Rome Sends a Blast of Fresh Air into Westminster

By William Langley
April 11, 2009

Archbishop Vincent Nichols claims Rome made him a man
Photo by John Springs

Profile: Vincent Nichols, the new Catholic primate of England and Wales, will stir controversy with his robust views, says William Langley.

The Roman Catholic Church that Vincent Nichols was born into in bombed-out, post-war Liverpool was, by most measures, a reassuringly innocuous organisation, heavily invested in the North and the working classes, and of only polite interest to the people who ran the country.

Young Vincent was 14 when he realised his vocation, and, a few years later, as he set off to study in Rome, might reasonably have expected to spend his life as a priest of good standing but little consequence. What he couldn't have foreseen was that, in his lifetime, the Catholic Church in Britain would be dramatically transformed in size, character and purpose and that he would be occupying its top job in England and Wales.

With the Church of England seen as having joined the liberal consensus, unwilling to confront the secularism and social experimentation fostered by a decade of New Labour rule, the Catholic Church has taken on an increasingly dominant public role. Around the country, its congregations bulge with Polish bricklayers, African asylum seekers, South American students, Filipino domestics, and growing numbers of Anglican converts. If this diverse new intake has anything in common it is a tendency to conservatism, and in 63-year-old Archbishop Vincent Nichols, appointed earlier this month to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, it has found a voice.

The new Archbishop of Westminster has spoken out against gay adoptions, the undermining of the family, the Government's assault on faith schools, the allegedly secular agenda of the BBC, and plans to advertise abortion and contraception services on television. Last week he responded wryly but robustly to a suggestion by Tony Blair that the Church relax its line on homosexuality: "I think I will take my guide from Pope Benedict." He is widely admired for his hard work, his media savvy and his down-to-earth, football-loving "good blokeishness".

Yet his appointment has not been greeted with universal rejoicing, for hanging over it is the awkward question of his sincerity. Doubts have been muttered for some time in elite Catholic circles, but they were raised, brazenly, in the latest issue of The Tablet, the newspaper of Britain's Catholics, in an article by deputy editor Elena Curti. "Renowned for his openness and pastoral concerns," she wrote, "he was also an espouser of liberal causes. But, while his stock was high among more liberal Catholics, the decision-makers in Rome were said to be less impressed. His mentor, the Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, watched this in frustration. He reputedly took 'Fr Vin' to one side and told him: 'We can't get you into the hierarchy if you carry on like this. You have to make yourself more favourable to Rome.' "

The insinuation is that Nichols switched from a liberal to conservative viewpoint purely to improve his prospects. The suggestion has caused widespread outrage among the Archbishop's supporters, including Damian Thompson, editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald and a writer on Church affairs for the Telegraph, who calls the article "a massive error of judgment that will infuriate many Catholics".

For all its broader conservative character, there is in the Catholic Church a powerful liberal core that winces whenever a senior figure speaks out against what are seen as the realities of modern society gay rights, multiculturalism, single parenthood, and all varieties of political correctness. When Nichols's appointment was first rumoured, a group of senior bishops composed an indignant letter to the Papal Nuncio in London, Archbishop Faustino Sainz Munoz, warning that such a move would be "divisive". One signatory reportedly complained that: "The confidence he has in himself, and in his views is not always shared by those around him. He could do with learning a little humility." Other accusations "confrontational", "not a team player" did the rounds. By all accounts, it took the intervention of Pope Benedict to win Nichols's promotion.

Nichols's supporters refute the charges particularly that of opportunism, arguing that his views haven't changed as much as his critics claim and that anyway it is hardly unknown for youthful liberalism to ripen into conservatism. The Archbishop's background, moreover, provides a ready-made explanation for his ability to adapt.

He was born in 1946, the middle son of committed Catholic parents. "I grew up aware that there was something beyond life," he has said. "Something to be striven for by us all. Ideals, I suppose you'd call them. My parents would always trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads before they kissed us goodnight."

He wasn't a distinguished schoolboy, but well before his final exams at St Mary's College, a Catholic grammar school, in Crosby, he had abandoned his early ambition to become a lorry driver a glamour profession on Merseyside in the 1950s and realised where his future lay. He told his parents of his desire to become a priest, and at 17 secured a place at the English College in Rome. "I grew up in Rome," he says. "I went there as a lad and came home a man. And I do assure you most sincerely that you don't spend seven years in a seminary like that without it being spelled out to you exactly what a priestly life means."

Yet it is the meaning that keeps him interested. "The problem with God," he explains, "is that we want him to reveal Himself, and He doesn't. We will never understand God. The most we can pray for is the wish for belief and the sort of understanding of ourselves that means we don't condemn each other too much."

Back in Liverpool he worked with Worlock, picking up his mentor's renowned political, organisational and communication skills, and by 1984 had risen to become General Secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. It was here that his reputation as a liberal was earned. In 1999, he was appointed the ninth Archbishop of Birmingham.

This move to Britain's most multicultural city clearly changed him, and as it coincided with the rise of what he calls the "aggressive secularism" of the New Labour establishment, he was prompted to look afresh at the brave new world. By 2006, he was arguing: "It is now clear that multi-culturalism is never going to work within a secular model. The diversity of cultures has been encouraged, but without genuine engagement with their moral values or beliefs. This has left us with a spiritual vacuum at the heart of life."

Last week, he hit out at proposals to end the restrictions on TV advertising of abortion clinics and condoms. "I doubt that any intended adverts would tell the whole truth of the effects of abortion in a woman's life," he complained. "I seriously wonder if any advertisements for condoms would be tasteful, because the ones we have at the moment are demeaning of the young people. They depict casual sex on the street corner and drunken sex. I do not think these things do anything to genuinely help young people to understand themselves in their own way."

Thus were the "conservative" credentials acquired. Impressive as they look, he may still have to prove that they are real.


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