, namely that "we need a new theology of sex." But he was speaking not of a revolutionary but of an evolutionary process, depending on faith, prayer and serious consultation. Part of such a process has been earnestly going on this very week at Westminster and the faithful at large will be profoundly disappointed if its good results are not plainly visible in the months ahead.