An interview with self-styled "infamous" Father Michael Clifton, who thinks the subtle concept of "people of God" has undermined everything in the Catholic Church.
This is a variation of my article which is due to be published in the next issue of Catholic Life magazine.
I am at the refurbished and rather swish "Holy Cross Village", East Sussex, which is in the South East of England. It is home to the Grace and Compassion nuns, a branch of the Benedictine Order. It is also a retirement home for diocesan priests, including the recently retired but very busy Fr Michael Clifton. The latter describes Holy Cross in the following way;
"The nuns have provided a home for retired people, mainly Catholic but open to all. It consists of flats, and a separate unit which contains a residential retirement home at ground level and a full nursing care unit upstairs. The main sisters' chapel doubles as the parish church for Heathfield and the parish priest lives in a flat there, and the sisters have their own chaplain who also has a flat there".
At 80 Father Clifton has an extraordinary mental energy and a variety of hobbies and interests. He is an avid follower of current church affairs and this flows from his passion as a church historian and archivist, a position he held for 25 years in Southwark Diocese. He is right up to date on the Catholic blogosphere - of which he had a blog himself, until Father Herbie Brush (not his real name) threatened to sue him!
Father Clifton lives in one of the new flats in the Victorian mansion of Holy Cross Priory, and apart from his extensive reading collection, has managed to fit in his beloved electric train-set. I will refer to Father Clifton simply as, "Father".
Father was ordained at 24 in 1959 and lived in the heady days leading up to and during the turbulent years of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican 2). For him and many others, it was an exciting period. For others it was an anxious time.
I ask, "So Father, as a newly ordained priest what were your feelings leading up to Vatican 2?".
"Oh, I was completely liberal - yes - all my contemporaries went liberal - for a time, we thought the Church needed some 'brushing up' - we welcomed Vatican 2! Oh, and I was reading "Slant" - a magazine produced by a group of dissidents - they have all died now. The magazine was proposing all the horrors - which we more-or-less have today - as a result of the aftermath of Vatican 2". He continues - "I was converted from all that rubbish in 1968, when I was teaching at the St John Fisher School - and Father Nesbitt put me back on the straight and narrow, as soon as Humanae Vitae appeared". [This was Pope Paul 6th's encyclical, which re-iterated the Church's perennial teaching against birth control]. After that, Father became very traditional, unlike a fair few of his fellow priests, who remained and still remain in the liberal mind-set.
At around the end of the 1970s, at the request of a dying lady's wish, Father had to re-learn the Old Rite Mass, as the Novos Ordo vernacular Mass of Pope Paul 6th had been introduced around 1969. He says, "I hadn't said the Latin Mass for years, but after that episode, I became hooked on it, and began to say the Old Rite regularly". He was joined by a group of priests, who went to Rome to get an indult (permission) to say the Old Mass, which they were able to get. Many would argue that an indult was unnecessary as the Old Rite could never be abrogated since the Council of Trent anathematised anyone who tried to stop priests from saying it!
In 1981 Father was chosen by his local deanery to be their representative at a big meeting called the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool. He says, "We were there to meet the other deanery priest representatives, and 6 or 7 of us "traddies" met together every evening at "The Shaftesbury Hotel". We became the "Shaftesbury Group". As a result of the Congress, an official report was written, which was dreadful, so I then produced my own counter-report, which I sent to all the bishops in the country. That is when I became famous, or rather - infamous really!"
"But Father", I ask - "Didn't that get you into trouble?". He replies, "No I wasn't in trouble, as I had started becoming the official historian and archivist of Southwark Diocese. I was almost 'untouchable' even when I 'got into trouble' - I became immune in a way. My position gave me a certain 'protection'. Then I started writing books, the first one was, "The Life of Bishop Amigo", followed by, "The Alliance of Dissent" - the latter of which caused me more notoriety". Father cheerfully laughs about this. The book was a catalogue of so called 'Catholic' organisations, which were seeking to undermine and/or change Church doctrine. The book gave a full description of these organisations, together with named people. Father mentions that he co-authored this book with a stalwart layman called Peter Hoare (RIP). The latter did copious research and he has surely reached his reward in Heaven.
The other books Father authored are, "The Life of Bishop Grant - first Bishop of Southwark ", "Five Victorian Converts", and "A History of Southwark Diocese".
"What about your blog?" I ask. Father replies, "I started the blog only at my last parish of Ham, Richmond. I wasn't early on the blogging scene. I had a big disaster which made me stop my blog, when a certain priest tried to sue me for libel, as I had called some of his writings heretical". This particular priest has a regular column in the Catholic Times weekly paper. Many Catholics have complained to his bishop about his unorthodox articles. Yet he gets away with it as he knows no one in the hierarchy will stop him. A very bad state of affairs.
Now I ask him about his junior seminary, which used to be at Mark Cross, a village not far from Holy Cross. Father isn't terribly complimentary about it, and says, "It was a very strict regime and we were not allowed hobbies or outside interests. It was too Victorian. Everything we read was censored - to make sure it was suitable material for young gentlemen. Luckily my railway books passed the censor test!" At that time, the Catholic Church also had a list of forbidden books, called "The Index" and Father thinks it wasn't a such a good idea, as it only encouraged them to read the books on the list! He gives an example of one silly harmless book on the list - "The Three Musketeers". He says the only reason it was censored, is that it might encourage duelling! Having said all that, he thinks caution and advice should be given about certain books and authors of the Modernist era, for example he feels Fathers Tyrrell and Loisy should be avoided. The former was expelled and the latter eventually left the priesthood.
