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Paul Vallely: A bumpy but more exhilarating ride

07 April 2009

Archbishop Vincent Nichols will be a strong and clever leader

What took them so long? Archbishop Vincent Nichols was always the front runner to become the next Archbishop of Westminster, and leader of the five million Roman Catholics in England and Wales. The long delay in making the appointment produced a deal of specu­lation and over-excited analysis of the liberal/conservative lean­ings of the supposed candidates (Press, 27 March). The appointment was pronounced as “a significant lurch to the Right”. One paper described the Archbishop as “a conservative bulldog”.

All this mistakenly views the Church through the lens of secular politics, or that of the overt factionalism that characterises the Anglican Communion. In part, this under-estimates the instinct there has always been among English Catholics, perhaps a hangover from our days as an excluded group, to focus primarily on what we share, and limits our willingness to be so publicly critical. But, in the main, it comes from confusing orthodoxy with conservatism.

For all the talk about liberals and conserva­tives, you do not get to be a Roman Catholic bishop in this country without subscribing to a central body of belief. Differences among the episcopacy are largely about nuance, style, pace, or tactics. If you look at Archbishop Nichols, you see a package that leans politically to the Left, socially to the Right, and doctrinally embraces the core of Vatican II, while disputing some aspects of other people’s interpretations of it.

Thus he takes the party line on sexual ethics, although he displays exceptional pastoral sensitiv­ity in difficult cases. He was a key figure in the production of The Common Good, the bishops’ exposition of Catholic social teaching in 1996, towards the end of the Thatcherite era. He has taken what CAFOD has described as a forward-thinking line on international politics, and visited Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

Most recently, he has spoken of the credit crunch in terms of the need for society to find “ways of rebuilding trust into civic life and into public life”. And he has challenged our secular culture’s insistence on defining itself exclusively in materialist and scientific terms. There is little there that any of the past five pontiffs — from John XXIII to Benedict XVI — would disagree with.

Yet what has provoked debate, both here and in Rome, is the Nichols style. He is a strong char­acter. In an unprecedented move, a number of his fellow bishops wrote to the Vatican authorities bemoaning his lack of collegiality, and saying that he “could do with learning a little humility”.

So expect none of the genial prevarication and inconsistency that characterised the regime of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who liked to be all things to all men. Archbishop Nichols is clever, savvy, focused, and a serious political operator.

His Catholicism, as well as being prayerful, intellectual, and political, is tribal: he is no recusant aristocrat or Irish immigrant, but is rooted in the working-class Catholicism of the north-west heartlands. He has flourished in the diversity of Birmingham, where the Catholic community includes 50 ethnic communities. He speaks the language of the common man, though he can lapse into safe Kingdom of God speak.

He took a strong line on paedophile priests, chairing the body that instituted tougher measures of child protection in the Church. He fought off the Government’s attempts to impose controls on faith schools, deploying both empirical Ofsted evidence that showed faith schools have a greater racial diversity than secular schools, but also pointing out to ministers the political consequences of alienating Catholic voters, especially in marginal seats.

His political sophistication is not unerring. He backed the Church’s attempt to defend its right to continue to discriminate against gay adoption. Though it was Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor who was responsible for the ill-judged letter to Cabinet ministers on the subject (which was widely construed as an attempt at blackmail), Archbishop Nichols defended the move in private.

What is central to him is his belief that the Catholic Church, like its schools, cannot be a self-sufficient and isolated institution, focused only on its own well-being, but rather is knitted into our wider society, to which it has a sense of responsibility and mission. Expect a bumpier ride, but a more exhilarating one.

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