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U.K. priests challenge Vatican’s ‘attitude of fear’

The following letter from the National Conference of Priests of England and Wales was adapted Sept. 10 and sent to the Symposium of European Priests meeting in Strasbourg, France, Sept. 21-28.

We, the National Conference of Priests, representing the priests of England and Wales, send greetings from our 1998 meeting in Birmingham to our brother priests in Europe, and we would like to share with you a concern that may find echoes in your own pastoral experience.

As priests committed to pastoral care in dioceses and parishes, we find ourselves naturally in the vanguard of the church’s mission. Our ordained ministry is increasingly focused on discovering and developing the gifts of a parish people, many of whom are now sharing a range of formal ministries within the church, as well as exercising their priesthood in the world at large.

We find that there is a growing anxiety among them, which we also share, about the increasingly restrictive and sanction-based directives that come from the Holy See and the Roman curia. Recent attempts to foreclose on some theological discussions, which are at present unresolved, alarm us and are even a cause of scandal. Efforts to silence and even to outlaw discussion are proving grave impediments to people accepting the credibility of the church as institution. We are acutely aware of the way in which the church’s teaching, for instance, on the right to religious freedom and on the values of ecumenism have radically developed over the last century. These developments frequently come about after the conscience of many of the people of God had rejected the older view. The church’s traditional teachings often need new forms of expression and fresh applications to the varied problems of our time.

In England and Wales we were greatly encouraged by our bishops’ recognition (especially as found in their Meditation on a Jubilee Church in September 1995) of the actual frailty of our communion. They conceded that in the church “there are people who feel angry or hurt or excluded.” We value their saying that “we need to become a church more conscious of our own need for repentance,” not least because “we find ourselves sometimes excluding people whom Christ may well have invited into his company,” and we were especially impressed by the humility with which they recognized the Lord’s call “to follow him joyfully along a path that is not always clear to us.”

In the light of such a reflective leadership by our bishops, many of our lay people are totally puzzled by the attitude of fear that seems to underlie certain statements from Rome. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit in their baptism and confirmation, they realize that they are called directly to the work of the church’s mission and would like their insights on problematic issues to be taken into full account.

We have great confidence in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit among us and the whole church. We are ready to face all kinds of uncertainties and the possibility of mistakes as we move forward in a fast-changing and confusing world. People no longer expect simple, authoritative decisions from a church leadership that does not appear to take their understanding into account.

It is possible that a more extended voice from the priests of Europe may encourage change wherever this is necessary for the good of the church.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998