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Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic World News News Feature

Anything But Relaxing June 02, 2003

By Bess Twiston-Davies

When Cormac Murphy O'Connor became the leading prelate of the Catholic Church in England and Wales in 2000, it seemed a new dawn for English Catholicism. A tall jovial priest with a slight Irish burr, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor seemed more relaxed than his predecessor, Cardinal Basil Hume, a half-French Benedictine from a monastery attached to an elite upper-class boarding school. But in a wide-ranging interview first published in the London Times, and reprinted below with permission, it is clear that the cardinal's tenure as leader of England's 1.2 million practicing Catholics has not been relaxing.

In his lifetime Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has seen Catholics integrated more into mainstream British society, at a time when that society is rapidly losing the last remnants of Christian culture. Within the Church, he faces declining numbers of priests and religious and plummeting morale prompted by the relentless tide of sex-abuse scandals.


The architect of a complete overhaul of child-protection procedures within the English Church, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has been dogged for months by the scandals that have their roots in the time when he was Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, a diocese on England's southern coast. Scarcely four months after his appointment as Archbishop of Westminster in July 2000, the British press dredged up a story about Father Michael Hill, an Arundel and Brighton priest who had been jailed in 1997 for pedophilia. In 1985, acting on expert advice after Father Hill had undergone therapy and assessment, then-Bishop Murphy-O'Connor had transferred Hill to the chaplaincy of Gatwick airport, where the priest persisted in abusing children. Murphy-O'Connor has argued that his transfer of the wayward priest was a case in which he acted on the best available advice, failing to understand the compulsive nature of pedophilia.

Stung by the public criticism that arose from the Hill case, and anxious to prove his good will, the new archbishop launched an overhaul of the child-protection policy of the Church in England and Wales. He appointed Lord Nolan, a Catholic member of the House of Lords to lead it. Nolan's panel included Bishop Peter Smith, then of East Anglia; Msgr. Jack Kennedy, the child-protection coordinator for the Liverpool archdiocese; and an assortment of police and prison officials, psychiatric and child-welfare experts. Half of the panel's members were Catholic; half were not. Their stated mission was to examine the child-protection policies of each of the 22 dioceses in England and Wales. In April 2001, the bishops' conference voted unanimously to accept the Nolan report's 50 recommendations, including criminal record checks for all priests and church staff working with children, plus the institution of a labyrinthine bureaucracy of child-protection officials, at the national, diocesan, and parish levels.


In his interview with the Times, the cardinal asserts that no more scandals will emerge from his former diocesea claim that is wearing thin with the British public and Catholics alike. Before Christmas last year, he hastily convened a press conference to tell journalists that he had had handed the details of 10 "historic" (that is, old) cases in Arundel and Brighton to an independent Catholic solicitor. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor assured the journalists that these 10 cases were the last that would emerge. The same day the papers carried the story of Father Christopher Maxwell-Stewart, an Arundel and Brighton priest suspected of abuse, who had been bought a house, with diocesan money, 30 yards from a child-care facility. In a rare television interview, the cardinal responded by accusing the British media of anti-Catholic bias.

Weeks later, the British press broke still more damaging stories, which were denied by the cardinal. The first gave a fresh twist on the Michael Hill affair, claiming that a Westminster bishop had offered the imprisoned cleric a £50,000 bribe to keep quiet after his release from prison, a story Murphy-O'Connor dismissed as "absurd and preposterous." The second story concerned Father Tim Garrett, a priest convicted of taking indecent photographs of boys in the 1980s. When a risk-assessment had concluded that Father Garrett was not a danger to children, then-Bishop Murphy-O'Connor had allowed him to transfer from the Portsmouth diocese to Arundel and Brighton. In March of this year a third case, involving the abuse of a 12-year-old girl, emerged. The cardinal said he had simply forgotten to mention it in his previous listing of "historic" cases. One national newspaper reacted by calling for the cardinal's resignation, charging that his comments suggested that the entire sex-abuse scandal "was a question of frustratingly bad filing."

