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Catholic World News News Feature

A very English schism? November 01, 2004

By Eric Hester

The English can be very puzzling. Even in their use of their own language they are different. Understatement has been carried to a fine art. For an Englishman to say that something is “not half bad” is one of the highest terms of praise. Similarly, the English do not like public disputes. Thus over the last 30 years or so, there have been no great statements of dissent from Rome by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. (Scotland has its own bishops’ conference, as of course does Ireland.) Leaders of the Catholic Church in England never issue public statements criticizing the Vatican, let alone showing open dissent. They just ignore Rome.

Thus, for example, on such matters as general absolution, the too-frequent use of extraordinary ministers of the Holy Communion, or the routine practice of children receiving first Holy Communion before first Confession, no English bishop has argued against the clear instructions from Rome. Yet these abuses are rife all over England, and diocesan officials enthusiastically recommend them.

Twice in recent months, the BBC network—which has shown itself increasingly captive to rabid anti-Catholic sentiments—has broadcast television programs attacking the Church’s teaching about contraception and in particular pillorying Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the campaign to prevent AIDS transmission through the massive distribution of condoms. Not a single English bishop has defended Cardinal Trujillo or the Vatican opposition to those condom giveaways—although a fair number of lay Catholics, very loyal to the Church, have leapt to the cardinal's defense.


So it is somewhat surprising that the English bishops are now in a position where they are, de facto, defying Rome. This is through a recent pronouncement by an official agency of the bishops’ conference: CAFOD, the Catholic Aid for Overseas Development.

The trustees, or controllers, of CAFOD are appointed by the bishops. Each year, just about every parish in England holds two collections for CAFOD, which has about 180 paid employees and a director on a massive salary with private health care and a car provided, though he is based in London. Over £8 million ($14 million) of its income of £28 million ($50 million) comes from the British government.

In recent years CAFOD has given scandal to faithful Catholics in several ways. It has supported various left-wing policies, never seriously criticizing the British government, the European Union, or the United Nations; and kept completely quiet about such crimes crying out to heaven for vengeance as the infamous one-child policy in China. CAFOD has been strong in its support for environmental protection and weak in its opposition to abortion.

In recent years, in fact, CAFOD has never issued any condemnation of abortion, despite the current policies under which neither the British government nor the European Union will give any aid at all to poor countries unless the countries ensure that they will respect “reproductive rights”—a code phrase for abortion. CAFOD has worked closely with International Planned Parenthood and other notorious supporters of abortion. The CAFOD web site ( does not look like a Catholic web site.

In October 2001, Catholic World Report carried a story entitled “Rude Awakening," by the young Catholic journalist Bess Twiston-Davies, in which she reported on a sensational story that had been brought to light in the London Daily Telegraph, and illustrated the extent to which the leadership of CAFOD was at odds with Catholic teaching and practice. The story involved a Mass that had been scheduled to celebrate the anniversary of a homosexual union. Twiston-Davies wrote:

This Mass was a special celebration for Pendergast, an ex-Carmelite, and his homosexual partner Julian Filochowski, the director of CAFOD, which is Britain’s leading Catholic charity and is formally attached to the bishops’ conference. This celebration—separate and distinct from the Mass organized by the gay caucus—was to be celebrated by Bishop John Crowley of Middlesbrough, the former chairman of CAFOD. Julian Filochowski has since retired as CAFOD's director, but he is still retained by CAFOD as a “special adviser.”


For some time CAFOD has given its public support to campaigns promoting the use of condoms, although for official purposes the CAFOD leadership has denied any conflict with Church teaching on the subject. In 2002, the organization's web site actually linked directly to another site, which offered the following statement about condom usage:

But condoms usually break because they are incorrectly used and simple educational measures could remedy this. Teaching young men to masturbate using condoms, for example, although difficult in some cultures, would probably encourage greater use with the onset of sexual activity.

Despite strenuous protests—made all the more emphatic because the statement seemed to be an incitement to child abuse—CAFOD refused to remove the link from its web site.

Similarly, since December 2001 the CAFOD web site has featured a statement from an Irish priest it calls its “consultant theologian” that “With all the risks of misunderstanding both in respect to the ‘safety’ of so-called safe sex and to the apparent endorsement of promiscuity, it may be socially necessary and morally legitimate to accept the use of condoms.”

Nevertheless, CAFOD has denied that it has actually “promoted” the use of condoms. And the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have continued to lend their support to CAFOD's initiatives, maintaining that the organization's approach has been “within Catholic teaching.”

All this has changed.


The ground was prepared when the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who doubles as chairman of the episcopal conference of England and Wales, gave an interview to a British daily newspaper, The Independent, on July 26. On the subject of artificial contraception this is what the cardinal said:

First, I'd say that it's right for the Church to preach chastity, that sexual intercourse is for within marriage. But God knows, people just do not live up to ideals. While we can say that, objectively, the use of condoms is wrong, there are places where it might be licit, or allowable, as when there's a danger of intercourse leading to death. It would be wrong to take a special case and make it a universal law. There is such a thing as objective morality, where things are either right or wrong; but there are also subjective matters that affect whether a thing is slightly wrong or not wrong at all. That's what we're talking about in this case. So I would agree with Cardinal Danneels's position.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the primate of Belgium, is reported to have said that “men in Africa should wear a condom during sex, otherwise it is a sin against the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Cardinal Danneels has said that his remarks were taken out of context, and insisted that he does not dispute the Church's fundamental teaching on the topic. But he argues that if an individual cannot abide by the moral requirements of chastity, he should use a condom to avoid the transmission of AIDS.

