BY ANNA ARCO
THE new Archbishop of Westminster has signalled that the Church will play an active role in public life under his leadership.
In an interview published days after his installation Archbishop Vincent Nichols criticised the proliferation of new laws under the Labour Government. He said democracy did not “itself generate moral principle” and that at its worst “that moral space is filled by those who are the most successful lobbyists”.
“I think that could be illustrated by the burgeoning of regulation over the past 10 years,” he said. “Regulation can never replace virtue.” The archbishop also voiced his unhappiness over the Government’s equality measures, which have forced Catholic adoption agencies to sever their ties with the Church or close. The Church was given until January to adapt to the measures before the Sexual Orientation Regulations came into effect. Eight of the 13 Catholic adoption agencies in England, Scotland and Wales have since cut links with the Church to comply with the laws compelling them to assess same-sex couples as prospective adopters and foster parents, and one has closed.
Archbishop Nichols told the Sunday Times: “We have been pushed out unnecessarily. There are 400 adoption agencies in this country and all but 11 [in England and Wales] – the Catholic ones – would accept same-sex couples. I don’t think it was appropriate to push out those 11, which had a record of placing the most difficult children successfully. It was a disproportionate response and the victims were the children, not the Church.” His recent public appearances and his forceful installation homily will be read as a sign that Archbishop Nichols is preparing to resist efforts to push the Church out of the public square. In 2006 he led the opposition to the Government’s attempts to impose a quota on places at faith schools.
But while he was critical of aggressive secularism he said that repealing the Act of Settlement, which prevents British monarchs from either marrying or becoming Catholics, was not a priority. This year the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris proposed changes. But Archbishop Nichols said: “I wouldn’t rush to support such a change in the law. I think the position of the Queen and the monarchy is to be handled with great sensitivity.” In the same interview Archbishop Nichols criticised former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s suggestion that the Pope should “rethink” the Church’s position on homosexuality.
He said he thought Mr Blair’s comments were “extraordinary”.
He said: “I also think his political instincts, which are very strong, are not a good guide to the teachings of the Catholic Church and a bit more reflection is needed as to the relationship between political instincts in general – and certainly this – and the nature of the truth that the Church tries to put forward. Maybe he lacks a bit of experience in Catholic life.” Commenting on the political scandals over MPs’ expenses, Archbishop Nichols said the episode showed on “a grand and public scale that human nature is flawed”. But he also voiced surprise at the scale of the scandal. He said: “The idea that there could be a perpetual deceit is very foolish. But it’s also the story of the Fall.” The 11th Archbishop of Westminster had earlier emphasised the role religion plays in society in his installation homily.
He said: “Faith builds itself in community and it expresses itself in action. As a society, if we are to build on this gift of faith, we must respect its outward expression not only in honouring individual conscience but also in respecting the institutional integrity of the communities of faith in what they bring to public service and to the common good.
“Only in this way will individuals, families and faith communities become whole-hearted contributors to building the societies we rightly seek.” More than 2,000 people attended the Mass at Westminster Cathedral at which the former Archbishop of Birmingham was installed. They watched as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor handed the crozier to Archbishop Nichols. At the end of the Mass Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said that sustaining a Christian presence in the midst of secular society would be among the great challenges facing the Archbishop.
He said: “There are two things I want to say. The first is that there are a great number of challenges which face the Catholic Church and indeed our fellow Christians as well in our society in England and Wales. I do not need to mention them all. Battles will be won, battles will be lost in the effort to sustain the Christian presence in the midst of our secular society. But what is most crucial is the prayer that we express every day in the Our Father, when we say, ‘deliver us from evil’. The evil we ask to be delivered from is not essentially the evil of sin, though that is clear, but in the mind of Jesus it is more importantly the loss of faith.
“For Jesus, the inability to believe in God and to live by faith is the greatest of evils. You see the things that result from this are an affront to human dignity, destruction of trust between peoples, the rule of egoism and the loss of peace. One can never have true justice, true peace if God becomes meaningless to people. So the task of the Church is essentially to be alive, to nourish Christian communities, men and women, filled with the presence of God and in communion with Him through faith, through prayer, through the witness of their lives.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke on behalf of the Church of England saying that closer relations between the two communions was “a sign that we all recognise common challenges and a need to pray and act together”.
He said: “The Roman Catholic and Anglican communities in England and Wales have the Godgiven task, along with all our other brothers and sisters in the faith, of making the Good News of Jesus compelling and attractive to a generation deeply in need of hope and meaning, in need of something they can trust with all their hearts.” Lord Alton of Liverpool, a Catholic peer, also praised the Archbishop.
He said: “His gift of speaking to people directly and humanely, and his appreciation of the stress and pressures of modern life, will enable him to speak with clarity and compassion.
“At a time when Britain is facing a crisis of confidence in its parliamentary and financial institutions, and is doing some real soul-searching, Vincent Nichols may be able to help us rediscover the importance of Judaeo-Christian values.
“No one should underestimate the hostility and brickbats he will face and, as the public face of Catholicism in England, he deserves our unfailing practical support and prayers.”