In this interview, the cardinal sounds weary of the controversy, apologizing for the mistakes of the past. "One thing about the Catholic Church," he comments, "is that when things like this happen it faces it honestly and says so."


Strangely, the cardinal does not see homosexuality as a factor in priestly child abuse, despite the strong evidence from the United States, where the vast majority of sex-abuse cases have involved young males. "It does seem to be established that the question of child abuse has nothing at all to do with homosexuality," he claims. "This is what I think experts in the field have borne out. Sad to relate, but the vast majority of child abuse occurs in the family."

Even more surprising, the cardinal does not believe that homosexually oriented men should be barred from ordination, a precaution that has been suggested by the Vatican in the past, and confirmed in the light of the US experience. The February issue of Briefings, the journal of the episcopal conference of which the cardinal is president, contained a letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, then head of the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, describing the ordination of homosexually oriented men as "inadvisable, imprudent, and pastorally very risky." The cardinal does not agree. He says: "The Church must judge the people who are ordained on what kind of person they are, not their sexuality."

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor states that if a seminarian is able to "live a moral and a chaste life," then "he has a right not to be obstructed by a sexual orientation." Perhaps he does not wish to offend Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and new head of the Church of England, who has acknowledged ordaining practicing homosexuals.


Already the Catholic and Anglican prelates have joined forces to condemn the conflict in Iraq. In the future, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor hopes they will speak out together on "the Christian life"a vital topic in a country that is virtually pagan. "You couldn't call England a Christian society," he says. "Fifty or 100 years ago everyone would know the Our Father. I don't think that's true any more."

Perhaps that drift away from Christianity helps to explain why England faces a drastic shortage of priests. Although more than 5,000 priests currently serve the country's 1.2 million practicing Catholics, those priests are aging, and barely 200 men are now studying for the priesthood. Elsewhere in the world, vocation shortages have been resolved through the new movements100 of Rome's 193 seminarians, for example, belong to the NeoCatechumenate. But Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is "not sure'" that such communities can help in Englandalthough he "is reluctant to judge any of them."

Even in 70-year-old Murphy-O'Connor's childhood, Catholics were still consigned to the periphery of British public life. "We weren't persecuted," he recalls, "but people were suspicious of Catholics." He still hopes to see the end of the remaining institutional signs of anti-Catholicism; he has called for the abolition of the Act of Settlement, a 300-year-old British law that forbids an English monarch from wedding a Catholic. Two years ago, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor became the first Catholic Archbishop since the Reformation to be invited to stay with the Royal family. The cardinal believes that English Catholics are now more confident, no longer an immigrant people.

The son of an Irish doctor, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was brought up in the south of England in a vast Irish Catholic clan that produced many priests. The priesthood, he confesses, seemed "very natural" as a vocational choice. Talking of the reasons for the country's slump in vocations, the cardinal refers to the decline in the stable Catholic families that once provided children with a fundamental understanding of the faith and a commitment to Christian life.

Recently Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor opened a series of evening sessions for young Catholics at Westminster Cathedral. When he asked the participants to tell him their concerns, one young woman said that her formation as a Catholic had stopped after confirmation. Rather than blaming the Catholic schoolsa source of continual dissatisfaction to England's orthodox Catholicsthe cardinal responded that young Catholics must re-learn the faith in early adulthood. There was almost surprise in his voice, as he said, "We're not very good at adult formation."

Overall, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor emerges as typical of his generation, his views reflecting a world-view shaped by Vatican II and the social changes of 20th-century Britain. He was born into an Irish ghetto on the margins of British society, and has seen Catholicism assume a more central, socially acceptable role in British life. Like many of his brother bishops, who lived through the aggiornamento of Vatican II, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is a fervent ecumenist, deeply concerned with matters of social justice, yet apparently puzzled by recent developments in the Church such as the new movements, and even by the desire of young Catholics to be taught more about the faith. [AUTHOR ID} Bess Twiston-Davies is a Catholic freelance journalist working in the United Kingdom.


