Cardinal Hume was wrong to seek respectability within the English Establishment

That fine political journalist, Anthony Howard, died on December 19, aged 76. By coincidence, a month before his death a (convert) friend put into my hands a copy of his biography of the late Cardinal Basil Hume – The Monk Cardinal. In an idle moment on the Feast of the Epiphany – January 6 for those who don’t know – I read Howard’s foreword and epilogue. (I know this is not the same as reading the book entire, but it does convey a decent flavour of it.)

In his foreword Howard, the son of an Anglican clergyman and educated at Westminster and Oxford, describes himself as “a wistful agnostic”. Such a stance, he maintains, will have the benefit of detachment when treating of the life of a Catholic prelate. This is certainly true. I have no doubt that Howard brought all his journalistic skill and discernment to bear on his material – but I still wonder why Hume’s executors chose a “wistful agnostic” to write the official biography of a man who, as cardinal-archbishop of Westminster for 23 years – 1976 to 1999 – wielded significant influence over the Catholic Church in this country for a long time and during a critical period.

Howard’s biography was published quite recently: in 2005. Summarising his view of Hume in his epilogue, he emphasises with obvious approval how Hume was “typically English”. Before him, Catholics had seen themselves as “outsiders”; Basil “Anglicised” his Church, helping to “identify English Catholicism with English culture”. Other remarks include, “Basil, in effect, annexed the English Church to the British Establishment”; “Basil Hume [persuaded] a predominantly unbelieving public that it was perfectly possible to be a convinced Christian without being in any sense a crank”; “The air of the patrician Englishman that Basil carried around with him… helped to set the seal on a concordat between the Catholic Church and the British State that could never afterwards be dismantled.”

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I read these words with much disquiet, many alarm bells ringing inside my head. Was English culture so attractive five years ago, when the biography was written? Is it a good thing for Catholics to be part of the Establishment? Do we Catholics want a “concordat” with a State that consistently enacts profoundly un-Christian legislation?

Then, out of curiosity, I read the obituary of Hume in the Tablet. It is clear that Howard must have leant heavily on this rich resource when formulating his own judgments. It is fulsome, long and laudatory: more alarm bells. For a Catholic to be warmly obituarised by a journal such as the Tablet must surely be the kiss of death: have I not read of a campaign by a respected priest blogger with the slogan, “Tabula delenda est”?

According to the Tablet, Hume “was not an outsider to the British Establishment”; “That is not the way we do things in England became a trademark of his, to ward off policies and approaches that were unlikely to endear themselves to the Catholic Church at home”; “He gradually conditioned the spiritual life of the Catholic community of England and Wales towards the goals set forth in the Second Vatican Council.” There is much more in the same vein.

To defend the late cardinal, he did not write this obituary and one could argue that the Tablet was deliberately misinterpreting him and pursuing its own agenda. But even as I write this, it sounds feeble. It won’t wash. In his clear pursuit of Catholic respectability within the English Establishment, crowned by getting Her Majesty to attend Vespers in Westminster Cathedral, Hume was wrong. You simply cannot be true to Catholic teachings on eg the sacredness of life before birth and in sickness and old age, sexual behaviour and the nature of marriage and hope to be “respectable”. Indeed, you will be forced into the very ghetto that Hume was so eager to lead the Church in England out of. No one chooses to live in a ghetto: it is the price you pay (as the Jews have always known) for sticking to your beliefs.

Two final remarks: on the scaffold St Thomas More declared: “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first.” Catholic first: loyal patriot second. And in his The Idea of a University, an earlier, braver and greater cardinal than Hume had written that being a “gentleman” (the kind of person entirely at home in the Establishment) carried “no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness”. Catholic first: gentleman second.

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