"Now Father", I say - "What about this up-coming Synod on the Family in October 2015 - or rather, what would you do if you were a Synod Father?" He looks at me very seriously, and calmly states, "I support the good cardinals supporting the proper unchanging position on marriage, i.e, not adopting the "Kasper Proposal", which proposes allowing Holy Communion to be given to divorced and re-married couples (without annulments). This is going to be the make or break point. I don't think the Pope will endorse Cardinal Kasper's proposal. It would be terrible if he did, it would make him a heretic!" He turns to me with a look of horror on his face at the mere thought of such a thing happening! He continues, "I think parish priests won't follow the "Kasper proposal", they will ignore it". One thing Father thinks can be done, is to simplify the annulment process. He is cautious even here though, as he feels there can be complications and you still need witnesses in every case. In other words, only so much can be done in this delicate area. Father also feels that good marriage preparation is essential although problems can arise if the priest giving the lessons does not believe in what he is teaching!
Father laments the almost complete lack of Latin in recent Church documents coming from the Vatican - and feels this has led to bad translations and mis-translations - leading to ambiguous language and fuzzy thinking, which only confuses and worries the laity. He says he is worried by some of the things the Pope is alleged to have said on various contentious issues. On the latest encyclical "Laudato Si", which is on the ecology, Father says, "I don't agree with the Pope on climate change. Climate change has been going up and down for centuries and it's normal. I agree with Cardinal Pell, who says the Catholic Church has absolutely no authority to speak on these issues". The Catholic Church's only mission is to save souls, not the planet!
Father feels the next papal encyclical should deal with the errors of Modernism, which he says are rampant now. He feels Pope Benedict XVI just put a lid on modernism temporarily. Modernism was repeatedly condemned by many Popes prior to Vatican 2, and was described by one Pope as, "The Synthesis of all heresies".
Father has much to say on the aftermath of Vatican 2, describing it a having an independent "spirit" of its own and giving licence to all sorts of bad things. He laments Catholic education, which he says was "wrecked" after the Council, under the popular mantra of "spirit of Vatican 2". The publication of the erroneous Dutch Catechism was another result of this so called free "spirit". The three years after the closing of the Council in 1965 and Humane Vitae, gave birth to a rebellious spirit in the Catholic world, and a vast majority were agitating for change in the Church's perennial teaching on birth control. So much so, that when Humanae Vitae was finally published in 1968, a layman started an anti Humanae Vitae protest outside Southwark Cathedral, even daubing the walls. 1968 also marked a cultural line in the sand - certainly for the rich Western nations. There were student riots and the popular concept of, "Just do whatever you want to do", giving birth to the "Me Me Me" generation. This selfish thinking has led to the atrocious practice of "selfie-sticks", the height of vanity. What is even more ghastly, is people do these 'selfies' brazenly in public. There is no humility or modesty.
Another practice which Father says was never authorised by the Council was the introduction of receiving Holy Communion in the hand and standing. He says the result has been a catastrophic weakening of the belief in the Real Presence in the Host, which is tragic. Many Catholics have totally lost the Faith.
Father thinks that the current crisis in the Catholic Church stems from a very subtle idea, which was introduced at Vatican 2. He says, "There is one fundamental weakness of V2 - so subtle that many haven't really cottoned on to it yet. The concept that; Vatican 2 introduced the idea of The Church as "The People of God", as a model. Now this isn't quite right. The best model of The Church, is the Mystical Body of Christ; with the role for the laity explained. This term "People of God" introduced the idea that the laity are on the level of priests. In fact the progressive theologian Schillebeeckx said anybody could be a priest, with just a little training! That is the big weakness as it affects everything including the liturgy, and now we have chaos".
Another ambiguity of the Council he feels is that not much is mentioned of the fact that Catholics are still obliged to convert non-Catholics, which has led to a collapse in the missionary activity of the Church. I ask Father about the Jewish Old Covenant - which has caused confusion due to some cardinals stating that the Old Covenant is still valid on its own. Father says, "No. The Old Covenant came to an end with the veil of the Temple splitting. Or rather, more correct to say that, The old Covenant was subsumed (taken into) into the New Covenant. It was not cancelled entirely, as The Ten Commandments which are part of the old Covenant still exist as the basis for morality in the New". He says clarification is needed to dispel the post-conciliar confusion on this topic. The fact still remains that, Catholics are duty-bound to try and convert non-Catholics including Jews.
Father mentions that Cardinal Biffi (RIP 2015) said that the post Vatican 2 Church is virtually a new church. I mention to Father that Our Lady of La Salette revealed that the Catholic Church would be eclipsed. He nods and sighs - "Well there you are then".
For the interview Father is wearing a mid-grey shirt with his clerical collar - he has strong views on clerical dress which is - "keep the collar on!". Even in hot climates, a priest can wear a white shirt and collar. He says in England there is no excuse not wear the collar. Even retired priests should keep it on. You never know when you might be needed! For example, If a penitent sees the collar, it may encourage him or her to go to confession.
Although Father is retired he has taken on useful roles at Holy Cross, including saying Masses for the parish priests when necessary. He likes to help the lay residents if he can. The new bishop of Arundel and Brighton has also given his blessing to Father Clifton saying the Latin Mass on 4th and 5th Sundays of the month, within Mayfield deanery. Indeed, Bishop Richard Moth (who replaced Bishop Conry) has ordered these Latin Masses to be publicised as widely as possible!
Two trainee altar server boys of which one is my son, were delighted to be given a guided tour of Father's electric train-set.