The British at the heart of Rome: Vatican relations
The British at the heart of Rome: Englishmen and women have become surprisingly influential in the Holy See
If English Catholics were asked to name the most important priest from the Archdiocese of Liverpool, the vast majority would suggest Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. But eight years after Nichols took holy orders, another Englishman was ordained in that diocese who today holds one of the most influential posts in the Vatican, wielding considerable soft power across the globe.
Until November 2014, Paul Gallagher was little known in Britain. Following ordination by Archbishop Derek Worlock, who was an early mentor to Nichols, Fr Gallagher’s first post was as a curate in Fazakerley. He then trained as a diplomat at the elite Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy and entered the service of the Holy See in 1984. After 30 years of work in nunciatures across the world, he returned to the heart of the Catholic Church in November 2014, when he was appointed the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, within the Secretariat of State, effectively becoming the Pope’s foreign minister. Arguably it makes Archbishop Gallagher the highest English office holder in Rome since Nicholas Breakspear – another diplomat – became Pope Adrian IV in the twelfth century.
The Curia, the central governing body of the Holy See, has always been an Italian preserve. Despite Paul VI’s intentions that it should change after the Second Vatican Council, this has largely not happened – at least not at the very top. The dominance of Italians has continued despite a run of Polish, German and Argentinian pontiffs. But under Pope Francis, the British have become more prominent. Apart from Archbishop Gallagher, there is Archbishop Arthur Roche, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Others serve at more junior levels within the Curia. Britons who have served in the Secretariat of State in recent years include Mgr Philip Whitmore, now the Rector of the English College in Rome, and Archbishop Leo Cushley, now Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Nichols believes that the profile of Britons is higher now in the Curia than it has been for a hundred years. It is something that he puts down to Rome’s greater appreciation for the way that the Catholic Church has had to negotiate its role in Britain’s secular society, and its realisation that the Church will have to do more of this elsewhere in the coming years. “Some of the stances and the ways of working that we use are becoming more important and that is partly why there is a higher profile of our people in the Curia today,” he told me.
A full-time post in the Curia is not the only way in which the British make their presence felt in Rome. Senior English bishops have acquired clout in recent times on the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which helps set the tone for the way the Church is run, and on which Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Nichols have both served. This is the “Thursday table” gathering in Rome held around twice a month, when between 20 and 30 cardinals decide who will obtain episcopal appointments around the world (always subject to the Pope’s final approval).
The importance of this congregation was highlighted in the run-up to the appointment of Murphy-O’Connor’s successor, when there was significant debate over the leading candidate, Nichols. At one point in 2008 it appeared that he would be rejected, as interest on the Congregation of Bishops turned towards Bernard Longley, then a Westminster auxiliary bishop. It is understood that Longley himself let it be known to Rome that he did not feel ready for the onerous duties of effectively being the leader of English Catholics. On the day he was appointed in 2009, Nichols indicated that he had perceived that the post had at one point “drifted away” from him. His difficult moment came during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Since Pope Francis’ election, however, Nichols’ star has been in the ascendant, with appointments to several congregations, including the Congregation of Bishops.
Even Cardinal Basil Hume’s greatest admirers would admit that he did not understand Rome as well as the bishops and cardinals who were educated and worked there. Hume studied at Ampleforth before joining the monastery. His education took him later to Fribourg rather than the Eternal City. The sense of puzzlement worked both ways. Rome didn’t quite “get” the very English Hume.
His most difficult time with Rome was over homosexuality. In 1992, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), wrote “Some Considerations Concerning The Response To Legislative Proposals On The Non-Discrimination Of Homosexual Persons”, a document that suggested that the law was right to discriminate against gay people in certain instances. While it reiterated that “it is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action”, Ratzinger also said that “rights are not absolute. They can be legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct. This is sometimes not only licit but obligatory.”
After being approached by gay Catholics who felt deeply hurt by Ratzinger’s document, Hume decided to produce one of his own. His English sensibility was evident. Rome’s documents on homosexuality frequently described it as “objectively disordered”. “The word ‘disordered’ is a harsh one in our English language,” Hume wrote. “It immediately suggests a sinful situation, or at least implies a demeaning of the person or even a sickness. It should not be so interpreted.” Hume then went further: “In whatever context it arises, and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected.”
