‘This society is not secular’ The new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, tells Daniel Johnson about his vision of English Catholicism
Daniel Johnson: I’ve noticed that since you took office, we’ve had an interesting change in the way in which Catholicism in England has presented itself. I’m thinking of two or three specific things. One is the relics of Saint Thérèse, which you’ve welcomed into the county and have had an amazing response. The second is miracles. You had a press conference recently in which you spoke with Jack Sullivan, who had undergone an extraordinary transformation as a result of the intercession of Cardinal Newman. Third, you’ve also been very excited about the new exhibition at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real, which has also had a great echo. Is there a deliberate policy at work here or is it pure coincidence that these things have taken place on your watch? Vincent Nichols: I think it’s coincidence really. I certainly had nothing to do with the exhibition at the National Gallery, which had already been many years in preparation. Obviously, as a group of bishops we had talked about the relics of St Thérèse and the visit of Jack Sullivan did seem to me to be a proper thing to do. I think that all three help us to capture again the wholeness that is promised in God’s presence in the Incarnation and then in the unfolding in that gift of God in our flesh in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As for the relics you mention, I was in the Cathedral early one morning and someone just said to me: “Isn’t this remarkable? We’re seeing here Catholics do what Catholics do instinctively.” And it was a very remarkable time when over and over again what was visible in the public sphere was something of the intimacy of the relationship between the disciple and the master and God. People came because in Thérèse of Lisieux, they were given great permission to be themselves. I think that it was Thérèse’s experience and insight that what God wants above all is to love us for what we are. That’s what people respond and latch on to. I think they know that her lesson was that despite all the vulnerability and confusion in our lives there is a welcome and a passion that invites us to just take a step nearer. At the bishops’ conference, we talked about spirituality, the truths of faith and the life of devotion. All three need to be held together. In the last 20 years, we have probably neglected the devotional life. But it is here that the heart speaks most eloquently.
As for miracles, the presence of Jack Sullivan was important to us because he was a down-to-earth regular guy, as the Americans would say. He was at pains to say that he got a gift of God, just when he was at his weakest. He said it was only when he had no more strength, when the medical process had come to an end, God came to help. That and the relics help us become a little bit more comfortable with our own vulnerability and own woundedness. That leads on to the exhibition. If I may concentrate on just one figure, that of the dead Christ. It is an absolutely stark presentation of broken, wounded humanity. My view is that this represents a sphere of human experience from which we so often just shy away. But here it is presented to us in its starkness. It is to be found in many a prison cell, many a torture chamber, many a battlefield, and trauma centres in many hospitals. This is a truth—and it’s terrible, but it’s true. It’s a redemptive truth because it tells us that God enters into the worst and most vulnerable parts of human experience and can do something with them which we can’t ever do. DJ: Your mention of Jack Sullivan brings us to the subject of Cardinal Newman, who is one of the great figures of English letters and thought, but we still struggle to see him, particularly nonCatholics, as a great spiritual leader and a living presence. But this year he will be beatified, the first figure of its kind since St Thomas More, not counting the English Catholic Martyrs. It will be an event of truly global significance. What does Newman mean to you and why should people still be interested today? VN: It’s a huge topic, with many layers. At one level, in academia, Newman is much studied and highly regarded, particularly in Germany and America. Every university in the US has a Newman society or centre. There was a very interesting article by [Cardinal] Avery Dulles about the three conversions in Newman’s life. The first was at 15, when (like many people today) he embraced a sort of natural religion. This was a sense of right and wrong: a sense of God as an adjudicator of all that goes on. But Newman’s first conversion was from that point to a sense of God as a personal God, a person to whom he could relate, to whom he could open up his life and from whom he could gain a strength and grace and sense of purpose. That was when he decided to serve God in the Church in a celibate manner. That was when Newman became in some ways evangelical. Then his second conversion was once he began to grapple with “the non-dogmatic principle” of his age: liberalism. This
PHO T O GR A PH S BY E L I Z A BE V E R I D GE ‘This society is not secular’
claimed that truth was individual, was what you made it, that there was no over-arching dogma. That was going to be the struggle. That was perceptive of him to note. It reminded me of a phrase from G. K. Chesterton: “People are divided into two kinds: those who live by dogma and know it and those who live by dogma and don’t know it.” He had an anxiety about the “don’t know its” who were trying to live by the non-dogmatic principle. It was in contrast to this that Newman then developed his whole sense of the continuity of a steady doctrine going right through the history of Christianity. He began to look to the Christian faith for doctrinal positions, for saving truths—that is what a doctrine is—and that’s when he started reading through the Fathers and trying to see the importance of these firm statements of truth that were beyond a culture and beyond an age. Third, he came to see a need for “a living and universal authority”. That completed his entrance to the Catholic Church.