[HEAD] The Times Interview

[SUBHEAD] Unlike previous question-and-answer sessions with Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the interview below was uncensored; the cardinal did not insist on the right of approving and correcting the text prior to publication. Since the day's news headlines were dominated by news of a US-British victory in Iraq, the conversation began with that topic before moving into more controversial matters such as ecumenism, homosexuality, and the sex-abuse scandal.

[PULLQUOTE 1] The politicians decided there ought to be a war, and I'll say no more about that.

[PULLQUOTE 2] But I met another saint who was also Franciscan when I was a student: Padre Pio.

What was your reaction to the news that the allies had taken Baghdad?

Murphy-O'Connor: I cannot help but be pleased that the war seems to be finished a lot more quickly than we imagined. I am pleased that there'll be no more bloodshed, no more death.

My heart goes out not just to those who have died, whom we pray for, but to the families of the soldiers, the non-combatants and the Iraqis themselves.

Most Iraqis were pleased to be liberated from Saddam, but the Pope has said that war is a failure for humanity, and the churches have condemned it.

Murphy-O'Connor: The Church said very strongly before the war that it hoped and prayed that there should be ways of resolving these kinds of disputes and conflicts other than war. I think the Church would still teach that and preach that; certainly I'm sure Pope John Paul would, and I would as well. The politicians decided there ought to be a war, and I'll say no more about that. The decision was made, and thank God the war was over quickly. But there'll be an aftermath to this whole affair, and I hope that the leaders of the United States and Britain make sure that they help rebuild Iraq in ways that are just and creative for the future not only for Iraq but for justice and peace in the whole of the Middle East.

Although the Pope has strongly condemned the war, some Catholics, especially in the US, have said that they think this is a just war. I'm thinking of writers and theologians such as George Weigel and Michael Novak.

Murphy-O'Connor: I think it's quite clear that the United Nations were justified in demanding from Saddam that he give up weapons of mass destruction. Pope John Paul himself begged him to do just that, and indeed when the Archbishop of Canterbury and I made a statement we said the same: that this wasn't just all on one side, that there were obligations on Saddam as well. The political leaders thought these weren't fulfilled and therefore they went to war. It is a matter of opinion whether inspections should have been given more time, and so on, but that's the past. I think we ought to concentrate now on the future.

You don't feel it fulfilled the criteria for a just war, as formulated by St Thomas Aquinas?

Murphy-O'Connor: What I think is that now is the time for reflection. I think it would be precipitate for me to come out with a sudden decision as to whether the war was a just war or fulfilled the criteria for me. I think the consequences of this war are going to be with us for a long time.

Among the non-war news of recent days there has been the story of the couple who were given permission by the High Court for treatment to have a test-tube "designer baby." What message does that give us about Britain?

Murphy-O'Connor: The danger in following such a course is that we become a utilitarian form of society. I think the whole area of genetic engineering is a very serious one and I think the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, has very strong things to say about the respect give to human life. We say human life begins from the moment of conception and therefore there is respect due to the human embryo.

What has the Church been doing to defend life as far as these specific legal issues are concerned? Should the hierarchy get involved?

Murphy-O'Connor: Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't. I intervened in one particular case of the Siamese twins, if you remember. We don't intervene in every particular case in the secular sphere. That doesn't mean we don't feel strongly about it or in any way deviate from our principles about respect due to human life.

In the past you've said that this is a society in which Christianity has been almost vanquished.

Murphy-O'Connor: What I meant was Christianity as a culture, a background to our society. You couldn't call England a Christian society. I suppose 50 or 100 years ago, everyone would know the Our Father and would be able to pray and to do the very basics and so on. I don't think that's true anymore. So sometimes you can be talking about Jesus Christ and about the Cross and about the Our Father and a lot of young people won't know what you are talking about.

