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You cannot be true to Church teachings and hope to be ‘respectable’

Cardinal Hume was wrong to seek respectability within the English Establishment

By on Monday, 10 January 2011

The late Cardinal Hume was presented with the Order of Merit by the Queen (Photo: PA)

The late Cardinal Hume was presented with the Order of Merit by the Queen (Photo: PA)

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.”

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.

  • Anonymous

    “January 6 for those who don’t know”

    The English bishops?

  • Anonymous

    In order to become a saint – be prepared for a world that denounces you as anything but saintly!

  • Jack Regan

    I agree that standing up for what’s right is never an easy or comfortable thing. The New Testament gives a clear indication that Christians were never meant to fit in cosily, and every century since has reinforced this fact. Having said that though, there are too many voices these days who use this fact as a foil for the worst kind of vitriol. They cite Jesus’ driving the traders from the temple as their justification. But yet what they are doing isn’t that. It is far from it.

    Robust debate requires a mentality which respects and loves others, but which takes things issue by issue and puts forward an honest, charitable case when the need arises. And “charitable” doesn’t just mean adding a glib line into an angry rant about the fact that loving sometimes means giving harsh messages. It means actually doing it for real.

    Going back to those traders, I sincerely doubt, when Jesus drove them out, or when he said things like ‘Get ye behind me, Satan’ that he had the kind of hatred and anger in his eyes that we see in so many commentators and debaters in our modern Church. I have learned the hard way in life that if people sense that you really don’t like them, then they are far less likely to be persuaded by your argument. In fact, they are more likely to do the opposite just for the sheer fun of seeing how much they can p**s you off!

    Perhaps if Hume was trying to take us out of the Ghetto, he was trying to show people that although we may disagree on certain issues, we are not fundamentally set against the rest of society in the fabric of our very identity. The idea of ‘finding common ground’ often sounds like a weak compromise, and sometimes it is. When done correctly though, what it gives us is a powerful platform from which to tackle the issues that really matter. If we take pride in finding no common ground though, we become far easier label as crazy. Once that happens, we become very easy indeed to ignore.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry Jack – sincerity and authenticity mean acting towards the other person with Charity – you’re confusing this with giving their position or opinion ‘charitable’ respect ; when it may afford no such thing.

    You’re also somewhat mistaken in believing that others don’t appreciate the sincerity in tenaciously standing by one’s principles – even when diammetrically opposed to them – if they have a modicum of integrity they appreciate it within the adversary – and a strong relationship can develop in time.

    Unfortunately you’re confusing those wishing to argue and those merely there to quarrel – and regrettably the main websites and blogs have been engulfed with the latter over the past year .
    To an outsider arriving mid-fight with no knowledge or understanding of the participants’ ‘form’ they can all-too-easily misunderstand the situation and inadvertently throw all manner of accusations in the wrong direction;and to be frank ? It takes three to have a real fight – usually with some oaf in the middle trying to calm things down, find a compromise or happy medium; embarrassing themselves and infuriating everyone else in the process.

    Appearances can mean very little on a discussion board or blog-forum – the bluff seemingly pugnacious loudmouth might be in the right and the sole voice of reason surrounded by bullying trolls ; the ostensibly ‘reasonable’ even-tempered poster might be the most ignorant, bigotted bully ; ditto the twee meek and mild ‘friend to everyone’ who might actually have a harsh word to say about everyone…

    In places like that – you have to look at the arguments; look at the way of arguing; and then go beyond that to discern – irrespective of how poorly or how well they’ve argued – giving little regard to how polite or how offensive they were – who is actually right or wrong – or more right/wrong than the other?

    …and I’m sorry but these ‘bad example’ / ‘counterproductive’ / ‘Unchristian’ accusations ; as if disreputable activity might prevent someone’s conversion ?
    – They’re a bogey – and frankly if someone wants to argue over an issue with someone else – screw what any outsider opines on the issue and stuff what they think about the characters of the people involved – to blazes with their accreditation or credentials or their apparent lowliness or humble/ill-educated background – someone is either right or wrong – be they friend, foe, fish , flesh, fowl or good red herring…..

  • Jack Regan

    Thanks for your reply. Some interesting points.

    I would think that, if all that’s important at the end of the day is whether we are intellectually right or wrong (I know that’s not entirely what you are saying, but some would) then we strip out a great deal of what it means to know God and to live a Christian life.

    Being right is important of course, and I am looking forward to the day when God sits us down in heaven and tells us which bits we got right and which we didn’t! But I think that the way we explore truth also matters – even when it involves the odd false start and wrong turning – because in that exploration we gain a much deeper understanding both of the truth and of ourselves.

    In other words, I really think there is a reason why the Holy Spirit didn’t give us all the answers at Pentecost. It wasn’t a lapse or the setting of some sort of mad Crystal Maze-style challenge, but rather an invitation to explore.

    Added to all this is the way that we relate to one another and treat one another. It’s also every bit as important as the intellectual right or wrong. Jesus, Paul and John were absolutely clear that love was important in itself. John says that ‘he who has not known love has not known God.’ Peter says that without love all our efforts are useless. The New Testament gives us a clear understanding of a faith which is built on the twin pillars of love and truth. Both vital. It’s not okay to lack one of these just because we have the other, but I suppose my point is that where one is in question, the other becomes all the more vital, and may even serve to help us find what’s in doubt.

    You are right to assume that I was partly referring to websites in my post above. They are both a blessing and a curse, I guess. But then, the web is a microcosm of the world – albeit a slightly lopsided one in the case of the Catholic web. I believe that the Catholic web will change a lot in the next couple of years and will certainly become a bit more balanced and representative than it was in the last decade. What we have at the moment, though, is great in parts, but in other parts probably does us far more harm than good. This applies to sites both on the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ (though I hate those phrases!)

