‘This Society is Not Secular’

The new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, tells Daniel Johnson about his vision of English Catholicism

“We need some stronger shared foundations”: Archbishop Nichols and Daniel Johnson 

Daniel Johnson: I’ve noticed that since you took office, we’ve had an interesting change in the way in which Catholicism in England has presented itself. I’m thinking of two or three specific things. One is the relics of Saint Thérèse, which you’ve welcomed into the county and have had an amazing response. The second is miracles. You had a press conference recently in which you spoke with Jack Sullivan, who had undergone an extraordinary transformation as a result of the intercession of Cardinal Newman. Third, you’ve also been very excited about the new exhibition at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real, which has also had a great echo. Is there a deliberate policy at work here or is it pure coincidence that these things have taken place on your watch?

Vincent Nichols: I think it’s coincidence really. I certainly had nothing to do with the exhibition at the National Gallery, which had already been many years in preparation. Obviously, as a group of bishops we had talked about the relics of St Thérèse and the visit of Jack Sullivan did seem to me to be a proper thing to do. I think that all three help us to capture again the wholeness that is promised in God’s presence in the Incarnation and then in the unfolding in that gift of God in our flesh in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

As for the relics you mention, I was in the Cathedral early one morning and someone just said to me: “Isn’t this remarkable? We’re seeing here Catholics do what Catholics do instinctively.” And it was a very remarkable time when over and over again what was visible in the public sphere was something of the intimacy of the relationship between the disciple and the master and God. People came because in Thérèse of Lisieux, they were given great permission to be themselves. I think that it was Thérèse’s experience and insight that what God wants above all is to love us for what we are. That’s what people respond and latch on to. I think they know that her lesson was that despite all the vulnerability and confusion in our lives there is a welcome and a passion that invites us to just take a step nearer. At the bishops’ conference, we talked about spirituality, the truths of faith and the life of devotion. All three need to be held together. In the last 20 years, we have probably neglected the devotional life. But it is here that the heart speaks most eloquently.

As for miracles, the presence of Jack Sullivan was important to us because he was a down-to-earth regular guy, as the Americans would say. He was at pains to say that he got a gift of God, just when he was at his weakest. He said it was only when he had no more strength, when the medical process had come to an end, God came to help. That and the relics help us become a little bit more comfortable with our own vulnerability and own woundedness. That leads on to the exhibition. If I may concentrate on just one figure, that of the dead Christ. It is an absolutely stark presentation of broken, wounded humanity. My view is that this represents a sphere of human experience from which we so often just shy away. But here it is presented to us in its starkness. It is to be found in many a prison cell, many a torture chamber, many a battlefield, and trauma centres in many hospitals. This is a truth-and it’s terrible, but it’s true. It’s a redemptive truth because it tells us that God enters into the worst and most vulnerable parts of human experience and can do something with them which we can’t ever do.

DJ: Your mention of Jack Sullivan brings us to the subject of Cardinal Newman, who is one of the great figures of English letters and thought, but we still struggle to see him, particularly non-Catholics, as a great spiritual leader and a living presence. But this year he will be beatified, the first figure of its kind since St Thomas More, not counting the English Catholic Martyrs. It will be an event of truly global significance. What does Newman mean to you and why should people still be interested today?

