The appointment of Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, a former protégé of Cardinal Basil Hume, to the see of Westminster had long been expected, but for a time back in March seemed suddenly unlikely. “I couldn’t believe how nasty it was,” a journalist friend told me recently of her attempt to get close to the various parties at the time. “I felt I was being contaminated.”
Archbishop Nichols will be formally installed this Thurday, May 21, but his predecessor, among many others, thought it would happen much sooner. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster since 1999, had been assured that February would be the month of the handover. But March came and went without word from Rome; the air—digital, print, café—hummed with accusations and counter-accusations, exposing splits within the English Catholic Church that are as great as in its U.S. counterpart.
Because (so the theory went) the appointment should have been a slam-dunk for Archbishop Nichols, a significant obstacle to his appointment must have been discovered. The Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops was said to be deadlocked. Names of “new” candidates—some interesting, most highly improbable—flew back and forth.
Then, in mid-March, the Sunday Telegraph reported that two Catholic bishops had written to the papal nuncio to warn that Archbishop Nichols would be a divisive figure, and to accuse him of being uncollegial, ambitious and excessively confident in his own judgement. Two weeks later, Nichols was confirmed for Westminster.
How and by whom confidentiality was broken—the most shocking element of this episode—is not clear. But the journalist involved is reliable, and during almost two years working for Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor I had more than once heard these precise criticisms of Archbishop Nichols made by senior Catholics, among them bishops. There is substance in them. He is frequently to be found running out ahead alone, barely concealing his contempt for his slower, more laid-back confreres.
In this he is the exact opposite of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who has preferred to move together or not at all. The contrast in style and temperament between the two could not be sharper. The outgoing Archbishop of Westminster craves—like many second-generation Irishmen—acceptance by the English establishment; the incoming one, proud of his northern English origins and accent, enjoys being its thorn in the flesh. Where Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor can be hesitant, anxiously seeking the advice of experts, Archbishop Nichols likes to respond fast, master of his own brief. Where the first would rather wait for consensus, the second prefers decision. If Cardinal Cormac, in the words of one of his former advisers, liked to “catch flies with honey,” Archbishop Nichols would rather use an old-fashioned swatter. The difference is summed up in their Episcopal mottos: Cardinal Cormac’s is the optimistic, pain-averse Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”), that of Archbishop Nichols the tougher, grimmer Fortis Ut Mors Dilectio ("Love Is Strong As Death").
To conservatives in the Catholic blogosphere, which rant about a “Magic Circle” of liberal bishops fiddling while the pews drain, the anonymous bishops’ critique has been the perfect excuse to portray Nichols as the orthodox outsider threatening the liberal Catholic establishment, who it says are “dismayed” at the appointment. This simple binary appeals, naturally, to the media.
It is, of course, nonsense. Almost all the senior Catholics I have spoken to—many of them pillars of the so-called liberal Catholic establishment—agree he is the best, and indeed the obvious, choice; and far from being dismayed, have been relieved if unsurprised. We will probably never know why the announcement was delayed, but it is far more likely to do with curial inertia than the alleged character flaws—and the fact that in the Congregation the Westminster file was always underneath that of New York.
Socially-committed Catholics are especially pleased. Archbishop Nichols has shown his identification with immigrants by his outspoken support for the Strangers into Citizens campaign, a church-inspired call for a pathway to citizenship for long-term undocumented migrants. Others point to his contribution to The Common Good, the bishops’ 1996 application of Catholic social teaching on the eve of the election of Tony Blair, and his advocacy of the rights of labour.
The idea that “Vin” is an outsider is wildly off-mark. He is a creature of Cardinal Hume, the former Archbishop of Westminster (1976-99), who early spotted the priest’s talents. He took him out of Liverpool diocese to act as General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference (1983-1992) before making him, at just 46, auxiliary bishop of Westminster (1992-2000). Fluent in Italian, savvy and articulate, Nichols was Hume’s right-hand man in Rome, where he cut his teeth in ecclesiastical politics. On the cardinal’s death, he was Westminster’s administrator, and Hume’s choice as successor; but because he was only 55, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was pulled from Arundel & Brighton to the mother diocese, and Nichols went to Birmingham. There he ably cleaned up a pedophile scandal, took charge of the new child protection agency, and won a skirmish or two with the government over freedom of Catholic schools to select pupils on religious grounds. (Education has long been Nichols’s main brief, and Catholic schools his passion). In the past decade he has shown himself to be a smart and articulate leader, comfy in front of the microphone, a defender of the church’s interests and an assiduous promoter of its values.
