|Interview With Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue
By Dominic Baster
LANCASTER, England, 29 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)
A diocesan document on
balancing authentic renewal with fidelity to the teachings of the Church
is receiving praise from some high places in the Vatican.
The praise is in response to the publication of "Fit for Mission?
Church" by Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster, England. The text is
the latest in a series of documents written as part of an extensive
pastoral review project.
In the publication, the bishop argues that only by balancing change with
continuity will the life of Catholic parishes be energized with the
renewal offered to the Church at the Second Vatican Council.
Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace, said the document was "well put together" and
recommended it for the entire Church.
Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for
Clergy, also praised the text as "an effective, practical instrument for
advancing the much-heralded New Evangelization."
In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop O'Donoghue explains what led him to
write the document, why he thinks Vatican II has been misinterpreted,
and how authentic Catholic renewal can be achieved.
Q: Why did you feel it was necessary to produce such a comprehensive
critique on the Church in England and Wales now?
Bishop O'Donoghue: Similar to the rest of the Catholic Church, the
Diocese of Lancaster has had successes in its implementation of the
decisions of the Second Vatican Council, but also a variety of problems.
These I frankly lay out in my document so we can at last talk about them
openly and honestly.
For too long, bishops and people have been inhibited about openly
admitting the sickness in the Church, and wider society, caused by
misinterpretations of the Council, and the corresponding widespread
dissent. If we fail in our duty of presenting the truths of the faith,
it is not only the Church that suffers, but also wider society.
However, I can see signs that this reticence to speak out about the
misinterpretation of the Council is changing under the leadership of
Pope Benedict XVI, with more bishops
particularly in the United States
going public about the need to heal the wounds in the Church.
Q: Why do you think Vatican II has been misinterpreted by so many?
Bishop O'Donoghue: What we have witnessed in Western societies since
the end of the Second World War is the development of mass education on
a scale unprecedented in human history
resulting in economic growth, scientific and technological advances, and
the cultural and social enrichment of billions of people's lives.
However, every human endeavor has a dark side, due to original sin
and concupiscence. In the case of education, we can see its distortion
through the widespread dissemination of radical skepticism, positivism,
utilitarianism and relativism. Taken together, these intellectual trends
have resulted in a fragmented society that marginalizes God, with many
people mistakenly thinking they can live happy and productive lives
One of the great truths recognized by the Second Vatican Council is
that the Church is part of human history and culture. Therefore, it
shouldn't surprise us that the shadows cast by the distortion of
education, and corresponding societal changes, have also touched members
of the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it, even in the Church we find
hedonism, selfishness and egocentric behavior.
The Second Vatican Council tends to be misinterpreted most by
Catholics who have had a university education
that is, by those most exposed to the intellectual and moral spirit of
the age. These well-educated Catholics have gone on to occupy
influential positions in education, the media, politics, and even the
Church, where they have been able to spread their so-called loyal
dissent, causing confusion and discord in the whole church.
This failure of leadership has exacerbated the even greater problem
of the mass departure from the Church of the working-class and poor. For
example, the relentless diatribe in the popular media against
Christianity has undermined the confidence of the ordinary faithful in
I strongly support Catholics receiving a university education, but we
have to ensure that they also have a firm grounding in the fullness of
the faith from an early age in our homes, schools and parishes, and that
they are equipped to challenge the erroneous thinking of their
Q: One of the questions you address is whether we have forgotten what
it is to be Catholic. What do you say to those whose response to this
crisis in Catholic identity is to reject change altogether?
Bishop O'Donoghue: The Jewish Christians in the early Church didn't
want to embrace the dietary and ritual changes that were implicit in
Jesus' Gospel. If they had succeeded in their opposition to Sts. Peter
and Paul, the Church would not have spread like wildfire throughout the
Roman world, and beyond.
The strength and vitality of Catholicism
which is a sign of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit
is that it can change and adapt to its surrounding culture, while at the
same time maintaining what is essential and definitive about its
identity, that originates from the will of God. As Cardinal Henri de
Lubac passionately believed, the Catholic genius is to balance necessary
change with eternal continuity.
Q: You describe the liturgy as "the wellspring of the life of the
Church" and "the authentic starting point of all renewal." How should we
balance continuity and change in the liturgy in ordinary Catholic
Bishop O'Donoghue: "Sacrosanctum Concilium" [The Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy] remains a sound, measured guide to how we cultivate an
authentic liturgical life in our parishes. Paragraph 23 deals with the
challenge of balancing the retention of "sound tradition" with openness
to "legitimate progress."
Applying this principle to the Mass, the Council fathers directed
that the use of Latin must be preserved in the Latin-rite Church,
balanced with the use of the vernacular.