When you were growing up, Catholics were perhaps rather a community apart in British society, but particularly under your predecessor Cardinal Hume, the Church came out of the ghetto slightly. Would you agree?

Murphy-O'Connor: Yes. When I was a boy, Catholics were on the periphery. We were strong, we were firm in our faith, but we were not part of the mainstream of society. The object was to keep the faith in a slightly alien settingwe weren't persecuted, but people were suspicious of Catholics. The leadership of Cardinal Hume certainly had a good effect, but there's also the fact that Catholics themselves are no longer for the most part immigrant people, from Ireland or elsewhere. They are women and men who have grown up in England. This is their country. This is their Church within their country, and they feel they have a part to play. It's that conviction on the part of Catholics that makes them part of the mainstream in a way now that we weren't 50 years ago.

You were the first Archbishop of Westminster invited to Sandringham to preach to the Queen. Was that a surprise?

Murphy-O'Connor: I wasn't altogether surprised because the Queen herself has come on a long learning process of being more openas an Anglican, obviously, but also ecumenical. I think she wanted to make another gesture of ecumenism toward the Catholic Church.

What about the Act of Settlement?

Murphy-O'Connor: (Laughs) Well I'm on record as saying it should go. If Prince William wants to marry a good Catholic woman, I don't see why he shouldn't. The CofE (Church of England) and the government say that once you start unraveling one bit of the Act of Settlement you unravel the whole lot. I don't think that's true and, without necessarily asking for the disestablishment of the Church of England, I don't see why this particular part of the establishment shouldn't be unraveled.

Do you think Prince Charles should marry Camilla?

Murphy-O'Connor: I think it's up to Charles himself. I wouldn't want to comment on that. It's too personal, and he's a member of the Established Church, so he would be advised by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London rather than by me.

You've been saying that Britain has become less Christian. Do you think the Established Church (CofE) is really serving a purpose in society?

Murphy-O'Connor: I think without condemning or applauding the Established Church we should look at ourselves. Are we doing enough? I never criticize others without first of all criticizing ourselves. I think we could be more forthright.

In what way?

Murphy-O'Connor: In public speaking, not only by bishops but by lay people too, and priests. What are the things that really matter in terms of public life? First of all, the dignity of the human person.

Secondly, all social policy that involves the community. Everything in social life should be geared towards the enhancement of the family and judged by its effect on the family, which is the very bedrock of society.

And thirdly, we say this is a pagan or a secular society, but how do we answer people searching for meaning and hope and the transcendent in their lives? Those things are universal.

Where can the Catholic Church collaborate with the Church of England, particularly with the new Archbishop of Canterbury?

Murphy-O'Connor: On matters of social justice, racial justice. Already we are collaborating on Iraq, on this particular conflict. I like to think also with the current Archbishop of Canterbury there would be matters regarding Christian faith, because while there are things on which we are still disunited, there are things which we do agree on. I think a lot of people would like us to speak together more and more about God, about Christ and about how we live our lives. I hope there will be opportunities to do this.

We each have our own strengths. The Catholic Church has a very particular strength in its understanding of what it means to be Church, of what it means to be a universal Church and how that's held together. The CofE has the strength of establishment and also its presence in areas where the Catholic Church isn't particularly strong: in the countryside, in the small villages. That tradition they have is very significant. And the Free Churches have a part to play too. They speak a lot of the service to social welfare, a very personal love of Jesus, and a very prominent commitment to the poor.

What if the Church of England ordains women bishops?

Murphy-O'Connor: The teaching of the Catholic Church is clear. It hasn't got the authority to change the tradition of the Church regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood and therefore that is certainly a serious obstacle to the full unity we desire. How do we overcome that? I don't know. All I know is that ecumenism is a must, that the Holy Spirit is in the Church, in all Christians, and that we must trust the Good Lord that he will lead us forward.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that he has knowingly ordained practicing homosexuals as ministers.