VN: It’s a huge topic, with many layers. At one level, in academia, Newman is much studied and highly regarded, particularly in Germany and America. Every university in the US has a Newman society or centre. There was a very interesting article by [Cardinal] Avery Dulles about the three conversions in Newman’s life. The first was at 15, when (like many people today) he embraced a sort of natural religion. This was a sense of right and wrong: a sense of God as an adjudicator of all that goes on. But Newman’s first conversion was from that point to a sense of God as a personal God, a person to whom he could relate, to whom he could open up his life and from whom he could gain a strength and grace and sense of purpose. That was when he decided to serve God in the Church in a celibate manner. That was when Newman became in some ways evangelical. Then his second conversion was once he began to grapple with “the non-dogmatic principle” of his age: liberalism. This claimed that truth was individual, was what you made it, that there was no over-arching dogma. That was going to be the struggle. That was perceptive of him to note. It reminded me of a phrase from G. K. Chesterton: “People are divided into two kinds: those who live by dogma and know it and those who live by dogma and don’t know it.” He had an anxiety about the “don’t know its” who were trying to live by the non-dogmatic principle. It was in contrast to this that Newman then developed his whole sense of the continuity of a steady doctrine going right through the history of Christianity. He began to look to the Christian faith for doctrinal positions, for saving truths-that is what a doctrine is-and that’s when he started reading through the Fathers and trying to see the importance of these firm statements of truth that were beyond a culture and beyond an age. Third, he came to see a need for “a living and universal authority”. That completed his entrance to the Catholic Church.

In doing so, he used dramatic and contemporary language, that of smelting and iron foundry, reflecting its tremendous strength of steel and construction. That’s what the papacy is like. It a part of a smelting and clashing of elements whereby our human nature (so powerful, so glorious, so terrible) is fashioned into something that is capable of bearing an eternal truth. That’s a fascinating path. Its relevance today is to show how one can go from a natural religion to a personal religion, to a religion that accepts the importance of dogma that needs to be kept in a dynamic tension with reason. 

Newman also fascinates me as a parish priest. When he died, in 1890, the streets were lined with people — maybe 20,000. Although very few of them had probably read Newman (maybe they had sung a hymn), they came out to salute a dead parish priest. They saw him as someone who prepared his sermons well, spent hours in the confessional, to whom they could talk, who visited the sick and brought coal and food to the cold and hungry, someone who would walk in the snow as an 80-year-old to Bournville Village to defend the Catholic workforce from imposed Bible studies, and a man who volunteered to go to Smethwick when an outbreak of plague had decimated the parish. It is also rather remarkable in the context of this year for priests that Pope Benedict has asked us to observe, that in this country we are going to have the beatification of a parish priest. It is a great boost for the priests of this country. With Newman there is the priest and also the poet and man who wrote The Dream of Gerontius, and the hymns, such as “Lead Kindly Light”, and the things that we know by heart because they appeal to the heart. 

DJ: To be controversial for a moment-the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture in Rome about the priesthood. He talked about the idea of women being ordained. It lies at the heart of the recent Apostolic Constitution to welcome disaffected Anglicans. In the context of Newman, it seemed to me that Dr Williams was to some extent throwing out a bit of a challenge to the Catholic Church in that lecture. He was effectively saying: “Please tell us why the Catholic Church feels not able to ordain women as priests.” He was asking for an explanation for this. Now, Newman’s most important theological idea was that doctrine evolves and occasionally goes in surprising directions. The Second Vatican Council brought many new things to light. Is this a fruitful dialogue to be had between the churches or is this an area where the Catholic Church is simply not going to change? 

VN: Can I separate those? The lecture was really very interesting. But I don’t think that the issue of women was central to it. He was saying that questions of holy orders are not first-order issues, they are second-order issues. He was much more interested in trying to lay down firmly our shared perception of the mystery of the Church. He was saying that there is much agreement around that broad framework of God’s initiative in Christ. That should be the focus of our ongoing endeavours. We can carry a lot of variation and differences in matters of secondary importance. That was his point. One of those was about the ordination of women and another was about the patterns by which primacy is exercised. 

The Apostolic Constitution is essentially about papal primacy, not about women or sexual ethics. It’s simply a response to those within the Anglican community who have approached the Holy See, who say that they accept the same faith and see the need for unity with the Bishop of Rome, today, now. They want to know how they can do that as groups and what part of their heritage they can bring with them. The premise on which this Apostolic Constitution is founded shows that there is acceptance by the See of Rome now as it is exercised. That’s why it is a mistake to read it as some kind of broad appeal to anyone of Catholic sympathies within the Anglican community. It’s not that. It absolutely depends on the acceptance of the ministry of Peter as it is now. In the Church of England, for example, I hope that the Anglo-Catholic content will strengthen. That’s a very important incentive for our ongoing long-term discussion there. The constitution is much more specific. It is specifically about those who want to accept the ministry of Peter and the jurisdictional oversight that he exercises now. Not all Anglicans agree with that and that’s perfectly proper. Archbishop Rowan is one of them. He wants to raise the issue of primacy. 

