Recently mention was made here of news reports, picked up in many blogs, that the English bishops had advised British lawmakers that in any future royal mixed marriage the children would not have to be brought up Catholic. Not all examples were quoted in my blog post but if you look here and here you will see what the impression was that conveyed. It really was alarming news and filled more than just me with dismay.
It transpires that the Bishops’ Conference and its General Secretary, Monisgnor Marcus Stock, were done a grave disservice by this reporting, which was, quite simply, untrue. It pains me that I contributed unwittingly to this disservice. It is a timely reminder that “breaking news” is not always accurate news. In a world in which information floods across our computer and phone screens, it is all to easy to read the bite size chunks of summary and accept them too readily. 140 characters is rarely able to communicate accurately news of any complexity. For me, the discipline now is to look beyond the initial brief reports, and the barely longer follow up reports, to get the fullest detail possible on a controversial or important story. It is also a reminder that not every news provider can be trusted to report sensitive news accurately. In this regard the Catholic News Service and Catholic Culture have let the bishops’ conference down and, no less, faithful Catholics as well.
So I must apologise to the Bishops’ Conference for unintentionally aiding and abetting this disinformation about them.
The news centred on an extract of the Hansard record of a speech made by Lord Wallace of Tankerness in the Lords on 22 April. The news bulletins quoted only excerpts from the Hansard record. The relevant passage should be read in full:
As the House knows, following a commitment made in Committee, I met Monsignor Stock on behalf of Archbishop Nichols and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to discuss this matter. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford indicated, Archbishop Nichols indicated that the wording had been discussed with the Cabinet Office. I have the specific consent
of Monsignor Stock to say that he was speaking on behalf of Archbishop Nichols as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and can inform the House that the view taken by the Catholic Church in England and Wales is that in the instance of mixed marriages the approach of the Catholic Church is a pastoral one: the Catholic Church will always look to provide guidance that supports and strengthens the unity and indissolubility of marriage. It is in this context, the Catholic Church expects Catholic spouses to sincerely undertake to do all that they can, to raise their children within the Catholic Church. Where it has not been possible for a child of a mixed marriage to be brought up as a Catholic, the Catholic parent does not fall subject to the censure of Canon Law.
Reading His Lordship’s words carefully one can see there is no extra concession made to royal mixed marriages. In fact Lord Wallace seems to recapitulate Mgr Stock’s advice in a way that reflects the current canonical position, namely that “the Catholic Church expects Catholic spouses to sincerely undertake to do all that they can, to raise their children within the Catholic Church.” That is unequivocal enough.
The mischief comes in the presentation of what follows: “Where it has not been possible for a child of a mixed marriage to be brought up as a Catholic, the Catholic parent does not fall subject to the censure of Canon Law.” “Where it has not been possible” does not equate to where the parents do not bother. It must be read in light of what immediately precedes it, namely that the Church expects children in mixed marriages to be raised Catholic. So “if it has not been possible” can only refer to a situation in which the Catholic partner has been unable to fulfil his or her sincere undertaking due to changed circumstances not originally envisaged. This is nothing new, and is the position the Church adopts with regard to non-royal mixed marriages, a “pastoral” approach indeed, the recognizes that we are not always in full control of the changing circumstances of our lives, and that the integrity of the marriage bond is of paramount even if some of its obligations cannot subsequently be fulfilled.
In other words, the Church does not punish those who, due to changed circumstances not sufficiently in their control, cannot fulfil commitments made originally by them in good faith. This is what the Bishops’ Conference actually advised the Parliament. There is simply no story here other than that the Bishops’ Conference accurately explained to Parliament the Church’s position on the matter of raising in the Faith the children of royal mixed marriages.
Whom does it serve to foment disinformation about the bishops? Certainly not the bishops, the Church nor society at large. Hopefully others who also unwittingly abetted this injustice will correct their records too.
By all means may we condemn a man for the wrong he has done, but surely never for the wrong he has not done.