Recently, I wrote about two bishops who were recently in the news for the wrong reasons. Now, I would like to balance the spreadsheet, so to speak, by highlighting two exemplary bishops who were also in the news during the past week. The first is Archbishop John Nienstedt of St Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the other is Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster UK. Both men made the headlines for their courageous leadership. They deserve to be praised.
On January 6, LifeSite News reported that Archbishop Nienstedt had recently urged his clergy to avoid any public dissent on the issue of 'gay marriage'. Writing to his priests, he told them that they must not publicly contradict the Church’s teaching. He also requested them to refrain from opposing the Archdiocese's attempts to amend the state constitution - which, if successful, would result in securing the definition of marriage as being the union of one man and one woman.
In an email to all his clergy, the Archbishop of St Paul and Minneapolis quoted at length from a speech he had given during a recent study day for priests. Referring to the attacks being made on marriage and the family by advocates of so-called 'gay marriage', the Archbishop had this to say to his co-workers: "The gravity of this struggle, and the radical consequences of inaction propels me to place a solemn charge upon you all. On your ordination day, you made a promise to promote and defend all that the Church teaches. I call upon that promise in this effort to defend marriage. There ought not be open dissension on this issue."
There was a time when open rebellion and dissent amongst the clergy was the preserve of a handful of eccentrics and cranks. Bishops hardly ever had to remind their priests of the solemn duty incumbent upon them to defend and promote the teachings of the Catholic Church. As we all know, in some places those days of obedience and humility have long gone. Dissent is routine. Priests and laity often wilfully choose to ignore the precepts of Christ and his Church. These people are sometimes even supported by their bishops.
Therefore, in insisting that his priests do what is expected of them, Archbishop Nienstedt is being quite courageous. He is willing to stick his head above the parapet and challenge the culture of disobedience and dissent that seems to have infected parts of the Church.
Addressing his diocese in a New Year's Day pastoral letter, Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster dared to ask whether it was right for parishioners to pay for the upkeep of so-called Catholic schools where the majority of pupils and teachers have no allegiance to the Church. In speaking out on this issue, Bishop Campbell indicated that his diocese will not be following the seemingly secular culture that prevails within Catholic education departments in other parts of the Church in England and Wales.
According to the Telegraph, Bishop Campbell's comments "will be welcomed by traditionalists who want church [sic] schools to retain their Christian ethos, but will be seen as controversial elsewhere." It's true to say that many traditional commentators maintain that the Church in England and Wales has been deliberately watering-down the Catholic-ethos of its schools over the past few decades. They also believe that certain education advisers working for the Church wish to see Catholic schools becoming more secular than Christian - "inclusive" towards non-Catholics, whilst excluding Catholicism itself!
Many people, especially parents, fear that the Catholic faith has been pushed out of our Church schools in recent years. Some teachers and educators who work in our Catholic schools also appear to resent the Church's teachings on such issues as homosexuality and abortion - I speak as one who spent a week as an observer within a respected Catholic school. It's also true to say that some teachers are actually undermining the Faith from inside our Catholic schools. They are engaging in a type of counter-evangelisation - turning children away from Catholicism, as opposed to encouraging them to explore its life-transforming and freedom-giving message of truth and love.
This intolerable situation, where Catholic schools and colleges appear to have adopted an anti-Catholic ethos brings to my mind something that a bishop shared with me a few years ago. Although he probably never expressed his views in this way to his brother-bishops, this now deceased bishop once told me that he was of the opinion that many Catholic schools were actively dissuading boys from exploring vocations to the priesthood. He went on to claim that children educated in the state sector often had a better chance of discerning priestly vocations than those who received a Church-sponsored schooling.
The Telegraph also reported that more than 80% of pupils at some schools in the Diocese of Lancaster are not Catholic. The newspaper also mentioned that one Catholic primary school is about to be converted into an Islamic faith school in the neighbouring Diocese of Salford, because the vast majority of its pupils are currently Muslim. Bishop Campbell, who stressed in his pastoral letter that "[t]he Church only exists to evangelise", wondered why local Catholics in the northern England were expected to support educational institutions that no longer seemed fit for purpose.
The Bishop's letter also reminded the people of Lancaster that: "buildings, churches, parishes, schools and colleges are only valuable insofar as they help the Church in that mission of salvation." Reflecting on the fact that the majority of those who attend Catholic schools are not themselves Catholic, Bishop Campbell went on to ask "Is it right or sustainable to expect our Mass-going population of 21,000 to support our schools and colleges in which often the majority of pupils, and sometimes teachers, are not practising Catholics?"
In emphasising that Catholic schools exist to provide a Catholic education, the Bishop of Lancaster has raised some very valid and important points. When Catholic schools end up becoming "Catholic in name only", is it right for them to retain their Catholic status? Why should a school be called Catholic, when its teachers have little or no interest in the Catholic faith, or even sometimes demonstrate a barely concealed hostility towards the Gospel? In asking these questions, Bishop Campbell has demonstrated a courageous willingness to grapple with reality and to also act radically for the Gospel's sake.
Needless to say, there was a time, not that long ago, when it was accepted that the first duty of every Catholic school was to provide a Catholic education to Catholic children. Bishops did not have to remind educators and parents of their school's duty to conform to the Church's basic teachings. It would also have been unthinkable a few decades ago to see so-called Catholic schools promoting gay marriage and abortion, amongst many other anti-Christian social policies. Nowadays, though, it sadly seems as if the teaching of these errors is de rigueur in some Church-run educational establishments.
In choosing to question the prevailing attitude that appears to have swept through the Catholic education services in England and Wales, Bishop Michael Campbell is providing leadership that is both brave and wise. He is not afraid to speak the truth in love and to ask some difficult questions. He is obviously aware of his duty as a bishop - even if that means being at variance with the policies espoused by many of his brother-bishops in other parts of the local Church. In that respect, Bishop Campbell is witnessing to an important aspect of what Christian leadership is all about - the willingness, when needed, to swim against the tide.
It's probably fair to say that only a few decades ago, neither of these two bishops would have been considered remarkable for defending marriage or Catholic education. Most people prior to the 1960s and 70s would have known that Catholic bishops are obliged to defend the truth and govern the Church with wisdom, justice and real charity. Nowadays, though, it seems that men who speak up for the Church from within the episcopacy are deemed newsworthy. That speaks volumes.
In some parts of the world, men like the Archbishop of St Paul and Minneapolis and the Bishop of Lancaster are actually being episcopally counter-cultural. They are putting their heads above the ecclesiastical parapet and swimming against the episcopal tide. For that reason, then, it is imperative that laypeople support bishops like John Nienstadt and Michael Campbell. Courage like theirs needs to be bolstered by the prayers and good will of their flock.
Spero columnist Dylan Parry is based in the UK and writes at AReluctantSinner.