To go back to the lecture, I just wonder whether he was separating out first- and second-order issues too much. My understanding would be that the manner in which the unfolding of the mystery of salvation takes place is much closer to the content of it in a Catholic perspective than Archbishop Rowan is suggesting. And that’s why Newman noted in the development of doctrine that what emerges is always implicit, if not clearly present, in the original seed. So there is a very strong line of continuity in a Catholic understanding of the development of doctrine. 

It’s for that reason that our understanding of the gift of the sacrament of orders is much closer to the core of the Incarnation than I think Archbishop Rowan pictures it. That’s probably something to do with the reality of the sacramental dispensation. Christ is really and sacramentally present in the Mass. So there’s a very strong link between what happens at the altar and the historical events of the life and death of Jesus. As Newman said: “The Mass is not something that is said, it is something that is done.” And the doing is more important than the words. As you go into the Anglican experience it’s a bit more symbolic. That sense of reality weakens. It becomes more of a ministry and therefore more of a service that is led. The requirements of it, figuratively and iconically, are less demanding. There are more deep-rooted issues around the question of orders than can be understood if it is just placed as a second-order issue. 

So I would not expect the Catholic position to change: that priests are required to be male. I would not expect that to change. While there’s an opening for married candidates, it’s also very clear that it says “pro-regular”. If a new ordinariate comes into existence in the country, as a rule it will be a celibate priesthood. There are strong lines of continuity. The Second Vatican Council is an interesting context and Benedict is right to see it as a continuity and not as a break and a dissonance and a new start. That’s the wisdom of his office speaking.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols: “What if people say it’s unreasonable to have a crucifix in a Catholic cafe-home?”

DJ: What then will be the role within the Church for women? The Church has always been very creative at finding different ways in which people can serve the Lord. Many women, certainly younger women, feel that some of the older forms have either disappeared or declined or become more marginal. Do you feel that we are entering a time when perhaps there will be new forms in which women can serve? 

VN: Just a bit of a historical perspective might be helpful. From the middle of the 18th century, there was a great flowering of apostolic women. The achievements of that have been quite astonishing, both in this country and abroad. Women pioneered the whole pattern of Catholic education. There’s a book called Without the Flaminian Gate — the essay on women in that volume is a revelation about the good work women from this country do in China and across Africa. In Birmingham diocese, the educational system was built up by the Sisters of Selly Park. Birmingham priests were told to obey the Bishop, but never to cross the Sisters of Selly Park. That’s power in the best sense of the word, creative initiative and taking responsibility for it. Bishop Ullathorne [1806-1889, the first Bishop of Birmingham] was very remarkable in his partnership with two sets of women: the Selly Park sisters and the Dominicans, even to the point that he chose to be buried in the Dominican church rather than the cathedral. He was laid alongside his great colleague Sister Margaret. There’s a huge heart there that can really inspire. 

In those days, if a woman wanted a top-class professional career a religious order was the only way. That’s fallen right off. That leaves the ancient orders, they’re mostly enclosed. They’re the really tough challenge. They will find a real revival. People are ready for a challenge. Youngsters are less inhibited by the history of the last 60 years or so. All of those movements will find a refreshment. And then there will be new forms of apostolate. This morning, I had a meeting with those who serve as lay chaplains in secondary schools. The vast majority were women. Perhaps half the head teachers are also women. Catholic education remains a huge field of leadership for them, but so do some of these more “nurturing ministries”. In Birmingham, there are groups of women working in an unobtrusive way with prostitutes. They have an enormous impact on some of the most vulnerable women, slowly rescuing them. Women will be the pioneers in all those frontiers of brokenness that are very clear in our society. Women will lead the way in those and I welcome that. 

