Page last updated at 08:49 GMT, Saturday, 4 April 2009 09:49 UK

Reaction as Cardinal stands down

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
The Archbishop was made a Cardinal in February 2001

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has announced that he is standing down as head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, to be replaced by Vincent Nichols, currently the Archbishop of Birmingham.

Church figures and commentators have been offering reaction to the Cardinal's departure, and looking ahead to what changes might be in store for British Roman Catholics:


No wonder Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has been such a popular guest of honour at official functions while at Westminster: he puts people at their ease and can proffer a witty story combined with a strong message of faith.

But for all the pastoral warmth and the sense of a man at ease with himself, his time in office has not been without difficulty. Child abuse scandals quickly cast a shadow over his term of office, although the Church made efforts to counter it.

He became the well-liked human face of the Catholic Church
Nor does he leave behind a Church entirely at ease.

Statistics suggest the Church isn't thriving; attendance, baptisms and marriages are down.

But they were also down during the time of Cardinal Hume, whose shadow also loomed over Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor.

But he did emerge from it eventually, and became the well-liked human face of the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols is a man of charm - and of steel. He was warm, open, and chatty when he met journalists on Friday at the press conference, but afterwards he said with frankness: "I'm not coming here to be friends with everybody".

Nichols is convinced of the need for strong leadership in the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and that means there will be some tough talk from him about divisions in the Church, and about the extent to which people stray from Church teaching.

And going by past form, he will be tough too in his dealings with Government, lobbying effectively on issues that concern the Catholic Church, such as schooling, adoption, embryonic stem cell research. Above all, Catholics will want a spiritual leader, and Nichols will no doubt make that his priority.


When Cormac Murphy O'Connor was appointed Cardinal in 2001, commentators saw him as a kindly caretaker who would help the Catholic Church adjust to the loss of its charismatic leader, Cardinal Basil Hume.

In fact, the new Catholic leader proved a canny politician, who disarmed the Establishment with his affable personality, only to then trounce them on issues of principle such as gay adoption and faith schools.

His Church emerged as a power in the land - and, to many, the government's most effective opposition
Under his brief, the minority Catholic Church gained not only in numbers - its ranks swollen by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa - but in status.

When Tony Blair's government planned to force Catholic state schools to accept a quarter of students from a non-Catholic background, the Cardinal orchestrated a multi-faith, headline-grabbing campaign against what he called the dilution of the ethos in faith schools. The government eventually backed down.

Even more heated was the Cardinal's opposition to plans forcing Catholic adoption agencies to allow same-sex couples to adopt.

Again, O'Connor's high-profile campaign ably turned the issue into a battle for freedom of religion, and although he lost his case (half of Catholic agencies now allow same-sex couples to adopt) his Church emerged as a power in the land - and, to many, the government's most effective opposition.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols is everything the Catholic Church of England and Wales needs right now.

He is as sure-footed in the corridors of power - whether they be at Westminster or the Vatican - as in the BBC studios and the centres dealing with the homeless, drug addicts and battered wives.

This prelate managed to browbeat Alan Johnson as Secretary of state for Education into dropping a proposed quota of non Catholics in Catholic faith schools.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols
Archbishop Nichols has maintained a high profile in the Church.

His eloquence in resisting the government's plans to force Catholic Adoption societies to accept gay couples as potential adoptive parents succeeded in sounding principled rather than homophobic.

Secularists will have to grapple with a notable intellect; and Catholics will breathe a sigh of relief that here is a man who can convey the message of the Church with consummate PR skills.

Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, the telegenic Archbishop Nichols seems totally at ease with the media, whether on television or over the radio, striking a note that is authoritative rather than authoritarian, and inclusive rather than cheaply populist.

The most intriguing question at this point is: he is 63, obviously well-liked at the Vatican, and immensely talented.

Could the future Cardinal of Westminster be a truly papabile candidate?


Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was the son of a Reading GP, and could have been one himself, scripted by AJ Cronin.

The plus side of that warm and avuncular bedside manner is that 20 minutes with him in person is a tonic to the spirits. He is immensely likeable.

But the downside is that his manner comes across on radio or television as a bit bumbling and mumbling, suggesting he cannot think straight. Well, he can.

He is very shrewd, under the disarming exterior; also very honest and genuinely humble. Any estimate of his significance must reflect these personal qualities.

So if the Vatican wants competence above all, someone who will not drop the ball, they have the right man.
He did not give the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales a clear direction, except to continue in the trajectory mapped out by his predecessors and mentors, Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop Derek Worlock. But he gave it a friendly and kindly face.

And who is to say that is not the most important thing?

Vincent Nichols has great pastoral gifts, which is another way of saying he is good at conveying to people that he likes them; and great personal charm, which is another way of saying that people like him back.

This is quite sincere - it is in his Merseyside nature, the warmth that northerners say southerners lack but which some southerners can find a bit syrupy.

There is much more to him than that, of course; he has done very competently a series of key jobs for the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

He was put in charge both of child protection arrangements and of the Catholic school system, and ran a tight ship in both cases. So if the Vatican wants competence above all, someone who will not drop the ball, they have the right man.

But leadership also includes an ability to communicate a vision, to excite people with new possibilities.

There is not so far much evidence of that. We shall see. It is probably what the Catholic Church in this country needs above all.


Some years ago, I met Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor in the green-room of the Today studio.

I can't now remember whether we were booked to debate against one other, or whether we were both on the same side fighting against the differently-abled BBC tea machine - which is invariably and infuriatingly out of tea, water or some other essential - but I vividly remember the man.

The word that sums him up is 'grace'. He was gentle, in the way that a gentleman is. Strong, yes, and unshakeably firm, but courteous with every word he spoke.

And in just those few moments that we had together, I also felt a most remarkable sense of unity. Here was a man who shared the same values, held to the same faith as I do, and fought for it in a way I deeply admire and would love to emulate.

The Roman Church in England is robust and principled - in some ways, it has seemed to me, more so than my own

I confess myself not well qualified to pronounce on a Church other than my own: my experience is all anecdotal, my analysis purely personal.

None the less, I have felt for some years that the Roman Church in England is robust and principled - in some ways, it has seemed to me, more so than my own.

I don't for a moment mean that I intend to convert or that I am not Anglican to my very core.

But Catholicism has one advantage over the Church of England in this country: it has experienced persecution far more recently in its history. And persecution tends to have a refining effect on the Church.

You hold to the essentials: you know you are going to be unpopular and unfashionable, and that you will will have to stand firm and it won't always be easy.

My impression is that sometimes, in recent decades, our Roman brothers and sisters have done this rather more effectively than we have.

Everything about Vincent Nichols seems to me good news.

He is tough. Anyone who takes on the establishment is a 'good thing' as a spiritual leader, and he has chosen the right battles - quotas for faith schools; offensive telly programmes about the Pope; adoption agencies forced to go against their consciences... an issue he may have lost but was still right to fight.

He thinks before he speaks. No bad quality in anyone, and especially in following Our Lord, who never rushed into anything or did things impetuously, even when he behaved passionately and energetically.

And he is media-friendly; articulate and savvy. The least important trait of all, but it still doesn't go down badly...

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