Murphy-O'Connor: I don’t feel we’re a nation of unbelievers
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor could have been wearing ermine and sitting in the House of Lords by now.
“The idea was quite attractive,” says the Cardinal, who was asked to become the first Roman Catholic bishop in the Lords since the Reformation. “I had my first speech [prepared]: 'As my predecessor, Cardinal Pole, was saying…’”
Before he was so rudely interrupted, nearly 500 years ago? “Exactly!”
Murphy-O’Connor was given the chance to make history when he stepped down as Archbishop of Westminster, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, three years ago. He turned the honour down, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, until now.
“I consulted the Pope and his chief adviser, and they were against it,” says the Cardinal with a smile. The Vatican wanted to stop bishops in Africa and South America from joining the governments of their own countries, he was told. It could not afford to set a precedent here.
“It’s to do with having the freedom to be outside the political system.”
So the Pope blocked him, personally, from becoming a Lord? “Yeah. More or less.”
That’s a shame, because he would certainly have made a contribution. Murphy-O’Connor believes that Christians should speak up for their faith more clearly. “Christianity is important in this country,” he says. “It has to stand up for itself in the face of secularism. We must be brave enough to speak intelligently about what we believe. We must combat aggressive secularism, because it is dangerous.”
Britain is in the grip of a new “secular religion”, says the Cardinal, who is giving this interview to mark his 80th birthday but also the imminent start of the Pope’s Year of Faith, in which Catholics will be urged to share what they believe.
“There is a new orthodoxy of what it is OK to believe or not believe. Some of it is sensible, but some of it seems to me to be a cause of intolerance,” he says. “Nobody is obliged to be a Christian, but no one should be obliged to live according to the new secular religion, which says it alone decides what’s right. It says, 'We rationalists decide, and all sensible people must accept this.’ Why should believers have to conform? Especially if it’s to do with social, medical and sexual matters.
“I think there’s a small minority who are aggressive, who want religion to keep silent, not to have a voice.”
They haven’t got a hope of that when it comes to the Cardinal. His affable tone – as he leans back in a leather chair – disguises tough talk.
Murphy-O’Connor has just returned from Rome, having had to give up his place in the College of Cardinals on his birthday. We are talking at the house in west London where he lives in semi-retirement. As Archbishop of Westminster he was vocal on issues such as abortion and the right of Catholic adoption agencies to be exempt from equality legislation.
“There was no need to close the adoption agencies, it was political correctness,” he says. All but one of the agencies that refused to work with same-sex couples has ceased to operate as a result of the change in the law. “It was fine to be tolerant of homosexual couples, but at the same time that was being intolerant to certain religious convictions. Tolerance can lead to intolerance.”
The most pressing way in which the “new orthodoxy” comes into conflict with Catholic teaching is the proposed introduction of same-sex marriage.
“The gay marriage thing is quite extraordinary,” he says. “The Government has come out and said, 'We’ve decided to do this, we’ve had the consultation but we’re not telling you what was said. We just think it is the politically correct thing to do. What right have they to do that? Marriage does not belong to the State. It doesn’t belong to the churches. It belongs to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, or indeed to humanity.”
Can the proposed reforms be stopped? “They seem to say it’s unstoppable. But governments should not interfere with the basic concepts of what makes a society, and marriage is one. In fact, the one. It is a vital institution, at the bedrock of our social life and culture.”
What did he make of Nick Clegg’s office publishing a draft speech in which the Deputy Prime Minister called opponents of gay marriage “bigots”? The Cardinal laughs. “He has hastily retracted that. I’m sure his wife might have told him he had gone too far. Ha ha!”
His wife, Miriam Clegg, is an international lawyer and also a Roman Catholic, and the couple’s children are being raised in the faith.
“Most people in this country don’t really want gay marriage on the statute book. I’m not talking only about Christians, just ordinary people,” says the Cardinal.
“You could say the same about assisted suicide. The law as it stands is good. The law can be compassionate in the right cases, but otherwise, if you kill a person that is 14 years in jail. If you legislate about assisted suicide there will be a side-effect and a counter-effect.”
He does not believe the Government’s promise that churches will be able to refuse to conduct a gay wedding without fear of being taken to court.
“I do not think it would be adequate. Also, I am thinking of the wider society, not just Christians. The consequences are a diminishment of what marriage means. Any legislation that supports the family and marriage, I will support. Anything that diminishes it, I will oppose.”
The supporters of a change in the law say it would actually promote marriage as a whole, don’t they?
“It’s promoting a misuse of marriage. Yet at the same time, there is respect for homosexual people, and they’ve got lots of rights, which is good for them. But there is a point when things get over the limit.”
Does the Cardinal believe, like the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, that Christians are persecuted in Britain? “In this country, there is a core set of values, of moral or religious truth, which come from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and which people respect, even if they’re not active churchgoers,” he says. “Therefore I’m not sure I agree with Lord Carey that we are being persecuted. I wouldn’t go as far as that.”
Nor does he agree with the likes of Richard Dawkins that we are all unbelievers now. “I don’t think it is true to say that England is a totally secular country. The residue of the Christian tradition is still there. There are a lot of people who obviously don’t go to church, but who say prayers every day.”