DJ: Can I move on to the question of the Church’s relations with the state? This is an area where you’ve actually got quite a lot of experience, specifically over the question of Catholic schools. You famously took on Alan Johnson, the then Education Secretary, and secured concessions from the government, though not all of the ones you wanted. Do you see any particular threats on the horizon? I imagine things of particular prominence will involve matters of sex education, which will become compulsory for all students regardless of faith and which on the face of it would seem to take away a very important freedom, a freedom of conscience that parents and indeed the Church have had up to now. How is the Church going to preserve its distinct moral position as a witness to wider society when it’s under such constant pressure?

VN: I think that our position in Catholic education is reasonable. I’m still grateful, slightly surprised, at the statement that the government in 2007 called “Faith in the System”, in the teeth of public criticism of schools of a religious character (my preferred phrase, not “faith schools”). The government said in a very public way that it supported schools of a religious character-they are a crucial and lasting part of the educational system. They deliver well both academically and in terms of human and spiritual development and in terms of social cohesion. The government has not changed from that position at all. So our relationships there are satisfactory. Indeed, there is good co-operation for the most part on those issues. That’s the context in which the review of sex education was undertaken. Some of its findings were accepted, we will see how the recommendations are enfleshed.

Important in there were two or three things. The Catholic schools retained their rights through the governing body that their sex and relationships education is delivered according to Catholic ethos and teaching. Second, that whatever was put in place would be broad and general, not detailed and specific in terms of how it would cover things from relationships to more explicit matters of sexual behaviour and sexual ethics. The third thing that people have forgotten is that in this review the government has accepted that matters of sex need an ethical context, the context of relationships. This was actually a reversal of an earlier position that said: “Give them the facts, enough.” They realised that that does not help any youngster and it does not help society. So, yes, it’s an area in which we have to be very vigilant. Every school should look carefully at what’s being done. It should work with parents because they remain the first educators. When it comes to the right of withdrawal, we were keen to defend it even though we wouldn’t want parents to do it because we would want them to be working with schools as primary educators, to talk about what is being done in the classroom. This right currently ends at the end of the 15th year because of the Gillick judgment from the House of Lords a few years ago. Now it’s come back that the courts have already decided that youngsters by the age of 16 have got areas of discretion and it would be impossible then to superimpose an absolute parental right over that age. But I don’t think that any of us are particularly undermined by that because parents have to deal with their 15- or 16-year-olds in that way, they can’t rely on the law for that. Those things are not too bad. There is esteem in the government for the quality of the education that is given. 

Another important area is that of social cohesion. This started out as a criticism but it has developed into a positive. We were able to demonstrate early on that Catholic schools have the kind of links with partner and neighbouring schools and outreach to people in need in the area and have the kind of principled approach to citizenship that is so valuable to our society. We are therefore a contributor to social cohesion, not a negator of it. What do we mean by cohesion? We don’t just mean a veneer of tolerance where everybody puts up with everybody else. We need something much deeper than that. The tolerance notion comes from the classic or extreme liberal view of society, which is that its role is to keep potential enemies at peace, so that fundamentally it is individuality which rules our lives and it is society’s role to soften or control it. 

This is opposite to the Catholic position, which believes that we are fundamentally people of community. We come into life in a family, we grow through the relations and the obligations that we have towards one another. It is on that basis that you best prepare somebody to play their part in society. If we want creative citizenship as a society then we have to make space for peoples’ religious motivations to form that sense of community because that’s where their best motives come from. Pope Benedict got it right: the best way of encouraging people to work together is to work together over shared obligations rather than to work for individuals’ rights. 

