Archbishop signals new direction for Catholics

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The Independent Online

It was billed as a "solemn installation". But the watchwords which the Most Rev Cormac Murphy-O'Connor chose yesterday as he became the 10th Archbishop of Westminster had little to do with solemnity. They were revealing in more ways than one.

It was billed as a "solemn installation". But the watchwords which the Most Rev Cormac Murphy-O'Connor chose yesterday as he became the 10th Archbishop of Westminster had little to do with solemnity. They were revealing in more ways than one.

"It is not for nothing I chose for my motto Gaudium et Spes - joy and hope," he told a congregation at Westminster Cathedral which overflowed into the streets. "I have no time for prophets of gloom. I do not believe these are gloomy times for the Catholic Church in our country."

The archbishop might have been talking simply about the challenge of arresting the decline in Sunday mass-going among the four million Roman Catholics in England and Wales, which has fallen by 22 per cent in the last decade.

Or he might have been referring to his cherished ambition of bringing about Christian unity - something on which he has been English Catholicism's key player for almost two decades. Indeed, he told the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and the other religious leaders present in the cathedral that, despite the obstacles and the difficulties, "the road to Christian unity is like a road with no exit".

But it was significant in a deeper way. Gaudium et Spes are the first two words of the constitution of the church issued after the Second Vatican Council which transformed Catholicism from an institution turned in on its sacramental life to one which embraced "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted".

For the new archbishop to quote that was an important signal about the style and direction that he intends at a nodal point for his church in the United Kingdom.

After the calm spirituality of his predecessor, Cardinal Basil Hume, Catholicism has been more recently associated with the brasher manner of Cardinal Thomas Winning in Scotland.

The shift has repercussions which go beyond style. In the row over the repeal of Section 28 and the promotion of homosexuality in sex education, the zealots of Scotland have been raising a ghost most thought long buried - the idea that Catholics cannot be trusted because they owe their true allegiance to a power outside the realm.

The 45 Catholic Labour MPs were to be placed in the old quandary of divided loyalties after an "order" by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family that they must oppose legislation supporting gay equality. One was quoted as saying that Rome would not influence his voting - but that it might affect that of his colleagues. There were Scottish hands in this mischief. A spokesman for Cardinal Winning warned that the pronouncement was binding not just on Catholic politicians but on all church members.

Things were not quite as they seemed. Certainly, the Pontifical Council is one of the most retrogressive outfits within the Roman Curia. Yet, for all that, the council has no canonical authority. It cannot bind anyone. Its wilder statements are discreetly consigned by the English bishops to the wastepaper basket.

The truth is that the church of which Cormac Murphy-O'Connor yesterday assumed the leadership is a very different institution than of old.

A more representative symptom of its character can be found in the role played by the other new archbishop, the Right Rev Vincent Nichols, who is to be installed at Birmingham next week.

Bishop Nichols has been the chief architect of the deal between the churches, Catholic and Anglican, and the Government over the sex education guidelines to replace Section 28. Bishop Nichols, in contrast to Cardinal Winning, has worked quietly behind the scenes. Privately he professes himself pleased with the outcome.

The new guidelines protect school children from inappropriate teaching and materials, he says, and are more positive, direct and enforceable than what they replace. The church, he says, can live with the ambiguity of the concession it made by including the "stable relationships" alongside marriage in the guidelines.

All this is revealing. The challenge facing the Catholic Church in Britain today is how can it help the nation hold to a moral centre in a pluralist society. In Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Vincent Nichols the church has given key roles to two men who could make a positive contribution to that process.

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