Scarlet and ermine to add to the cardinal’s hat

The likelihood that, after his imminent retirement, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor will be given a seat in the House of Lords marks a big step in the UK’s eccentric constitutional arrangements and in the Church’s attitude to the State. It would remove one of the last stigmas against Roman Catholics as heretics and potential traitors. . It’s good to see the constitution catching up with Ian Paisley senior. Yes, I know, there’s still the Act of Settlement but we’ll have to leave that for another generation. Murphy O’Connor’s predecessor Basil Hume who died in office had turned down the idea of a peerage in principle, though he accepted the rare, top honour of an OM (the Order of Merit, an honour also given to Robin Eames), in recognition of the Church’s place in British life. In a farewell lecture last night, text published in Ruth Gledhill’s blog, the cardinal sounded the alarm that that place is now under threat from the new secularism, and he put the classic case for the defence. It helps that he uses readily understood language and is a warm and likeable person without a forbidding aura, ( he confessed to me once that although formally English he quietly supported the Irish ruby team – but then , that was at an Irish party). Extracts
‘Keeping the Faith and the conversion of England.’ This was the old motto, now much modified.

Without in any way compromising the loyalty of Catholics to the country, there always lingered the hope that one day England would be restored to the ancient Catholic faith. It may have been a dream but it was always there in the prayers and aspirations of the Catholic people, especially those who held the memory of the trials and sufferings of our forebears, of the men and women who had died for their faith in penal times. Running with this was also the desire of an immigrant Catholic community to be recognised as a productive and trusted part of British society.

And now, the fear that the Church is not only being side-lined, but is actually under attack.

There has been a subtle but deep change in the way the Catholic Church has been perceived by contemporary culture. It is not that it meets with indifference or even hostility – although that is certainly noticeable – rather it is heard with certain incomprehension. Incomprehension not only makes it difficult for the Church, and indeed, individual Christians, to make their voice heard, it also means that there is the risk of distortion and caricature.

A “sick society?”

…it is tempting – and certainly headline making – to simply to list what is wrong. One could say, for instance, that we now live not in a liberal but a libertine society in which all moral and ethical boundaries seem to have gone out the window. But that is too quick, and it ignores the fact that there are very many people trying their best, deeply concerned about the future, and alive to the humanly destructive power of so many forces at large. The truth is that to be human is to be deeply tempted to be good.

A robust defence against secularism..

Many of the arguments of secularism seek to offer a new and liberated self-sufficient humanism. Yet, I think, they can only end in the death of the human spirit because they are fundamentally reductionist

What the State should do to recognise the Church’s contributions to national life.

First, there is a need for the State to acquire a better understanding of the contribution and place of faith in British society. Legislation on discrimination, much of it good in itself, is now being used to limit freedom of religion in unacceptable ways. The sad and totally needless conflict over the Catholic adoption agencies is one example.

Second, extensive contributions made by Christian charities in the UK have been largely underestimated by the authorities. Governments would be wise to provide a greater and more autonomous role for the voluntary sector in delivering key public services.

I think the greatest danger for us at the moment is to let ourselves believe what secular culture wants us to believe about ourselves, namely, that we are becoming less and less influential and are in decline.

Church education affirmed– a clear read-across here to NI

It well understood that an education was critical, not only to the life of the Church itself, but also to the capacity of the Catholic community to play a significant and productive part in the life of the nation

I think our schools have publicly demonstrated their value. They have shown that so called ‘faith schools’ do not breed prejudice or division; indeed they are often the most creative and innovative in dealing with such problems.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London