He is painfully aware of the harm that was done to the reputation of the Church by the sex-abuse scandals of recent times – having been the man who set up the inquiry that revealed the full extent of what was going on.
“There’s no doubt that the shame of child abuse, by however small a number of priests, affected the perception of the Catholic Church. It did grave damage. But our shame is the damage done to children,” he says. “It’s no excuse to say we didn’t realise the addictive nature of paedophilia 30 years ago.”
Murphy-O’Connor has personal reasons to regret that, having been faced with the challenge of an errant priest when he was Bishop of Arundel and Brighton. Father Michael Hill was recognised as a danger to children.
“The advice I got from the place where he had been for therapy was that he shouldn’t be sent to a parish but he could go to a place where there weren’t any children.”
So why did he send Fr Hill to be chaplain at Gatwick Airport in 1983? Isn’t an airport full of children? “Oh no. They’re passing through. It wasn’t a parish, you’re not in [daily] contact…”
He was following advice, he says. “It was a mistake. Of course it was. I’ve paid for it. It’s very hard for a bishop, who’s told when he takes up that office that a priest is your brother, you must help him, forgive him. What we didn’t realise, as we should have done, was the grievous damage done to victims. It was a very different time.”
Fr Hill was jailed in 1997 for offences against eight boys, and then again in 2002 for abuse stretching back over 20 years. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor has said he should have involved the police, but now says: “No bishop would have handed over a priest then. They thought [the offence] was a one-off. Most judges were telling people to go away and not do it again, you know, and doctors were the same. Some of the advice given was very wrong.”
Murphy-O’Connor succeeded Basil Hume as Archbishop of Westminster in 2000 and was made a cardinal a year later. One of the most important acts of his time in office was to ask Lord Nolan to head an inquiry into abuse by priests, and what the church could do about it.
“I made mistakes, but I think with Lord Nolan, who was respected by everybody, we had an outsider saying, 'If you’re going to be adequate and good in safeguarding children and vulnerable adults these are the steps you must take.’ Five years later, another independent committee restored some of the balance, because priests have rights, too. That was important.”
How do things stand now? “I would say, 12 years on from Nolan, that the Catholic Church in this country is noted for its good procedures and Rome recognises this.”
Is it safe for children? “As far as it can be, it’s safe. Obviously, people will get through the net, I suppose, but I think we’ve done our very best, in terms of effort, and choosing good people, and in terms of finance, to overcome the mistakes of the past and make sure that what happened will never happen again.”
The Cardinal also worked hard on relationships with the Church of England throughout his time, but these became more difficult after women were made priests. The atmosphere became further strained when the Ordinariate was set up to receive disaffected Anglican priests who wished to cross to Rome.
“I suppose things are not as hopeful as one would have liked,” he says. And he sighs when asked about his friend, Rowan Williams.
“They all get hammered, you know, the Archbishops of Canterbury. I remember writing to Archbishop Runcie, expressing my sympathy when I was Bishop of Arundel. I have sympathy. Everybody’s saying it’s an impossible job…” His voice trails off.
“I think that Rowan’s been very brave sometimes with what he’s said. Sometimes he’s been misconstrued. But I think the next Archbishop ought to be a free man and say, 'This is who I am, this is what I believe.’”
What qualities does he think the new man should have? “He’s got to be first of all a spiritual man, a prayerful man who deeply believes in the Christian faith. That’s what people are looking for. A man of integrity who is deeply Christian and is therefore going to be a good pastor. I would like to see him reminding people of how Christian faith has affected people in this country.”
Murphy-O’Connor was born in Reading in 1932, the fifth son of a couple from Cork who had come to England before the First World War. He began his studies for the priesthood in Rome, aged 18, and later returned as rector of his college. In between, he served parishes on the south coast of England. He was Bishop of Arundel and Brighton from 1977 to 2000.
Looking back, how does he think the position of the Church has changed? “The Catholic Church fits in much more than it used to. When I was young we were strong, three or four million in church on Sunday, but we were on the periphery, in inverted commas, of social society.”
Murphy-O’Connor offered to retire on his 75th birthday in 2007, but the Pope asked him to remain in place until Vincent Nichols was appointed two years later. He remains the senior cardinal in England and Wales, as Nichols has yet to be given the title. “I feel very sorry for him in a way because I’m the only Archbishop of Westminster to have lived, all the others died in office, and so as soon as the new man was appointed, within a year or two he was made a cardinal. That hasn’t happened for Archbishop Nichols but it will happen now. Within a year, I would have thought.”
Looking back, how does he think he did as a priest?
“I would just say I’ve tried to be a good shepherd,” he says. “As a young fellow I went to the parish priest and said, 'I’m going to Rome for my studies, have you any advice?’ All he said was, 'Young man, pray for perseverance’. I’ve always remembered it, because perseverance is all about faith and keeping on in what you’ve been given.”
Even at the age of 80, he is still the faithful servant, prepared to do as the Pope asks – even if that means not going to the Lords.
“Each of us has a certain role in life,” says Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.
“There’s a temptation to chop and change, but there’s a certain integrity in keeping on, whatever your weaknesses or failures.”
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