    Bedtime now, then work tomorrow, so no long debates for me, I’m afraid.

  • GabrielAustin

    A useful book to read for some perspective on our modern bishops is Abbot Ricciotti’s THE AGE OF MARTYRS. How many of our bishops can be imagined ready to go into the arena with their flock – including small children – rather than accepting the mores of respectable society.

  • Anthony

    I agree with the thrust of both Jack Regan’s and paulpriest’s arguments here, without feeling that doing so necessarily makes for weak-willed compromise. There is virtue in being able to hold seemingly contradictory perspectives in mind in many walks of life, not only in debate. I believe The Lord literally when he urges us to love our enemy. That we find it hard to do so is all the ‘proof’ we need that He, God, is right… whereas we are only too human, without Him, for our own good.

    Personally, I am inclined to argue passionately (sometimes too passionately for my own ‘good’ in the eyes of another, I have no doubt), be it about the need for bishops defend the Faith and protect their flocks against the liberal fascism of the state, or my belief as a Liverpool supporter that referee Howard Webb plays for Manchester United. Yes, the Truth can be an oxymoron. Just ask Jesus. And Mary. And Joseph.

    So, Paul, as you probably see eye to eye with Jack on the most important aspects of being Catholic, why not trade the fiery glint of one eye for the kindly light in one of his. Tough love. As Christ might have said to the temple traders.

  • Anonymous

    I really wonder about these people to whom you refer as having “hatred and anger” in their eyes. I know a lot of people who are staunch traditional Catholics and I have tons of conversations with them about the crisis in the Church and I get stacks of letters (this morning’s post is a good example) of people who are deeply concerned at what is going on in the Church, but I have yet to meet anyone exhibiting hatred of any kind – except hatred of sin and hatred of what is happening to the Church by her enemies within, as well as without. If we don’t hate sin and heresy, we need to head for the nearest confessional.

    And, sorry, but you are wrong about society – Christ warned us that the world would hate us, because it hated Him. This fashion for trying to accommodate the world and worldlings is a dangerous novelty.

    Cardinal Hume – as Francis has pointed out brilliantly in her article – really wanted to have his cake and eat it. He wanted to be a respected member of the British Establishment and a popular Catholic – can’t be done. He could have been a respected Catholic – that CAN be done, but that isn’t the same thing at all, as being popular.

  • Anonymous

    But the Holy Spirit DID give us all the answers at Pentecost! Christ, in fact, had already given us all the answers when he invested His Church to teach with His divine authority: “He that hears you, hears Me”

    This idea that we have to seek and search, high and low, to find the truth is another outcome of this awful crisis in the Church, poor catechesis (or no catechesis) in both parish and school, resulting several generations on, in no catechesis in the home either. Christ gave us all the answers through the authority divinely invested in HIs Church. When in doubt, during this crisis, we simply have to compare what popes and bishops today are teaching, with what went before, Simple. As St Ireneus said, “The truth is always simple; it is error that is immense.”

    That’s why you would want to avoid the “balanced and representative” Catholic websites you sympathetically foresee in the future. They’d only complicate matters.

  • GFFM

    Cardinal Hume took the path of least resistance as prelate. He was quite conciliatory at all times with critiques of the Church and tried to rise above confronting the ever developing intolerance of the British elite toward Catholics. In my view he set the contemporary tone for Church leaders in Britain which the Pope has tried to counter by his visit of late. The Pope’s intellectual yet peaceful confrontation with the intolerance of Britain has underscored what the Bishops of the UK have not done. It’s almost embarrassing to point this out since it’s so obvious.

  • Jack Regan

    Hi EditorCT…

    You have made some interesting points in both your posts there. I’m afraid I don’t have the time to take things line by line – which often isn’t the best approach anyway – so allow me to pick up on a few of the more interesting bits:

    What the Holy Spirit gave us at Pentecost was a way to work toward – and in – all truth, but it certainly didn’t give us every single answer to every single question. It took 300 years before the Church was able to definitively define the trinity, and even longer to nail down the canon of scripture, parts of eschatology, and a whole host of other things. It took over 1900 years before we were able to definitely say that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. And it wasn’t that the Church simply hadn’t gotten to these things yet. Neither was it that the Church was holding back what it new. It was searching.

    Now, of course, all of those things were no less true before they were defined, but we were less sure of them. That’s the point. All we had was the integrity of the search and the confidence that the Church would be able to tell us when we had passed the crucial points in that search.

    Indeed, how many areas does the Church still define as being open to further scrutiny and not part of the deposit of faith?

    Personally, I see my relationship with Christ as something really beautiful, which constantly deepens. I learn new thing all the time and I love the fact that I have more to learn. It makes me excited and alive! And what I have already learned sustains me and strengthens me for what lies ahead.

    Secondly, when Christ talks about the world ‘hating’ us, I am fairly sure that at least in most cases, we can put this down to the Gospel narrative adopting a certain way or transmitting truth. Much like ‘He who does not hate his brother, sister, father, mother [etc]…’ I feel very strongly that is our interactions with the rest of the world we are called to affirm what is good, to challenge what isn’t and, in all things, to love. That last part, especially, is entirely clear.

    One thing I have learned about internet discussions is the importance of knowing when to gracefully withdraw. In this case, here! I will check back and read responses if time permits. Let us pray for one another, for our Church and for the world, that God in his love will transform all…

  • Anthony

    Amen. And that we are a help rather than a hindrance.