Why Catholics could learn a lot from Islam

Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, sings the praises of Ramadan – and reflection – to Jerome Taylor

There was a time when the country's bishops didn't lose much sleep over headlines. As the moral arbiters of the nation they would wade in on controversial issues, regardless of what next day's editorials might say.

But like much of the establishment, Britain's senior clergymen have surrounded themselves with legions of press advisers whose jobs it is to make sure their paymasters don't put their foot in it – predominantly by keeping their heads below the parapet.

"I'm not sure he'll say much on that," says the press man for Archbishop Vincent Nichols when asked whether the leader of Catholics in England and Wales will broach the topic of abortion. "We're not really keen on an 'archbishop versus the politicians' headline'."

But it turns out that Archbishop Nichols does hold some rather strong opinions on Britain's elite. "People are trying to take short cuts," he sighs when asked about the various scandals that have rocked Westminster, the banks, the Metropolitan Police and Fleet Street. "They're not interested in the long-term consequences as long as it's success.

"Whether that's reading a newspaper, trying to make the most of your time in Parliament through expenses, the police looking for quick results or the banks. There are all those commonalities."

Nichols, a football-mad cleric from Liverpool who has risen to become the second most senior Catholic in Britain (after Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien), is an intensely media-savvy operator. Unlike Dr Rowan Williams, his Anglican opposite in Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Westminster has avoided head-on collisions with politicians since he was appointed by the Pope two years ago to lead Catholics in England and Wales.

He chooses his words carefully, making sure he is not seen to be directly attacking ministers.

One deviation is on the papal trip one year ago, which – the Archbishop reveals – was nearly sunk, not by thenegative advance publicity about sex abuse within the Catholic Church, but by a lack of political willpower once last year's general election got under way.

"It was almost impossible to make any progress in the cooperative effort that a state visit needed," he discloses, in his white-carpeted study behind Westminster Cathedral. "No one was making any political decisions. That was the point I was most worried." The failure to form a government for a further 10 days compounded the pressure.

It took the Archbishop to make a veiled threat of international humiliation to the new Prime Minister to get things moving again, he says. Only after a phone conversation with David Cameron did events speed along. "I told him it will be a question of the reputation of Great Britain having issued an invitation to the Pope and then not make it happen," says Nichols. "They came back with the appointment of Lord Patten and once that was done, we got going."

The announcement that the Pope would make a state visit to Britain was the first big test for Nichols, after being promoted by Pope Benedict XVI from the archbishopric of Birmingham to Westminster in April 2009.

In the eyes of the Vatican, that visit exactly one year ago, was a storming success, despite the negativity ahead of it. The papacy had been battered by months of headlines as new sex abuse allegations broke out across the Catholic Church, with questions over Benedict's pre-papal role as head of the Vatican body in charge of upholding the church's moral and doctrinal purity. In Britain there was also widespread concern about the spiralling costs of the visit. But when Benedict finally stepped foot on British soil he was largely embraced.

"The attitude in the country today towards religious faith is not the same as it was a year ago," claims Archbishop Nichols, who is in line for a promotion to Cardinal once his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, turns 80 next year and loses his Vatican voting rights.

"I think to some extent the Pope demythologised some of people's fears – the innate British suspicion of anything Roman Catholic and of the Pope as a position. I think that was profoundly changed when they saw the man himself."

It was partly the Archbishop's ability to avoid controversy – and weather the storms when they arrive – that encouraged Pope Benedict to promote him.

Some might see his careful answers as a missed opportunity to hold politics up to a higher level of moral scrutiny. Others say it is a sensible approach to a world where a controversial soundbite can easily overshadow the wider message.

On abortion, Archbishop Nichols' message is one of carefully worded support for the MP Nadine Dorries, and her amendment on independent abortion counsellors. "In the eyes of the Catholic Church abortion is a tragedy," he says in a voice that still bears a hint of his Liverpool upbringing. "Our principle objective must be to try and win greater sympathy for that perspective and for the value of human life from its beginnings.

"In that sense independent counselling would appear to be reasonable. But our main principle would be the nature of abortion itself and that it is an act that destroys human life and is difficult to bear, not only for the person who has the abortion."

And on the recent rioting, Archbishop Nichols, whose flock play a prominent role within Britain's prisons as spiritual and practical rehabilitators, says that those rioters who feel aggrieved by harsh sentencing from judges and magistrates will have to wait their turn in the appeal courts.

"I think its right to make a distinction between isolated acts of criminality and what happened during a serious civil disorder," he says. "If the judiciary has got it wrong, that is what the appeal system is for."

To mark the one year anniversary of the papal visit, the Archbishop has asked Catholics to re-embrace the sacrament of penance and, specifically, giving something up on a Friday. Traditionally European Catholics might forgo eating meat at the end of the week and that is something Archbishop Nichols would like to see more of. "At a personal human level we are having to work out what we can do without because we can't in these times afford everything we want," he explains. "That can be combined with a sense of solidarity and help for those who are really genuinely poor.

"So in the Catholic tradition the idea of giving something up on a Friday – the act of self denial – has always been tied with being generous to those in need."

Ramadan, a whole month of fasting and giving to the poor, recently ended for Muslims. Is that something Christians could do more to emulate?

"You're right to point to the Muslim community," Nichols replies. "What many of our bishops say is that young people today – who are much more exposed and sensitive to the Muslim practice of fasting – are ready for a challenge and want a challenge by which they can be identified." It is those youngsters who have faith that will be the lifeblood of the Church if it is to survive the ever growing secularisation of our society.

"In many ways the young are more religiously minded than the older generations," he says. "I think it's the flip side of an age of individualism. Youngsters are not afraid to tell you what they think, to express their faith and be quite exuberant about it. We were much more reticent and probably a bit more troubled by issues of conformity than they are."

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