Is He becoming the moral leader of the nation? With a few remarks, Basil Hume certainly put one issue, abortion, on the political agenda for the first time, and did it single-handedly.
Declaring that Catholics would find it impossible to vote for an election candidate who actively supported abortion, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster intervened in politics in a way hardly seen before from a British church leader.
Nor has he finished. In March, Cardinal Hume plans to lead a day of reparation to mark the 30 years since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed. The event, to be held in his own diocese of Westminster, further indicates how strongly he feels about the issue in the run-up to the coming general election, and those close to him believe he has been encouraged by the response to his comments last weekend.
"There's been an incredible reaction from the old pro-abortion troopers, and it's because they sense a mood change," said anti-abortion MP David Alton. "Cardinal Hume's comments have touched a nerve. He's a man of enormous integrity and people do pause and listen when he speaks. I think there's a lot of relief that he's chosen to highlight the abortion issue.
"He obviously wants to underline the fact that there's been no softening of the Catholic line on abortion, but he also feels the time is right to open the debate in a wider arena."
Why though? Why now? Catholic commentators offer several explanations. By the time of the general election after this year's, the 73-year-old cardinal is almost certainly to have been replaced as leader of the four million Catholics in England and Wales, and he may be determined to use his influence now where it can be most effective. He is required to tender his resignation to the Pope when he is 75, though he is quite likely to remain in office for a year or so after that.
"It is common towards the end of a See for the incumbent to be quite cautious, because he doesn't want to queer the pitch for his successor," said John Wilkins, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet. "But there's also a tendency to speak out, so if there is an issue which isn't going to cause ructions for the future, then obviously this is the time to air it."
The cardinal is also in a unique position, some feel, as the nation's de facto moral leader, a role he has won for himself and one that will not be transferred automatically to his successor. "He has replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual leader of the nation," says Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald and Hume's biographer. "When the country is confused on some moral question, it turns for guidance to Cardinal Hume. He has the air of a man who carries God in his shadow."
Furthermore, the fact that the cardinal is a member of the English establishment means his views, on abortion as on other topics, are given a good deal more weight in Whitehall.
"Past Catholic leaders like Cardinal Heenan were of Irish origin and were seen as firebrands," said Mr Stanford. "They would take the public platforms and make a lot of noise, but Hume will go to see a minister privately first, and politicians know that making a public fuss is his ultimate threat. His first line is to talk a matter through quietly and reasonably, and he does get listened to. He talks to ministers on equal terms because he's English and upper middle class; he's an establishment figure who understands how the establishment works. He never just gets on his soapbox, but if the time comes for it he will emerge humbly into the limelight."
In fact Cardinal Hume mayhave been awaiting an opportunity to clarify his views on abortion since October, when pub- lication of The Common Good, a discussion document to prepare Catholics for the election, led to criticism that he had become lukewarm on such issues.
John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, expressed "dismay" at what he saw as a playing down of the issue in The Common Good. He said he was particularly saddened that the bishops were instructing Catholics to vote for pro-abortion candidates if the candidates' views on other issues were in accord with Church teaching.
In November, Cardinal Hume seemed to go out of his way to reiterate his commitment to the "pro-life" cause in a letter to Pope John Paul II. "We recognise the profound failure of society in England and Wales to uphold the sanctity of life. The prevalence of abortion in our countries is a shameful scandal," he wrote in a message on behalf of the bishops of England and Wales sent on the 50th anniversary of the Pope's ordination.
"We assure you of our determination ... to work to create those conditions in which the repeal of abortion legislation will be increasingly recognised as a moral obligation. Then such change will become not only politically possible but also politically necessary."
Cardinal Hume's line on abortion had been increasingly contrasted with that of Cardinal Tom Winning, his opposite number in Scotland, who has followed a more gloves-off approach. Cardinal Winning has criticised Tony Blair's stance of being personally against abortion but unwilling to vote for it to be made illegal as "washing his hands" of the issue.
Privately, Cardinal Hume's advisers believe his pragmatic attitude is more sophisticated and intelligent. When he feels there is political mileage to be gained, he has never been reticent about stepping into the fray. Last autumn, when thousands of stored embryos were destroyed because they were deemed to be past their safely usable date, he made several statements deploring the mistreatment of human life.
Concern over the fate of the embryos was one of several events last year that contributed to a widespread revision of public feeling on abortion. Another was the case of the woman carrying twins who underwent a selective abortion to reduce the number of foetuses to one, which provoked a strong public debate. The case of Mandy Allwood, who refused selective abortion in an attempt to carry octuplets to term, also helped to raise the political temperature of the debate.
Leading anti-abortionists this weekend predicted that Cardinal Hume's comments could have a strong impact on voting patterns, particularly in traditionally strong Catholic communities.
Mr Smeaton said he believed Cardinal Hume's condemnation of abortion could have a significant effect. "It could make a difference, though a lot depends on whether the message continues and is maintained," he said.
"At the last general election we found that Cardinal Winning's strong statements on abortion had an effect on voting in the west of Scotland, and if Cardinal Hume's message is sustained we would look to areas with a strong Catholic population to see a similar effect."
Elizabeth Peacock, the "pro-life" Conservative MP for Batley and Spen, said she believed the cardinal's remarks would encourage floating voters to opt for an anti-abortion candidate.
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