Was Protect the Pope really divisive? Or was it rather those whom Deacon Nick believed were undermining the teachings of the Church?

Catholic bloggers sometimes have a tense relationship with bishops (PA)

I was very sorry indeed to see that the website Protect the Pope has closed down, or rather has been closed down. A press release has been issued by Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster in explanation of his action in doing so:

Back in 2010 Deacon Nick Donnelly set up the Protect the Pope website/blog, as a direct response to the campaign of hostility and ridicule from sections of the media and lobby groups against Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI’s historic visit to the UK in September of that year.

Protect the Pope was particularly successful at this time in articulating a strong defence of the Petrine Office, the Catholic Church, and its teachings against certain secularist and anti-Catholic activists. In the last couple of years, however, Protect the Pope appears to have shifted its objective from a defence of Church teaching from those outside the Church to alleged internal dissent within the Church. With this shift, Protect the Pope has come to see itself as a ‘doctrinal watchdog’ over the writings and sayings of individuals, that is, of bishops, clergy and theologians in England & Wales and throughout the Catholic world….

It is my view that bishops, priests and deacons of the Church – ordained and ‘public’ persons – are free to express themselves and their personal views, but never in a way that divides the community of the Church i.e. through ad hominem and personal challenges. Increasingly I have felt that Protect the Pope, authored as it is by a public person holding ecclesiastical office (an ordained deacon), has, at times, taken this approach its own posts – but has also allowed for this by facilitating those who comment online.

Now, I want to make it clear that what follows is not to be interpreted as a criticism of Bishop Campbell. An ordained person is generally taken as speaking for the Church: Protect the Pope, however was always understood as Deacon Nick’s personal initiative. This never seemed odd. It seems to me that a married permanent Deacon is generally understood as having more independence than a celibate priest: he is more “in the community”, since he has to support himself: he is a kind of bridge figure between the laity and the priesthood. I certainly didn’t think of him as being a spokesman for his diocese; I didn’t even know what his diocese was. Bishop Campbell, however, did, and clearly took the view that one of his deacons had become something of a loose cannon: he therefore in effect suppressed his blog.

My own view is that in Protect the Pope, Deacon Nick exercised a particularly effective apostolate, one which I am sorry — both for his own sake and for that of the Church he so effectively served through his blog — has been taken away from him. As I say, I do not intend to criticise Bishop Campbell’s decision, the logic and integrity of which I understand perfectly: “bishops, priests and deacons of the Church”, as he says, “– ordained and ‘public’ persons – are free to express themselves and their personal views, but never in a way that divides the community of the Church, ie through ad hominem and personal challenges.”

Now, you might say that not only ordained bloggers but all Catholic bloggers should be guided by those words. I am also very well aware that this column frequently criticises Catholic individuals, including senior bishops, whom I have myself seen as fomenting “internal dissent within the Church” by their failure to defend the teachings of the Church, and sometimes by their positive intention, as it has seemed to me, to undermine those teachings.

So I ask Bishop Campbell, with the greatest respect, to ponder the following question: is it divisive to attempt to rebut, even through “ad hominem and personal challenges”, someone who has himself personally and publicly challenged the words or actions, say, of a particular Catholic bishop who has made some declaration designed to make clear the uncontested teaching of the Catholic Church? Is it not this person rather than a Catholic blog which challenges him, who is dividing the community of the Church?

Consider the example of a rebuttal by Deacon Nick of a challenge to a recent statement made by Bishop Egan of Portsmouth, a challenge emanating from an official source. Deacon Nick challenged the challenge, which he regarded as incompatible with Catholic teaching: he named names: he responded with an “ad hominem and personal” challenge. It seems to me that there ought to be someone in the Church whose vocation is to do that.

Bishop Egan had said: “When people are not in communion with the Catholic Church on such a central thing as the value of life of the unborn child and also in terms of the teachings of the church on marriage and family life – they are voting [this was addressed to MPs] in favour of same-sex marriage – then they shouldn’t be receiving Holy Communion.”

He explained that rather than being a punitive measure, the denial of Holy Communion is “always an act of mercy.” It is done, he said, “with the hope and prayer that that person can be wooed back into full communion with the Church.”

“Nobody is forced to be Catholic,” Bishop Egan had continued. “We’re called by Christ and He’s chosen us, it’s a free choice. We live under the word of God. It’s not my truth, it’s God’s truth. One would hope that in that case it would encourage someone to come back to seek communion with the Lord with the truth and say I’m sorry I got lost.”

In response to this excellently well-expressed and wholly orthodox episcopal teaching, a senior Church official wrote to Catholic MPs and peers to assure them there were “no plans to deny Communion to those who supported gay marriage”. This was then confirmed by an even more senior official. These interventions, it seems to me, were perfect examples of what Bishop Campbell calls “alleged internal dissent within the Church”: the “internal dissent”, in other words definitely exists: there’s no “alleged” about it.

Deacon Nick’s comment, typically, was simply to say that “In fact Bishop Egan was only re-iterating the Church’s discipline expounded by Pope Francis (when Cardinal of Buenos Aires), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura”. All true.

My respectful question for Bishop Campbell (who I am sure has thought and prayed deeply over what he has done) is simply this. In his defence of Catholic belief and practice in this case, was it really Deacon Nick who was being divisive? Or was it actually those who took it on themselves officially to respond on behalf of the bishops?

The accusation that Protect the Pope had come to see itself as a “doctrinal watchdog” may well be true: to which my answer is that that is exactly what we need in the current condition of the English Church. It’s a dirty job: but frankly, someone has to do it, and Deacon Nick did it forcefully and well. He has consistently defended the unity of the Church by defending the truth of its teachings, against those who have undoubtedly undermined it. I hope very much that he will be allowed to continue to do so.


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