It was while he was Archbishop of Birmingham that the myth of the “conservative” Nichols took hold, and the charge of ambition stuck. Vincent, both Father and Bishop, had been known in London as a man of the Vatican Council, praised for his openness and pastoral abilities. But as Archbishop of Birmingham he appeared to become identified more with the “Roman tendency” among the bishops as opposed to the “pastoral” or “English” tendency. It is charged that this transformation was a calculated decision, made out of personal ambition, to follow the advice given him by the former Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, to make himself “more favourable to Rome.”
But this too is a misreading. Nichols is a strategist. He knows that to advance the church’s interests in Britain you must first square off Rome. In my dealings with him while working at Archbishop’s House I never found him to be more conservative than the other bishops. What made him different from them was his immediate grasp of how the media would exploit perceived gaps between the church in England and in Rome, and how they could be closed. Over the English church’s reception of the Vatican’s November 2005 document banning gay men from seminaries, for example, he understood immediately the importance of giving an authoritative spin to the document—that it was not excluding gay men, only those incapable of affective maturity or whose homosexuality impeded their witness—rather than pretending that it spoke for itself or was nothing new, as some of the other bishops were tempted to say. He understood the need to close gaps, but that did not mean acceding to the (different) Vatican interpretation of that document.
Archbishop Nichols was appointed not just because of his obvious experience and abilities, but because he is the bishop best able to meet the five core challenges facing today’s church of 4.2 million Catholics: a new secularist hostility in the state, which is pushing the rights of religion from the public square in the name of equality; the importance of good relations with Canterbury at a time of crisis in the Anglican Communion; the promotion of Catholic social teaching at a time of economic crisis; the growing erosion of the Life ethic in biotechnology, euthanasia and abortion; and the social and political challenge of an increasingly immigrant church in Britain’s urban centres, where the vulnerable foreign-born look to their church to defend and integrate them.
To all of these he brings an experience and strategic ability that are unparalleled. The ecumenism called for now is not theological exchange but an ability to work with church leaders to defend Christian interests (which he has long done). He is a good campaigner: he knows the importance of lining up allies, has a good feel for where public opinion will be on a given issue, and understands where power lies. And he is a superb communicator: clear, reasoned and passionate. These qualities will be particularly important in bioethics, where the pro-life movement, weak and factionalized, has become adept at losing battles.
He begins his term with two important challenges, which are also providential opportunities.
The first is to articulate a coherent Catholic response to the financial and institutional crisis into which Britain has been plunged. A papal encyclical , out soon, will offer both diagnosis and prescription; it could light the path to a church-led civic revival, as did Quadragessimo Anno (1931) in the wake of the Great Depression. The enyclical will be followed by a social statement by the English and Welsh bishops at the end of the year—an updated Common Good. Just as that 1996 document appeared at the dying of Conservative rule, so this new one will come at what is already the dead end of New Labour’s reign. Where the first was seen as implicitly pro-Blair’s Labour in its critique of the neglect of public services, so this one will be pro-Cameron’s Conservatives in its emphasis on the need to repair civic society, weakened by both state and market.
The second opportunity comes next year, in what is almost certain to be a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the UK for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. Here is not only an opportunity to communicate the hurch to a skeptical, rationalist Britain, but also a heaven-sent chance to energize and unite the church for many years to come. With Catholic focus centered on the successor of St. Peter, Archbishop Nichols can use the moment to push through structural reforms and expunge some of the bitter divisions that so shocked my correspondent friend.
If he pulls these two off—something that depends not just on his undoubted abilities but on his lesser capacity for collegiality—Archbishop Nichols will quickly establish himself as the prophetic and dynamic Catholic leader we need. No one is better equipped.