Roman Catholic hierarchy silences faithful blogging deacon
The Rev'd Nick Donnelly is a deacon of the Roman Catholic Church in the Diocese of Lancaster, who writes the highly respected Protect the Pope blog. It has never been entirely clear to His Grace from whom or what the Pope (which one?) needs protecting, but this blog receives a million views per annum and is read in 188 countries around the world. Deacon Nick is as zealous as His Grace for free religio-political speech and open theological debate, and has dedicated the past four years of his learned life – (he holds a BA Divinity in Theology and a Masters in Spiritual Formation) – to defending the orthodox Catholic tradition. And unlike one or two of his co-religionists, he has done so with immense grace, courtesy and Christian charity.
The concerted defence of religious orthodoxy invariably brings one into occasional conflict with progressives and liberals: such factions and divisions are as prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church as they are within the Church of England and throughout the entire Worldwide Anglican Communion. The difference between them, of course, lies in the structure of ecclesial authority by which theological differences and disputes are managed and dealt with: the Church of Rome has its authoritative Magisterium, presided over by the Pope who sustains traditional teachings and infallible doctrine; the Church of England has its consensual Synod, presided over by the Supreme Governor who delegates authority to her bishops, clergy and elected laity to interpret Scripture and develop doctrine more or less as they see fit.
Deacon Nick has been nothing but faithful to his vocation: he seeks fidelity and spiritual truth, occasionally correcting, rebuking and exhorting "with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2Tim 4:2). And in this ministry he has corrected and rebuked Roman Catholic theologians, quite a few bishops and the odd cardinal. But on 2nd March 2014 he went quiet.
On 7th March, his wife posted an explanation for this absence: "Nick has been asked to observe a period of prayer and reflection."
She did not specify why this reflection was being observed or by whom it had been requested. But the Diocese of Lancaster (ie Bishop Michael Campbell) helpfully issued a swift statement to the press, freely disclosing the Bishop to be the initiator of the request. It read:
After learning that a notice had been placed upon the Protect the Pope website on 7 March saying: ‘Deacon Nick stands down from Protect the Pope for a period of prayer and reflection’ the Bishop’s Office at the Diocese of Lancaster was able to confirm that Bishop Campbell had recently requested Deacon Nick Donnelly to voluntarily pause from placing new posts on the Protect the Pope site.Interesting phraseology: Deacon Nick was "requested..to voluntarily pause" from writing his blog. What is one to infer from this other than that Deacon Nick has been somehow failing to fulfil his diaconal duties or has been otherwise deficient, disobedient or unfaithful to his church's teaching?
Meanwhile, it was also confirmed that the Bishop asked Deacon Nick to use this pause to enter into a period of prayer and reflection on the duties involved for ordained bloggers/website administrators to truth, charity and unity in the Church.
Deacon Nick has agreed to the Bishop’s request at this time.
This "period of prayer and reflection" is manifestly nothing of the sort: the "request" carries more than a whiff of absolutist clericalism; an enforced disciplinary censorship imposed upon the Deacon for daring to defend Roman Catholic orthodoxy against the more liberal winds blowing through the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales (CBEW). It is even more disconcerting when one considers that a conversation between a bishop and a member of his clergy remains, by convention, totally confidential: while the Diocese is happily issuing its defensive press releases, Deacon Nick is faithfully Trappist, having evidently been given no dispensation to speak or write about any conversations he may or may not be having with his Bishop.
Filling the void – as nature requires – a number of interesting explanations about the reasons for the Bishop's censoriousness have surfaced. The Tablet states (print version; not on-line): “Protect the Pope.. regularly criticised groups and individual bishops – including Cardinal Vincent Nichols – for being at odds with church teaching on issues such as homosexuality, women’s ordination, contraception and abortion. It is understood that concerns about the site had been raised with Bishop Campbell by fellow members of the English and Welsh hierarchy."
Fr Z, who runs the popular eponymous US blog, says: "I, for one, can imagine that a lot of pressure was exerted on the Bishop of Lancaster to have gone to such an extreme as to command a cleric under his charge not to think aloud in public."
And Fr Tim Finigan of The Hermeneutic of Continuity writes: "I think that it is no great secret that Catholic blogs are indeed a frequent topic of conversation at the meetings of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales."
Fr Z and Fr Tim may be on to something: after all, certain Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals have form on this (see HERE).
It appears that Deacon Nick is just a bit too Catholic for the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales. For as long as Pope Benedict XVI sat upon St Peter's Throne issuing the occasional motu proprio favouring the old paths (Jer 6:16), Deacon Nick's commitment to immutable truths and infallible moral law were tolerated, not least because they chimed with the Vatican under Benedict if not with the CBEW. But under Francis, the traditionalists appear to be on the retreat: they are sidelined or censored while those progressive Roman Catholics who advocate inter alia a more tolerant approach to priestly celibacy, same-sex unions, abortion or divorce and re-marriage are not merely tolerated but actively promoted.
Benedict XVI was a Catholic Herald pope; Francis inclines toward The Tablet. Or at least that's how it appears. Certainly, the Diocese of Lancaster isn't averse to promoting the latter on its website, giving high profile coverage to liberal bishops who are calling for a “radical re-examination of human sexuality”.
For Deacon Nick, such a radical re-examination is unnecessary, unholy and un-Catholic. Indeed, it amounts to apostasy. For him, such teachings do not 'develop' through synodical debate and legislative resolution, for that would incline toward the more heterodox Anglican view. No, if the Magisterium be infallible, its teaching must be protected and the Deposit of Faith defended. Dissenting bishops and cardinals must be called out, corrected and rebuked using Scripture and referencing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Those who do not repent ought to be excommuniacted.
But it is Deacon Nick who has been "requested" to "prayerfully reflect".
The Catholic Herald writes that it is impractical for bishops to seek to “censor the blogosphere”, not least because this sort of medieval inquisitorial heavy-handedness has a tendency to backfire in this fragmented digital age. Indeed, an irate (if not deeply upset) Mrs Martina Donnelly has now boldly taken over the blog, and the comment threads are replete with outrage over the injustice. While her husband is prayerfully reflecting, Mrs Donnelly is administering Catholic truth. They may have muzzled the ordained Deacon with appeals to lofty episcopal authority, but they'll never gag the faithful wife or refine the rawness of the new media.
If this were His Grace, he would carry on blogging (if only to spare his wife). If the episcopal advocates of heterodoxy sought to silence the blogging defender of orthodoxy, he would patiently await his kangaroo Spanish Inquisition and take his punishment as he was wont to do. This is England in the 21st century, not Spain of the 16th.
The Church needs more prophetic blogging watchmen like Deacon Nick, exposing hypocrisy, challenging double standards and shining a light into its mysterious workings and often impenetrable darkness. Who knows, if he had been writing decades ago, how many children might have been saved from predatory paedophile priests, or if his church might have been spared the global degradation of graver scandals and moral abominations?