In doing so, he used dramatic and contemporary language, that of smelting and iron foundry, reflecting its tremendous strength of steel and construction. That’s what the papacy is like. It a part of a smelting and clashing of elements whereby our human nature (so powerful, so glorious, so terrible) is fashioned into something that is capable of bearing an eternal truth. That’s a fascinating path. Its relevance today is to show how one can go from a natural religion to a personal religion, to a religion that accepts the importance of dogma that needs to be kept in a dynamic tension with reason.
Newman also fascinates me as a parish priest. When he died, in 1890, the streets were lined with people—maybe 20,000. Although very few of them had probably read Newman (maybe they had sung a hymn), they came out to salute a dead parish priest. They saw him as someone who prepared his sermons well, spent hours in the confessional, to whom they could talk, who visited the sick and brought coal and food to the cold and hungry, someone who would walk in the snow as an 80-year-old to Bournville Village to defend the Catholic workforce from imposed Bible studies, and a man who volunteered to go to Smethwick when an outbreak of plague had decimated the parish. It is also rather remarkable in the context of this year for priests that Pope Benedict has asked us to observe, that in this country we are going to have the beatification of a parish priest. It is a great boost for the priests of this country. With Newman there is the priest and also the poet and man who wrote The Dream of Gerontius, and the hymns, such as “Lead Kindly Light”, and the things that we know by heart because they appeal to the heart. DJ: To be controversial for a moment—the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture in Rome about the priesthood. He talked about the idea of women being ordained. It lies at the heart of the recent Apostolic Constitution to welcome disaffected Anglicans. In the context of Newman, it seemed to me that Dr Williams was to some extent throwing out a bit of a challenge to the Catholic Church in that lecture. He was effectively saying: “Please tell us why the Catholic Church feels not able to ordain women as priests.” He was asking for an explanation for this. Now, Newman’s most important theological idea was that doctrine evolves and occasionally goes in surprising directions. The Second Vatican Council brought many new things to light. Is this a fruitful dialogue to be had between the churches or is this an area where the Catholic Church is simply not going to change? VN: Can I separate those? The lecture was really very interesting. But I don’t think that the issue of women was central to it. He was saying that questions of holy orders are not first-order issues, they are second-order issues. He was much more interested in trying to lay down firmly our shared perception of the mystery of the Church. He was saying that there is much agreement around that broad framework of God’s initiative in Christ. That should be the focus of our ongoing endeavours. We can carry a lot of variation and differences in matters of secondary importance. That was his point. One of those was about the ordination of women and another was about the patterns by which primacy is exercised.
The Apostolic Constitution is essentially about papal primacy, not about women or sexual ethics. It’s simply a response to those within the Anglican community who have approached the Holy See, who say that they accept the same faith and see the need for unity with the Bishop of Rome, today, now. They want to know how they can do that as groups and what part of their heritage they can bring with them. The premise on which this Apostolic Constitution is founded shows that there is acceptance by the See of Rome now as it is exercised. That’s why it is a mistake to read it as some kind of broad appeal to anyone of Catholic sympathies within the Anglican community. It’s not that. It absolutely depends on the acceptance of the ministry of Peter as it is now. In the Church of England, for example, I hope that the Anglo-Catholic content will strengthen. That’s a very important incentive for our ongoing long-term discussion there. The constitution is much more specific. It is specifically about those who want to accept the ministry of Peter and the jurisdictional oversight that he exercises now. Not all Anglicans e
“We need some stronger shared foundations”: Archbishop Nichols and Daniel Johnson