Basil Hume: the Monk Cardinal By Anthony Howard

A warrior monk who loved a good fight
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He was in effect telling Basil Hume to be himself. And as Anthony Howard's fascinating account of his life reveals, this was what made Basil such an effective spiritual leader not only of the Catholic church, but to an extent of the country as a whole. Despite all the panoply of his post as archbishop, and appointment as cardinal just a few weeks later, he remained the simple Benedictine monk that he had always been.

Yet, as this official biography reveals, Basil Hume was a paradox. The monk from North Yorkshire, for all his otherwordliness, was highly effective in making his influence felt in public life. His time at Ampleforth, when he was required as abbot to both be a strong leader and a pastor careful to nurture the weak and the strong, clearly stood him in good stead for his life as cardinal. He also brought to the post the self-confidence of the well-educated, English middle-class. Britain's senior Catholic clerics, since the Church's 19th-century revival, have tended to reflect their flock: mostly Irish, not particularly scholarly and with limited education. But there is another strand of English Catholicism, which is highly educated, prosperous and at ease with the establishment.

Basil Hume owed his Catholicism to his French mother, and his English certainties to his doctor father, and to his public-school education, finished off at Oxford and Fribourg, Switzerland. Howard recounts a fascinating story of lobbying on behalf of Basil Hume by a remarkable cast of characters from British public life. They included Andrew Knight, former Ampleforth pupil and by then editor of The Economist, politicians Shirley Williams and Norman St John Stevas, journalist William Rees-Mogg, and the Duke of Norfolk.

Much of this biography focuses on Basil Hume's public life at Westminster, although the first third, devoted to his years at Ampleforth, will satisfy those whose curiosity about monastic life has been stirred by the recent successful television series, The Monastery. But the book comes to life when political writer Howard is on more familiar territory, and his account of how Basil Hume, the establishment's choice for archbishop, took on the establishment, with his championing of the Guildford Four, is riveting. Basil Hume spent 13 years stubbornly supporting their cause and, at the end of it, the convictions of not only the Guildford Four but the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six, were quashed. As Howard puts it: "No other cleric could have taken on a largely hostile public opinion and turned it round in the way he did until at the end people were simply prepared to say, 'Well, if the Cardinal thinks they didn't do it, that's good enough for me.'"

Hume's skills were also in evidence in his relationship with the Church of England, particularly his skilful negotiations over married Anglican clergy crossing over to Rome following their Church's decision to allow women priests. The successful diplomacy was nearly shot to pieces with an aside from Hume that this could be the sign of the conversion of England for which Catholics had been praying. Cue sharp intake of breath from George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, and hurt feelings of all the Anglicans.

Another unhappy episode, which caused Basil Hume great distress, was the row over Bruce Kent - then a priest of Hume's Westminster diocese - combining his priestly life with the role of General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Hume felt Kent should be allowed to follow his conscience on this matter, but the intense political lobbying against the unilateralist led to a falling out between Hume and Kent, which was only finally resolved when Hume was just days from death.

The tensions of Hume's job were not solely confined to British politics. Howard also delves into the rows which Hume faced in the Catholic Church, taking on Opus Dei, and his defence of those caught in the crossfire of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), known more colloquially as the Inquisition. Howard includes an account of Hume's endeavours on behalf of the English nun, Lavinia Byrne, whose book on women priests, Woman at the Altar, was condemned by the CDF. Hume's letter to the CDF's secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, was forceful and fearless, insisting that any more repressive activity would only do the Catholic Church in Britain great harm.

Such anger was put to good use, but Basil Hume was also capable of outbursts of temper which he and its victims deeply regretted, while his abbatial glare was formidable. Yet, for all that, Hume was deeply loved, although this too, as Howard makes clear, was not enough to stop the decline in Catholic Mass attendance in this country. Rather, it encouraged a wider sense of spiritual well-being and reminded the nation of fundamental values. In doing so Basil Hume did the country a service and in his turn Anthony Howard has done Hume a service with this erudite and eminently readable biography of a remarkable man.

Catherine Pepinster is the editor of the Catholic weekly, 'The Tablet'