Hume was not the last Archbishop of Westminster to encounter difficulties with the Vatican over this issue. Murphy-O’Connor, a man much more at ease in Rome than his predecessor, would go round the various congregations at least once a year, so that they knew who he was. This approach would pay dividends when tensions developed over what became known colloquially as the “Gay Masses”.
The Masses, held in Soho since 1999, enabled homosexual Catholics to come together for worship. Those involved said they were about solidarity rather than about challenging Church teaching on homosexual relationships. Murphy-O’Connor was aware that certain Catholics opposed the Masses for existing at all, and that others were concerned about the services depending on Anglican goodwill; they were held in a Church of England church in Soho. He worked out that the situation was so sensitive that it was worth gaining the tacit approval of Rome first. He pre-empted any intervention by approaching the Congregation for the Doctrine. Fortunately the prefect of the CDF at the time was William Levada, who, as Archbishop of San Francisco, had dealt with similar situations. The solution was to bring the Masses into a Catholic church in Soho, and the group was integrated later into regular parish worship at the Jesuit Farm Street church in London.
Philip Whitmore is another Englishman in a useful position to understand how Rome works. Mgr Whitmore was appointed Rector of the English College in 2013. He believes it helps to have people on the spot who can act as “interpreters” when aspects of the culture are not immediately understood – and our culture, Whitmore told me, is particularly impenetrable to foreigners. When one dips into the world of the Vatican, it is obvious that what is most effective are the relationships conducted both within and without the walls of the Vatican. There is a remarkable series of interlocking networks, where officials of the Church, diplomats, university staff and students make connections, some of them lasting a lifetime. Some of these contacts are strictly businesslike; others are social, such as receptions at foreign embassies, or lunches at favoured trattorie around the Vatican. As Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the one-time head of the Vatican Bank, famously told the journalist and author John Cornwell, the Vatican is like a village of washerwomen: “When you’re in an enclosed place like this, there’s nothing else to do, nowhere to go, nothing else to talk about.”
Over the years, various British citizens have worked in Rome at university level – Sr Helen Alford, for example, teaches at the Angelicum University, and has become a notable authority on Catholic Social Teaching. Sr Helen is exceptional for obvious reasons – the vast majority of contributors to the Church in Rome are priests. It is even rarer for the laity to contribute than a member of a religious order, but it does happen. One British woman has risen higher than any other under Pope Francis’ papacy. Margaret Archer, a professor of sociology, has long been engaged in advising the Vatican on social sciences, and in 2014 she became the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
“It is known [in Rome] that Britain punches above its weight in terms of international and cultural influence,” Whitmore told me. “Americans are extraordinarily generous, as well as numerous, and this inevitably means that they get more attention in the Vatican than we do. But there is a great respect for Britain, an enthusiasm for London, a recognition that the UK is a key player in global politics.” However, Whitmore acknowledges that the UK has its critics. “Not everyone is anglophile. Like many nations that have exercised great influence in the world, we have made enemies. But we have many friends, too. Overall, as you’ve probably gathered, I tend to the view that Rome understands Britain better than Britain understands Rome.”
Rome has a hothouse atmosphere; it is gossipy and intense. It does not suit everyone. What is constantly reinforced there is the belief that Rome remains the centre of the Church, and any hint of innate English superiority is not appreciated. Could anyone rise higher in the Vatican than Archbishop? At the time of writing, the conversations in the ristoranti frequented by cardinals are turning to the papal succession, given Pope Francis’ age, and to who is papabile – looking papal. There has been no English pope since Nicholas Breakspear. But some do not rule this out next time round, given Nichols’ growing standing in Rome. Whether that happens or not, when it comes to the relationship between Britain and Rome, as Benedict XVI said so clearly in his address in Westminster Hall in 2010, there can be a mature and wide-ranging debate, if faith and reason work together.
Adapted from The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis, published by T & T Clark/Bloomsbury.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet.