USCC Watch: In Chancery

“The little Jellybys,” said Richard, “are—really I can’t help expressing myself strongly sir—in a devil of a state.”

“She means well,” said Mt Jarndyce, hastily. “The wind’s in the east. ”

“It was in the North, sir, as we came down,” said Richard.

“My dear Rick,” said Mr Jarndyce, “I’ll take an oath it’s in the east, or going to be. I am always conscious of an uncomfortable sensation now and then when the wind is blowing in the east.”

John Jarndyce, honorable, generous and lenient owner of Bleak House in Charles Dickens’s novel of that name, was a principal party to an interminable lawsuit which damaged or destroyed most of the litigants. Jarndyce is able to maintain his natural benevolence and moral equilibrium despite the engulfing murk of the endless litigation by a kind of meticulous detachment that blinds him, for the most part, to the misery and blight which surround him. At those moments when the fog lifts to reveal real suffering, however, he invariably perceives an “east wind,” a discomfiting draft from which he instantly seeks almost any means of escape. When he is told that his ward, Esther, has attended to the neglected children of the militantly philanthropic Mrs. Jellyby, Jarndyce observes sanguinely that the direction of the wind has changed.

There is something about the gentle Mr. Jarndyce that puts one in mind of some of our good bishops, who find themselves deeply enmeshed in muddles often not of their own making, frequently inherited, and at least as densely tangled and just as destructive as the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. The stalled English translation of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is an obvious example of this phenomenon, as are the clerical sex scandals that afflict numerous dioceses with, as Dickens would put it, “crust upon crust of mud.”

Still another example of gloomy Chancery fog is the new video on “Women in the Church” (reported in USCC Watch, May), scheduled to appear May 23 on NBC. This left-leaning image of Catholic women in America was produced with an ample budget ($105,000), not, actually, by the bishops’ Committee on Women, but by the Catholic Communications Campaign. The Church’s version of the High Court of Chancery has a web of interlocking directorates at least equal to a corporate conglomerate.

But there is more. “Follow the Way of Love” is the title of the third “consultation draft” of the proposed pastoral letter on the family, slated for final vote at the November meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) for the United Nations 1994 International Year of the Family. Released at the end of April only to bishops or diocesan officials who requested it, the draft is the work of the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family, headed by Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth, headed by Dolores Leckey. Comments were to be returned by May 15.

Although this draft is only 22 pages long, mercifully shorter than the famous pastoral on women’s concerns, it is cut from the same cloth. Its longest section (four pages) is on “gender equality,” and is unmistakably recycled from the rejected pastoral on women, “One in Christ Jesus.” Like the women’s pastoral, this section opens with Galatians 3:27-8 (“in Christ there is no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”). This condensed version of the nub of the women’s pastoral portends the way that it will continue to be cannibalized.

Even ignoring the serious doctrinal deficiencies of this family pastoral draft, stylistically it is of a piece with the women’s pastoral. It employs the by-now standard jargon of religious bureaucrats, and occasionally descends into pure metaphorical goofiness. For example, from the section “The Challenge to Love,” we learn on page ten that it is “difficult to grasp fully love’s human face.” CRISIS readers will recall (USCC Watch, April) that preparations for this pastoral required a full blown Colloquium of experts and others who met last summer to dismantle the theology of the “domestic Church.” Allowing for travel expenses, hotels, meetings, workshops, communications specialists, publication materials, and the whole panoply of Chancery accoutrements, would anyone care to calculate the cost per page? Is this how the bishops want to spend the Church’s money?

Esther’s comments on the vast number of people who importune Mr. Jarndyce has a rather familiar ring:

It seemed that everybody knew him who wanted to do anything with anybody else’s money. It amazed us to find how the great object of the lives of nearly all his correspondents appeared to be to form themselves into committees for getting in and laying out money. The ladies were as desperate as the gentlemen; indeed, I think they were even more so. They threw themselves into committees in the most impassioned manner and collected subscriptions with a vehemence quite extraordinary. They wanted everything… They wanted whatever Mt Jarndyce had—or had not. Their objects were as various as their demands. They were going to raise new buildings, they were going to pay off debts on old buildings, they were going to establish in a picturesque building the Sisterhood of Medieval Marys; they were going to give a testimonial to Mrs. Jellyby; they were going to have their Secretary’s portrait painted… ; they were going to get up everything, I really believe, from five hundred thousand tracts to an annuity… They took a multitude of titles. They were the Women of England, the Daughters of Britain, the Sisters of all the Cardinal Virtues separately, the Females of America, the Ladies of a hundred denominations….

Mr Jarndyce had fallen into this company in the tenderness of his heart and his earnest desire to do all the good in his power…. When Mr Gusher spoke for an hour to… two charity schools of small boys and girls, who were specially reminded of the widow’s mite, and requested to come forward with halfpence and be acceptable sacrifices, I think the wind was in the east for three whole weeks.

Mr. Jarndyce wants to do the right thing—and often does. But, though an honorable man, even outstandingly so, he manages to insulate himself most of the time from the intolerable “discomfort of the ‘east wind’ ” which demands that he take strong and immediate action. Although no one is more genuinely sympathetic with his fellow-man (especially to children and women) than Mr. Jarndyce, he is over-inclined to accept any promise of shelter from the threat of a chilling eastwind—including distracting breezes from shallow and manipulative friends.

The shudder which the east wind evokes in Jarndyce is metaphysical, of course; thus he easily falls prey to the soothing words of unworthy aspirants for his beneficences. It takes extraordinary courage for John Jarndyce not to avert his gaze from the brutality of real suffering. Yet despite his natural nobility of character and largeness of heart, Jarndyce has been damaged by the relentless and labyrinthine machinations of the High Court of Chancery which have shrouded the lives of all the Jarndyce heirs for more than 30 years.

Catholics are praying that our bishops will not find the Chancery fog impenetrable—nor the east wind impossible to bear.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.