Does the Pope really agree with Bishop Kieran Conry?

Bishop Kieran Conry pictured with Pope Benedict XVI in January

I was intrigued last week by a little story which many readers will have passed by without a second glance, but which is probably worth looking at again: it appeared under the headline “English bishop criticises New Evangelisation council”. 

Now, the creation of a new Vatican dicastery is not to the average man or woman in the pew an earth-shaking event. And according to Bishop Kieran Conry, speaking in a BBC interview, the new council is superfluous, and the analysis on which it is based is totally wrong: “He was not convinced,” reported the Herald, “by the notion that secularisation lies at the heart of the Church’s decline in Europe.”

Now, Bishop Conry is the English bishop who has been put in charge of “evangelisation” in England, so he really ought to know what he’s talking about. And I’m sure he would be horrified if he were thought to be criticising the Pope, especially after that heart-warming picture of the two of them together, both smiling affectionately.

And it may have escaped his notice, I’m sure it must have, that the new council is at the very heart of the Pope’s intentions for his pontificate, and that if there has been one recurrent theme in his public utterances, it has been the need to fight the growth of secularism in the modern world. In the words of the authoritative Roman commentator Sandro Magister, Benedict XVI “is so convinced that leading men to God is ‘the supreme and fundamental priority’ of the Church and of the successor of Peter, that not only has he made it the centre of his preaching, he has also drawn from it the decision to create in the Roman Curia a dicastery expressly dedicated to the ‘new evangelisation’ of the countries where the modern eclipse of God is most pronounced”.

Bishop Conry, though, doesn’t at all believe that “the modern eclipse of God” is the real reason for the Church’s decline. The real reason, he thinks, is that the Church will bang on about basic Christian beliefs.  “You can’t talk to young people about salvation,” you may remember him saying in a Catholic Herald interview with Andrew M Brown. “What’s salvation? What does salvation mean? My eternal soul? You can only talk to young people in young people’s language, really. And if you’re going to talk to them about salvation, the first thing they will understand is saving the planet.”

Bishop Kieran is really keen on saving the planet: at one point he put up on his website a youth Mass with a liturgy designed to appeal to these same young people. The liturgy listed suggestions for virtuous behaviour, including tips on high-energy light bulbs, handing out Fairtrade chocolate and, in a list of things to be sorry for in the penitential rite, leaving water in your kettle. 

The whole interview is naturally worth reading again by anyone who is really keen on the conversion of England. It leaves us all with a problem, though: the Pope and Bishop Conry, on the face of it, don’t seem to agree about evangelisation at all. Perhaps the bishop needs now to work out a statement explaining why this only seems to be the case: after all, the Pope is pretty green, maybe there’s something he could do with that?