We Need a Wise and Gentle Monk

By Liz Hunt
Telegraph [United Kingdom]
January 25, 2007

For many Catholics of my generation, belief is diluted by a maddening mix of compromise and hypocrisy.

We have adopted an la carte approach to our religion, rejecting fundamental teachings on premarital sex and birth control. We recoil from the Church's resolute stance on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, IVF and embryo research.

We despise the hierarchy for the protection it gave to paedophile priests, and find it incomprehensible that it refuses to sanction condoms as some defence against the spread of HIV in the Third World.

And yet, deep down, we relish membership of a club with such hard-line doctrine. There is security in knowing the rules are there even if we choose to break them. When one of our number makes a stand and I refer to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's opposition to the adoption of children by gay couples we cheer them on, cushioned by a certain moral smugness. Or do we?

This is the most tantalising of rows, encompassing sex, religion and politics. The protagonists include a Prime Minister sympathetic to Rome; his wife, reportedly a devout Catholic; a discredited minister affiliated to a deeply conservative Catholic sect; and an Archbishop who, until now, has done little to inspire his flock.

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has never escaped the long shadow cast by his predecessor, Basil Hume. Beneath the mantle of the wise and gentle monk, Hume was a wily politician, with a pragmatic yet awesome spirituality that won him many admirers.

In stark contrast, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's leadership has been tainted by the "serious mistake" he admitted to in appointing a priest known to be a paedophile to the chaplaincy at Gatwick Airport in 1985. For some, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, this was a resigning matter.

More recently, he was embroiled in another scandal, following allegations about the private life of one of his senior aides whose former girlfriend had an abortion.

Those who know Murphy O'Connor say he is a warm-hearted, good man who has relied on the wrong people for advice. The less charitable accuse him of enjoying the role of glad-handing Cardinal, especially if aristocracy are involved ("If you want Cormac to do something, get a countess involved," said one), but of failing to make the tough decisions his position demands.

Well no one could accuse Murphy-O'Connor of not acting tough now, even if it is the ambitious Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, who is driving this. Writing to every Cabinet member to outline his opposition and gaining the support of the Church of England too, is the act of leadership we've been waiting for. If, as is expected, he steps down later this year, then the Cardinal's last stand will have been a memorable one.

So part of me is urging "Go Cormac, go!" but another part of me hangs back. If, as the Cardinal warns, 12 Catholic adoption and fostering agencies will close if forced to comply with new regulations and accept gay couples on their books, who will suffer most? The children, of course hundreds of hard-to-place youngsters. Isn't this another case of the Church as an institution putting itself and its dogma first and children second, just as it did with paedophile priests?

The Government is no less culpable. It has a Children's Minister and has just published a paper called Every Child Matters, yet, for reasons of dogma, it took on the Church, despite the consequences for the most vulnerable in society.

Neither party emerges with much credit. After all, how many gay couples who genuinely want to care for a child, rather than to make a political point would go to a Catholic adoption agency anyway, given the Church's attitude to them? Compromise would have been the most desirable option, and perhaps, if that wise and gentle monk Basil Hume had been at the helm, we'd have got it.


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