In the light of this, I have recommended to my parishes that Latin
should play a regular part in the celebration of the Mass, such as the
Gloria, the Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster, and Agnus Dei. If only this
sense of balance had been observed over the past 40 years, we would have
avoided the banality, trivialization and secularization of the liturgy
that has been all too common in the modern Church.
I think it true to say that in our almost frantic search to create
meaningful liturgy that speaks to modern men and women, we fell into the
trap on occasions of superficiality and novelty. What we need to do now
is to understand more deeply man's search for meaning, which will
include the need for the sacred, and the apprehension of the
Q: While urging Catholics to remain committed to the work of
ecumenism, you acknowledge that it sometimes leads to an "urge to gloss
over significant differences" between Christians. What should be the
practical goal of authentic ecumenism?
Bishop O'Donoghue: It's time we admitted that a wrong type of
ecumenism has put a brake on the Catholic Church's freedom to engage in
evangelization and mission in society. It's as if our fear of offending
other Christians has inhibited us from confidently proclaiming the
distinctive and defining truths of Catholicism.
However, the Council father's insight that Christian communities
outside the Catholic Church contain elements of sanctification and truth
see "Lumen Gentium," No. 15, and "Unitatis Redintegratio," No. 3
provides us with the agenda for authentic ecumenism.
Those elements of the Catholic Church that we have in common with
non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities should be the focus of
our dialogue, to the mutual enrichment and deeper understanding of both
parties. In this way we will be able to explain the full Catholic
understanding of doctrine, highlight any distortions that have occurred,
and come to a deeper appreciation of the truth ourselves.
Our goal should always be to strengthen the imperfect communion that
already exists in the hope that non-Catholics will come to see and come
to seek the fullness of truth.
Q: Have you been surprised at the level of response to your document,
and how do you explain the criticism you have received, even privately
from fellow bishops?
Bishop O'Donoghue: Yes, I have been surprised both by the approval
and the hostility that "Fit for Mission? Schools" and "Fit for Mission?
Church" have caused in my diocese, nationally and internationally. All I
have done is reiterate and explain the teachings of the Church as
expressed in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the
Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Many read the documents as my attempt to turn the clock back. This is
not my intention at all. What this dismissive response reveals is my
critic's rejection of a fundamental component of Catholicism
living and creative engagement with the Tradition of the Church. One of
the obstacles to the New Evangelization that we must challenge is this
"poverty of imagination" regarding the communication of the fullness of
One of the purposes of both of my documents is to encourage an open
debate among clergy and catechists about the nature and methodology of
catechesis and theology. For the past 40 years we have witnessed a
tendency toward Church doctrine being reduced to a secondary source,
with primacy given to personal experience and secular methodologies.
Like Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, I want to make the case for
re-asserting the primacy of the Deposit of Faith. Challenging
established practice always results in argument and controversy, but
such free and open discussion is healthy for the Church.
Also, one of the strengths of collegiality is that the Church benefits
from a rich multiplicity of insights from the bishops. I, personally,
have always appreciated the open and frank discussions in which I have
participated with my brother bishops of England and Wales and elsewhere.
We are not like the British Cabinet [in government] that insists that
ministers dont express different points of view in public.
We grow as a Church when we have an open exchange of insights and
experiences as bishops that involves all the people of God. Sometimes
this involves criticism and challenge, but we should never be afraid of
genuine criticism, as it's a sign of mature friendship.
Q: How hopeful are you for a Catholic renewal in England and Wales,
and what is the key condition for this to come about?
Bishop O'Donoghue: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once advised,
"Don't let anything make you so sad that you forget the resurrection of
the Lord." Yes, it is easy sometimes to become despondent about the
state of the Church in England and Wales, but if, during these times of
temptation, we remember the Resurrection we soon realize that anything
is possible if we are open to the grace of our Risen Lord.
The principle challenge, from which many of the other challenges
spring, is the rejection of obedience in the Church, due to the modern
emergence of a secularist-minded people. The idea of obedience and
humility toward God's truth are totally alien to many in this age of
During this time of relativism we need all Catholics to be
enthusiasts for the beauty, goodness and truth of the deposit of faith.
To avail ourselves of the riches of God's doctrine we must not approach
it with the attitude of consumers, who pick and choose according to
taste and personal comfort. We must allow the word of God to judge and
challenge us, and sometimes this is hard and uncomfortable.
I am convinced that we will only have a Catholic renewal in this country
if clergy and laity, including the bishops, wholeheartedly accept
obedience to the fullness of doctrinal, moral and liturgical truth as
entrusted to, and protected by, the Successor of St. Peter.
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On the Net:
The Catholic Truth Society's expanded edition of "Fit for Mission?