Murphy-O'Connor: I'm reluctant to judge the Archbishop of Canterbury. As far as I understand it, he does adhere to traditional Anglican teaching about the wrongness of homosexual relations. The teaching of the Catholic Church on this issue is very clear and my understanding is the Anglican Church would accept the same doctrine as we do.

Now clearly, this does not mean we are homophobic and that we would not treat people who are homosexual or in homosexual relationship with pastoral sensitivity and care.

Do you think men who are not practicing homosexuals, but men of homosexual tendency, should be ordained as priests?

Murphy-O'Connor: I think the Church must judge the people who are ordained on what kind of person they are, not on their sexuality. And I think that there will be men, probably a very small minority, who might have a homosexual orientation. Obviously, if they are practicing, this would exclude them. But I would not say that a person who has a homosexual tendency is necessarily debarred. I would judge him on his character, on his capacity to live a moral and a chaste life. I think every bishop has to make a decision: is such and such a personin terms of his faith and morals and in terms of his chastity and his ability to live celibacya suitable person to carry out the ministry of the priesthood? If the bishop thinks he is, then I think he has a right not to be obstructed by a sexual orientation.

Some conservative Catholics have argued that the recent scandals in the Church, certainly in the United States, have involved homosexual priests abusing adolescent boys.

Murphy-O'Connor: I'm a bit hesitant about going too deeply into this. All I would say is that it does seem to be established that the question of child abuse has nothing directly at all to do with homosexuality. That is what I think experts in the field have borne out. It's sad to relate, but the vast majority of cases of child abuse occur in the family.

Of course it has been a great shame, the scandal in the Church. I think what we are doing in the Church here now is very important. One thing about the Catholic Church is that when things like this happen it faces it honestly and says so. This has occurred among a tiny minority of priests, and we will not only say so, apologize, and care for the sorrow and hurt of the victims and families, but also do what we can in every possible way for the protection of children.

The Nolan Review addressed this.

Murphy-O'Connor: Yes. Every diocese in England now has a child-protection officer and a child-protection team, a person nominated in every parish, then there's a national organization to oversee all that. People have put an enormous amount of effort into this, as well as money. When people still criticize things that weren't done properly, or in the past, I think it is time now that we can say: "Look, no one can say that the Catholic Church hasn't faced this honestly and is now well on the road to being a model of how to treat child-protection issues."

Unfortunately your time in office has been dominated by cases from the past from Arundel and Brighton. Without going into detail, can we be sure that is over now, that we can move forward?

Murphy-O'Connor: Oh yes, I think so.

And that there are no "historic" cases coming up?

Murphy-O'Connor: I've stated that all historic cases in my former diocese must be handed over to Child Protection, and that is what has happened.

You've begun a program of discussions with young Catholics in Westminster Cathedral. What inspired this?

Murphy-O'Connor: I think young people can feel very isolated in the Catholic Church and one of the great things about these evenings is that young people have found each other and can say: "I'm not the only one who believes, who has a prayer life and who wants to practice my faith." I'd like this to happen in all kinds of other places. What I'd like is for young people themselves, little groups of them, to get together and say: "What can we do for ourselves?"

I think there ought to be placesoaseswhere young people are able to meet and talk freely and pray and be happy to be together. We spend millions on Catholic schools. But how do we actually nourish the seeds that are planted?

I was at one of the talks the other night when a young girl in her response to you said: "My instruction stopped after confirmation."

Murphy-O'Connor: A lot of Catholics don't learn any more after their adolescence. I'm inclined to think that most Catholics need in early adulthood to relearn not just the content of the faith but how that content brings it alive. I've taken 200 or 300 young people to Lourdes every year, and there at Lourdes a lot of these young people who came for a bit of fun suddenly found that through prayer, being together, looking after the sick, they renewed their practice of their faith in a way that certainly came alive for them.

