The savage truth behind the Cardinal's smile

A TV evangelist's attempt to woo English Catholics has brought a stern rebuke, writes Lucy Lethbridge

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They could not have have any idea of the broadside they were about to receive. Catholic traditionalists gathered this weekend to hear the American TV evangelist Mother Angelica speak at a conference entitled "Faith of our Fathers". Mother Angelica, whose cable television station, the Eternal World TV Network reaches more than 43 million American homes gave a blistering performance in which she inveighed against what she called the "sick liberal Church".

With her resolutely conservative habit and wimple, her TV broadcasts of the saying of the rosary, her hardline views on contraception, liturgy and sex education and her running battle with liberal US bishops, the 73-year-old nun has endeared herself to the Catholic right wing in Britain who see her brand of conservative evangelism as just the thing to halt what they regard as a liberal malaise which has sent the Church into decline since the reforms of the 1966 Second Vatican Council.

She did not disappoint them. "It was a very slick performance," according to Annabel Miller, assistant editor of the leading Catholic weekly, the Tablet, "though whether religious leaders should be slick performers is another question."

But the mistake the religious right made was in inviting Cardinal Basil Hume, the Primate of the Catholic church in England and Wales. They had hoped that his acceptance would be interpreted by the wider community as endorsement. In the event he turned up on Saturday and delivered a reprimand which those who understand the coded vocabulary of English Catholicism yesterday were describing as "savage".

Among the organisers of the conference (at which the participants sung the Creed in Latin - a practice out of favour since Vatican II) were Ex Ecclesia et Pontifice, whose chairperson, Daphne McCleod, a former teacher, delivered a vituperative attack on the Church's modern teaching methods. There was, however, nothing coded about her language. Modern Catholic educationalists have been the particular target of the right wing, who see declining morals among the young to be a direct consequence of religious education, which is broadly humanist with just a sprinkling of religion on the top.

All this is but a pale echo of the situation in America where Mother Angelica - born Rita Rizzo in Ohio and called by Time magazine "probably the most influential Roman Catholic woman in America" - is one of the chief protagonists in what has become an all-out war between conservatives and modernists. What became obvious on Saturday was that Cardinal Hume feels that the time has come to nip in the bud the activities of those in England who would seek to import that civil war here. "Teachers and writers," he censured, "need our understanding, help and guidance and certainly not public condemnation."

The cardinal went on to criticise severely the violence of the language that has increasingly characterised Catholic right-wing rhetoric in recent times, particularly since the conversion to Catholicism of conservative Anglicans who have brought with them the open bickering and bitterness all too common in the Church of England and which has in the past horrified English Catholics whatever their ecclesiological disagreements.

"There is more to transmitting the faith to young people than the teaching of its truths," the cardinal said. "Young people can have adequate knowledge of their faith but still, alas, remain unmoved by and detached from its true meaning and significance. Minds and hearts have to be won."

And in what will be seen as a response to the right-wing practice of targeting individuals they believe to be promoting an unorthodox liberalism, Cardinal Hume admonished: "Proclaiming the truth, not only in word but also in the way we act, is generally more successful than the outright condemnation of error. Our reactions to other persons ought always to be characterised by a willingness to show respect; to be careful not to damage another person's good name; to affirm what is good in another; never to be rude or insulting."

This all underscores the highly unusual step the cardinal had taken just before he attended the conference when he issued a statement in which he took pains to dissociate himself in advance from resolutions that were passed by the meeting. "It was quite by accident that I discovered only two days ago," he wrote, "that there might be resolutions put.

"The introduction of resolutions at a meeting such as this changes its nature. It becomes a campaign rather than a celebration of our faith. You will appreciate, I am sure, that I must dissociate myself from this aspect of today's gathering."

Among the resolutions passed by delegates, whose members included right- wing stalwarts such as the former Anglican vicar William Oddie, and writers Alice Thomas Ellis and Piers Paul Read, were that "every bishop shall himself examine the text books used in his schools for religious discussions" and that no lessons on sex should be given in primary schools.

Such a tactic is in line with a tendency by the ultra-conservatives to say they support the Pope against the liberal bishops. On this Cardinal Hume was firm in his rebuke: "Bishops, though under the authority of the Pope and appointed by him, are nonetheless not his delegates. In communion with him they share in responsibility not only for the dioceses in their care, but also for the whole church. It is not possible to express loyalty to the church without including loyalty to one's own bishop."

Many of this ultramontane tendency - groups like Ex Ecclesia Et Pontifice, the Latin Mass Society and the Association of Catholic Women - will doubtless feel that the cardinal's stern words will confirm that they are under attack by a treacherous liberal establishment. But most Catholics will be pleased at the cardinal's firmness and his demonstration that the mainstream church will remain committed to the reforming spirit of dialogue begun 30 years ago with the Second Vatican Council and that the ultra-right will remain shrieking on the fringes.

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