Thank goodness for Bishop-elect Egan. Humanae Vitae, he says, is infallible

A banner at a papal Mass in Benin (Photo: CNS)

Today I received the Fisher House Newsletter (of the Cambridge University Catholic chaplaincy) for 2012. On the cover’s list of contents it mentioned “Fr Richard Incledon RIP.” He happened to be the chaplain at Cambridge between 1966 and 1977. As I was an undergraduate between 1965 and 1968, we had crossed paths; thus I was interested to read the newsletter’s obituary, written by Peter Glazebrook.

As obituaries do, it said all sorts of kind things, mentioning Fr Incledon’s academic successes (a double First at Oxford), his generosity, his ecumenical spirit and his support for the redevelopment of the chaplaincy. Then came the last paragraph. It stated: “All this came after the publication of Humanae Vitae which, for Richard, as for many other priests, was a turning point. He made no secret of finding its reasoning unconvincing and its authority dubious: a Catholic should consider it carefully, but was not obliged to assent to it. He was summoned to Archbishop’s House. His card was marked and the institutional Church deprived itself of an outstanding (if demanding) seminary rector and a diocesan bishop who would have brought great distinction to the episcopate. Whether Richard saw it this way is not altogether clear. He undoubtedly found much fulfilment, and gained a multitude of devoted friends, as a chaplain and a parish priest.”

All this is rather speculative. Whether the “institutional church” was deprived of an outstanding bishop we will never know this side of heaven. Incidentally, the Catholic Herald of 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae’s publication, took a similar view, according to former editor Gerard Noel. It tried to steer a via media between the Universe, which said Catholics were obliged to assent to the papal encyclical, and the Tablet, for whom it was a very bitter pill: readers, the Herald thought, should make themselves acquainted with what Pope Paul VI wrote and then follow their conscience. I rather suspect this was a polite cop-out.

Alongside the obituary, Fr Anthony Keefe, a former undergraduate who had known Fr Incledon – and who had arrived the autumn after I had gone down – wrote: “In the aftermath of Humanae Vitae, Richard was particularly generous in his support of priests whose superiors had been especially heavy-handed – but then generosity was his watchword. Fisher House was always a refugium peccatorum, yet it was not permitted to be a hiding-hole. Richard demanded of Catholic students that they play their part in the wider world of the university: he disbanded the Fisher Society, which he considered too insular and as encouraging ‘chaplaincy mice’.”

Reading between the lines, this looks as if Fisher House became an unofficial centre of “loyal dissent” as the phrase goes. I also wonder how many Catholic undergraduates were influenced by their chaplain’s line on the authority or otherwise of Humanae Vitae? I mention all this partly through a sad sense of “sic transit gloria mundi” and also because in William Oddie’s recent blog about the new appointment of Fr Philip Egan as eighth bishop for the Diocese of Portsmouth, he adds, intriguingly, that Fr Egan gave a talk in 2009 on the authority of Humanae Vitae “in which he argued that its teaching was proclaimed infallibly from the ordinary magisterium”.

It seems that Fr Egan’s talk took place at St Patrick’s, Soho Square – a centre of loyal assent, I am glad to report – and this is what, inter alia, he said: “It seems to me that there is a persuasive case for believing that the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, regardless of the pastoral difficulty it causes, regardless of the philosophical and theological arguments thrown against it, regardless of the historical conditioning of its neo-scholastic framework, has been, and is being taught infallibly, that is, irreversibly and without error, by the Church’s ordinary universal magisterium.”

I hope very much that Bishop-elect Egan’s appointment will bring distinction to the “institutional Church”. Thank goodness that, for whatever reason – such as his orthodoxy? – his card has not been marked.