Cardinal Thomas Winning, the Catholic leader in Scotland who died in 2001, was for many an acquired taste. A fierce, abrasive, self-important man, he nevertheless inspired great devotion among his flock. He hugely enjoyed being a prince of the church and revelled in ill-informed but persistent talk of him as a potential pope. In public, he expected to be treated with exaggerated respect as he dispensed wisdom, occasionally tongue-lashing anyone who disagreed with him, and rarely able in his black- and-white world to see any shades of grey.
It was hardly behaviour designed to assist him in exerting spiritual influence in our secular society. The election of Tony Blair in 1997 should, in theory, have given Winning a historic opportunity to raise his concerns with a sympathetic Prime Minister. Both men, after all, were Christian socialists. Winning had been a virulent anti-Thatcherite in the 1980s, while Blair is all but a Catholic and had been educated in Scotland. So what did Winning do? He launched a high-profile campaign during the 1997 general election to force the Labour leader to prove his faith by banning abortion.
It was a piece of hopeless political naivety, and did very little damage to Blair, who explained the difference between public policy and private morality on such delicate issues of conscience. Once in 10 Downing Street, he seems to have made a mental note to steer clear of Winning. When the cardinal later took it upon himself to spearhead the campaign to save Clause 28, labelling homosexuality "a perversion", he only strengthened the impression that he was a fanatic.
Compare his behaviour to that of his widely-admired counterpart south of the border, Cardinal Basil Hume. The former Abbot of Ampleforth carried into the national arena the air of a man of God. He enjoyed great success in gently influencing politicians behind the scenes. He understood both the art of the possible, and the drawbacks of giving any hint of religious fundamentalism.
Stephen McGinty, a writer on The Scotsman, confronts Thomas Winning's shortcomings and misjudgements with commendable honesty. This biography, after all, was authorised. The picture he paints of cosy sessions with the cardinal before his death show a softer, more attractive side to his subject, which singularly failed to come across in the pulpit or on a public platform.
McGinty does a good job of putting Cardinal Winning's headline-grabbing actions in context: of a Scottish Catholic church that sees itself as a much more radical, anti-establishment, working-class organisation than in England, and of a universal church in which Pope John Paul II has given a lead in plain speaking with his total opposition to abortion and the "moral evil" of homosexuality.
This is an admirable biography, in that it takes an apparently unattractive subject and tries intelligently to explain what made him that way. While McGinty never quite manages to make you warm to Winning, he produces an informative study of the ongoing clash of values between Catholicism in its undiluted form and Western secular society.
Peter Stanford's revised biography of Lord Longford is published by SuttonReuse content