I think sometimes people blame the schools too much. Most people who are convinced Catholics and know their faith relearn it again at an adult stage. I think we're not very good at adult formation and we need to do a lot more work on that.

Is that lack of formation part of the reason for the decline in vocations?

Murphy-O'Connor: I think there are a lot of reasons of that. But it's true that when I became a priest (hundreds of years ago!) there were about 70 or 80 students at the English College [in Rome], and most of them came from Catholic families, where they had learned to make the sign of the Cross, had learned about Jesus, had learned about prayer. Their initial formation was from their family and that was carried on in the school, for some of them into junior seminary, so that when they came out they were already formed in the practice of prayer and faith and the basics they learnt in catechetical form.

A lot of young people now haven't had that stable Catholic family background and some of those who come forward to the priesthood have less of that stability of formation which I think comes from the family. A lot of them are also older.

In Rome the numbers of seminarians have gone up. I think there are something like 193, of which 100 belong to the NeoCatechumenate. Are these new movements a solution?

Murphy-O'Connor: I don't know if they're a solution. They are certainly an indication that new movements are important to the Church, and I'm not making judgments on any of them. The Pope often speaks about the movements with great approval and I can understand why. He sees in Europe particularly the springtime of the Church in a lot of these movements: enthusiasm, faith, commitment.

I would certainly support these new movements. I also think they will find their proper place when the whole Church is moving. That's why I am doing the 'At Your Word Lord' renewal program in the Westminster diocese. When the whole of the parish, the whole of the people, are engaged in a renewal of the faith through thinking about the Word of God, through their prayer, through the liturgy, then it enhances the whole life of the Church. It is with this that the new movements will find their proper place.

Could you talk a little bit about your own vocation?

Murphy-O'Connor: I grew up in a very Catholic family. I had uncles who were priests and I was very familiar with priests and I found it very natural. These weren't holier-than-thou, they were people I knew who were friendly and who were nice and who were good. So it was all around me really. Most of my family were either doctors or priests or businessmen of some kind. In those days there wasn't the vast choice that there is now, so I suppose it would be natural that priesthood would come up in my life. In fact when I did decide, in my teens, I was surprised by my decision, in the sense that I didn't think that I was thinking about it. It suddenly came out when my father asked: "What would you like to be?"

Had you considered any other career?

Murphy-O'Connor: Yes. I thought about medicine. I thought about music.

What sort of music do you like?

Murphy-O'Connor: Oh, I play the usual sort of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms. A bit of the romantic (laughs).

Do you have a favorite saint?

Murphy-O'Connor: Well, I often quote St. Francis, my very favorite saint. I lived a lot in Italynearly 14 yearsso I went quite often to Assisi. St. Francis is a fantastic saint reallynot only what he's saying but his whole gesture of total giving to poverty. It's no wonder that men, and indeed women, can't help still following him.

But I met another saint who was also Franciscan when I was a student: Padre Pio. I went over to his monastery with some other students. We got up early for his Mass, about five o'clock, I think. The man came out with a thick beard, twinkling eyes and the Italian women started shouting "Ah il Santo!""the saint, the saint"and he told them to stop, to pipe down, kneel down, and say their prayers, and then he began the Mass. It took about an hour and a half, and he went into ecstasy twice. It was very moving. He had mittens and he took off the mittens and you saw the gaping wounds.

You actually saw? How big were they?

Murphy-O'Connor: Oh quite big. So then we tried to go to Confession to him. He used to hear confession for seven hours every day; there was a queue a mile long. They were always suspicious of him in Rome. He had a very difficult time.

Do you have any general tips for prayer?

Murphy-O'Connor: The golden rule is that there's no rule. I think the great rule I have for prayer is time. I don't pray very well. Most people say they don't pray very well. I would say give time each day. It could be two minutes, it could be an hour; and during that time just sit and above all try to listen to God.