On September 25, Ann Smith, described as the HIV corporate strategist for CAFOD, published an article on its web site and also in the weekly Catholic newspaper The Tablet. The article was headed thus: “Should condoms ever be part of faith-based HIV prevention? The Catholic aid agency believes they can be—but only as part of a much broader approach.”

That opening neatly summarizes the content of the article, which argues for a “middle-ground approach” called ABC: “abstinence, be faithful, use a condom.” The article quite clearly argues that the use of condoms is not only morally licit but necessary. It adds that the approach is acceptable to Catholics. Smith says:

This strategy is based on sound theological principles. Traditional moral theology allows for an approach in which individuals subscribe to clearly identified ideals but sometimes have to make choices that fall short of these.

The article finished defiantly: “It is the only understanding of HIV prevention that CAFOD can, with integrity, seek to promote. It does so as—and is proud to be—a development agency of the Catholic Church.”


Naturally, England's most prominent daily newspapers immediately picked up the story, rightly sensing a break from Church teachings. The Times (of London) ran the headline, “Catholic Charity defies Pope on condoms.” Both the Times and the Daily Telegraph reported in some detail on Ann Smith's essay, and the Telegraph added: “Both Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the head [sic] of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, and Cardinal Godfried Danneels, his Belgian counterpart, have suggested the use of condoms might even be morally obligatory in certain circumstances.”

The story broke too late for the English Catholic weeklies to respond, but by October 1 they all carried reports on the burgeoning controversy, together with a press statement from CAFOD, which by now was trying to minimize the damage. The CAFOD release stated tersely, “We do not fund the supply, promotion, or distribution of condoms.” But the critical question was not whether CAFOD provided funding for condom distribution; the question was whether CAFOD provided the intellectual justification for those programs, lending them the approval of an official Church agency.

As this question has been asked and asked again, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have been absolutely silent. No representative of the episcopal conference, and no individual bishop, has uttered a word of criticism or condemnation of the officially announced position of CAFOD on condoms. The bishops’ conference has not dissociated itself in any way from the CAFOD position, although it has been asked by loyal Catholics to do so.

At the time of writing this article, over a fortnight after the CAFOD article appeared, I sent an email to the secretary of the bishops’ conference asking whether any announcement was likely to be made, he did not reply; instead I received a message from an official of the Catholic Communication Service, stating: "Msgr. Summersgill (the secretary) has asked me to respond on his behalf to the email you sent him, but I am afraid I am unable to add anything to what I previously said to you." What this official had previously said was that he was unaware of any impending statement about CAFOD from any official of the bishops’ conference, or from any individual bishop. One must assume that the episcopal conference approves of the CAFOD position, although being English, they don’t like to make a fuss about things. But as St. Thomas More said, “Silence betokens consent.”


So is this CAFOD position actually opposed to the Church’s official teaching? Of course it is. The Church has taught, in Humanae Vitae that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” In the same encyclical, Pope Paul VI—using language that almost seems to suggest that he meant to forestall the sort of prevarication that CAFOD now uses to justify its stand—states: “This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the significance and the procreation which are both inherent to the marriage act." These extracts from Humanae Vitae are quoted in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Few doctrines of the Church have been more clearly expressed.

And what about this statement by Ann Smith of CAFOD: “This strategy is based on sound theological principles. Traditional moral theology allows for an approach in which individuals subscribe to clearly identified ideals but sometimes have to make choices that fall short of these.”

This statement—again, presumably made with the approval of the bishops’ conference, since CAFOD is governed by the bishops, and no one representing the bishops' conference has chosen to contradict CAFOD's public pronouncement—is, if anything, even worse than the deliberate defiance of the magisterium. Far from being a statement of “traditional moral theology,” it is a profound error that has been condemned by the Holy Father himself in Veritatis Splendor. In that great encyclical (104) Pope John Paul writes: “It would be a very serious error to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an ‘ideal’ which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man, according to a ‘balancing of the goods in question.’”

Once again, the point being made in the papal encyclical seems almost to anticipate the argument from CAFOD, and reject it in advance. In that passage of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II supplies a footnote telling the reader that in his reference to an erroneous "balancing of the goods in question," he is quoting his own words, from an address to people taking part in a course on "responsible parenthood." In other words, as he wrote those particular words, the Holy Father had in mind not only the general error of those who try to make out that the Church’s teaching is only an ideal, but the actual circumstances here invoked by CAFOD. The Holy Father goes on, in paragraph 105, to assert, “An attitude of this sort corrupts the morality of society as a whole, since it encourages doubt about the objectivity of the moral law in general and a rejection of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions regarding specific acts, and it ends up by confusing all judgments about values.”

In short CAFOD, supported by the bishops' conference, is, first, defying a clear teaching of the Church and, second, advancing an argument that, according to the Holy Father, “corrupts the morality of society as a whole.”

For a part of the Catholic Church to deny a clear teaching of the Church is an invitation to schism. The English bishops—who have been so silent through the years, and have tried to avoid anything that looked “unEnglish”—are heading toward a break with Rome. The only way to avoid this break is for the bishops publicly to repudiate CAFOD’s support for the use of condoms, and to reaffirm their adherence to all Catholic doctrines.

On October 8, the London Catholic Herald reported that although Rome had not yet given an official response to the CAFOD controversy, a “Vatican official” said that the English bishops would “not have the sanction of the Holy See” if they backed an agency that openly dissented from Church teaching. This has happened before. An English episcopal conference, then called Convocation, agreed that one King Henry VIII was the head of the Church in England, with a vote that was unanimous except for the Bishop of Rochester, a certain John Fisher. Will there be even one bishop to object this time to a breach with Rome?

[AUTHOR ID] Eric Hester was for 24 years head of an English Catholic school and he now writes for leading English Catholic newspapers.