The biggest tensions at the moment [between Church and state] are around the Equalities Act, which seems to have almost taken the view that the public expression of religious faith is quite low down on the hierarchy of rights that are to be defended. That’s a real cause for concern. It’s a very reduced, privatised notion of the consequences of religious faith. It appears in all sorts of ways. We’re concerned about the public duties that could be put on schools or small care homes which would appear almost to be an extreme case to make it very difficult for a public body to act with integrity. What if people say it’s unreasonable to have a crucifix in a Catholic care-home because it offends someone? So you get those echoes from the European judgment in Italy. Where is the balance between individual freedom and a corporate identity which is deeply rooted and carries with it goods which society needs? Some of those balances are not right. Increasingly in our society there is a sense that we need some stronger shared foundations. 

Pope John Paul II often said that democracy of itself did not create its values and did create its own foundations. Democracy is the best way of managing political power, but it needs to be based on something. It shows the need within a democracy for trust. The democratic process actually requires it, but it does not create it. So where does it come from? It’s the family, the neighbourhood, the charities, the educational system. These are things which nurture values such as trust. These are well nurtured in religious faiths and they all need to play their part, not explicitly in the political forum-we’re not looking for theocracies or direct influence of religions in the policy process-but society as a whole. This society is not secular. It is full of people with religious sentiment. That needs to be brought to the benefit of all and not pushed away.

DJ: Assuming that it does go ahead, what are your hopes from the Pope’s visit? 

VN: When we look back to the visit of John Paul II of 1982 it can be summed up like this. Here was the Pope as the first pastor of the Catholic Church. He came and celebrated the sacraments of the Church and in doing so he confirmed the strength of the Catholic community. This is quite different. Benedict represents the project of faith and reason working together, and a witness to the contribution that faith and reason together make towards European society. I hope and pray that a voice of faith will speak for the reasonableness of faith and its ability to raise our expectation of ourselves and each other through the power of the grace of God. He will do it in a way that resonates in this English context. He has a great love of Newman and will be very sensitive to the Englishness as much as the Europeanness of our situation. So far I have sensed nothing but enthusiasm and welcome for this visit from the government and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It will convince many people of the goodness of faith and the contribution it can make to the project of faith and reason in the 21st century. 

DJ: Will the visit be welcomed by other faith communities in the UK? We know Archbishop Rowan is on-side, but what about the non-Christian faiths here? I’m thinking about Pope’s controversial Regensburg lecture and the consequences of that. Will there be some Muslims who will object? 

VN: To give him due credit, the Pope has worked quite carefully and assiduously, for example in his visit to Turkey, to find a point of dialogue with Muslims. He also, after the Regensburg lecture, established quite a detailed and high-level academic discussion with 300 Muslim scholars from around the world. The point of the lecture was to say how much can we, two great world religions, get together to discuss the reasonableness of God? That was the central point that he was making. He has worked extremely assiduously on that. His visit to the Holy Land was extremely well judged. I don’t think that there were any seriously critical comments from the state of Israel. The other night, I went to the Hindu temple at Neasden, with 4,500 Hindus, along with the heads of the other faiths in Brent, and civic leaders. What was so evident there was the depth of the respect for a holy person: somebody who stands with a commitment in their own life to the religious quest. I’m quite sure that that would be extended with enormous warmth towards the Pope. 

This idea that the divisions in society lie between the faiths is not true: it’s a false dichotomy. It’s as old hat now as the idea that Muslims will be offended if you celebrate Christmas — they’re not offended in the least! What they want to see is strong religious faith — with a space for their own, with all the difficulties that that can bring. But the divisions are not there. The divisions are more between those who understand the importance of religious faith and those who don’t-those who are aggressively secularist. But my impression is that the aggressive secularist voice, even if it gets a lot of attention, does not speak for most people in this country, who understand the importance of religious faith and know the shortcomings of the practice of any faith, particularly of shortcomings in the practice of the Catholic faith, but nevertheless are still able to say that this is something that is important that we can’t afford to lose.

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