Leading article: A church with the power to divide, but also to heal

Under Archbishop Nichols the Catholic Church has much to offer

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We are often told that Christianity is steadily losing its grip on our national life. But while that might be true for many denominations, the outlook for one - the Catholic Church - is actually rather bright.

There are now believed to be more regular Catholic churchgoers than Anglicans, their ranks swelled by immigration from Central Europe in recent years. Indeed, some estimates put Roman Catholicism on course to be the dominant religion in Britain for the first time since the Reformation. This is a church considering how to manage expansion, not decline.

And now, in Vincent Nichols, it has a leader who promises to project the church's grass roots strength more fully into public life. The outgoing Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, was not a particularly effective leader of English and Welsh Catholics. For all his warmth, he was never able to fill the gap left in national life by the death of Cardinal Basil Hume.

But Archbishop Nichols promises to be much more dynamic. His effective political campaign in 2006 against Government plans to control the intake of Catholic faith schools, in which he marshalled the support of parents in marginal constituencies, is a taste of what is to come. This is one clerical voice the political establishment will not be able to ignore.

But how precisely will Archbishop Nichols choose to exert this influence? His speech today criticising proposals to allow the screening of adverts for abortion services on television indicates that he will be just as socially conservative as any of his predecessors on issues of embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality and female reproduction.

Such a focus would naturally depress liberals. As the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, argued this week, the concerns of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly on homosexuality, do not reflect the concerns of its followers.

It is hard to believe, for instance, that many Catholics felt the Easter sermon two years ago by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, calling Scotland's abortion rate the equivalent of "two Dunblane massacres a day" was the image of their faith they wanted projected to wider society. Yet it is worth noting that, his views on reproduction apart, Archbishop Nichols is socially progressive. He had a guiding hand in the production of Common Good in 1996, a manifesto from Catholic bishops repudiating the materialistic excesses of the Thatcher era.

And he has long argued that the Catholic Church cannot be concerned only with its own well-being. This is welcome because the Catholic Church has a great deal to offer wider society. Even liberal secularists must acknowledge the welcome the church has extended to immigrant groups and its consistent championing of anti-racism. The values of charity and compassion espoused by the church are also pertinent, especially in a time of recession. Many Catholic churches around the country have been used as unofficial job centres and social welfare offices in recent years. That is the sort of pastoral care many Britons are crying out for today.

As long as it projects a generous spirit, and does not light the fires of division, there is no reason why the Catholic Church of England and Wales should not continue to buck the trend of gradual Christian decline.

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