Listen up, kids, because you might learn something here. This is where we give you some valuable analytical tools.
Non-Catholics often find Catholic politics completely impenetrable in that, even if the media get the actual facts of a story right, they don’t have the background knowledge to make sense of the information. This is assuming the best of intentions and ignoring for the sake of argument those people with a habit of serial misinterpretation or, alternatively, making stuff up. That’s why you get this disconnect where Catholics watching Newsnight or reading the Guardian feel that they’re getting this discussion of another “Catholic Church” in a parallel universe. And don’t even start me on Liberal Conspiracy.
But, before I head off into a rant, there’s another side to this, in that Catholics are often baffled and bemused by Church affairs. Even well-informed, attentive Catholics who know there’s such a thing as the Magic Circle find themselves scratching their heads at the bizarre and inexplicable things the Magic Circle does. Whereas if you have the right analytical tools (like a knowledge of bureaucratic organisations) a lot of what seems inexplicable at first sight turns out to be absolutely bog-standard.
Let us take as our case study the Catholic Education Service. As luck would have it, CES is very much topical in the Catholic press at the moment, as many Catholic schools are showing interest in Michael Gove’s academies scheme as a way of escaping the dead hand of CES. It’s also the case that, regardless of what you think about academies, Oona Stannard has vastly exceeded her remit in her anti-academies campaigning, and not for the first time. But here’s an interesting question – who is Oona Stannard’s line manager? Technically, I suppose, it would be Bishop Malcolm McMahon, the BCEW’s point man on education, but I suggest it is not very likely that +Malcy will be eager to crack the whip. He’s never struck me as having anything of the Simon Legree about him.
Anyway, you may remember some years ago there was a big stink in the press when a bunch of dangerous criminals were released early and went on to commit serious crimes. Who had authorised their release? Was it a minister, a Home Office official, someone in the Prison Service? Had they been through proper parole hearings? In fact it turned out that these dangerous crims hadn’t been released on anyone’s instructions; they’d been released by a computer programme, so it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nice one.
The logic of bureaucracy will be a familiar one if you’ve ever had dealings with CES. Let’s say you have a concern about the content of lessons in your local school. You talk to your head teacher, and she tells you that she’s just a functionary carrying out the policies of the diocese and CES. Since you feel strongly on the subject, you contact your diocesan bishop. He tells you that, while of course he has a pastoral concern for all the schools in his diocese, detailed educational matters are up to CES and you should really talk to them.
So then you contact CES, which is a trial in itself. After having your call transferred multiple times and having to spend hours listening to “Greensleeves”, you eventually get a human being on the other end of the phone. You put your question, and are told that (a) CES does not comment on individual schools, and (b) in any case, CES does not make policy but is simply an executive agency responsible to the Bishops’ Conference.
At this point you may give up or, if you’re really enterprising, you might contact Malcolm McMahon. If you do, then it’s a fair bet that +Malcy will tell you he’s not a micromanager and you should really direct your questions to CES.
You may think this sounds very much like a system where nobody is responsible for anything, and you would be right. You may suspect this opacity is deliberate, and I would have to agree with you. You may wonder why they haven’t just developed a computer programme to do this, and all I can tell you is that CES have been struggling valiantly with the problem, but are having trouble getting their Sinclair ZX81 to cooperate.
Here’s something else, the appointment of former Labour MP Greg Pope as deputy director of CES. Those people kicking up about Mr Pope’s voting record on abortion and such may have a point, but it’s not necessarily the most interesting point.
The pertinent question would be, was there a pre-existing deputy director’s position? I don’t think there was. So did the Magic Circle create a feudal appanage for Greg Pope out of the goodness of their hearts? I think not.
The appointment of a deputy to the blessed Oona is a recognition by the bishops that there is in fact an Oona Stannard problem. But how do they respond to that problem? By reverting to the same instincts that come into play whenever they have to respond to a problem, by (a) throwing money at the problem and (b) finding a politician to suck up to. This is what I mean by a bureaucratic organisation, with its own ingrown culture, developing its own internal logic. And what seems at first sight to be bizarre turns out to be quite explicable.
Actually, I blame Hume for a lot of this. But that’s another story…