Last night I had the pleasure of meeting the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Conner, who this year will have served as a priest for sixty years. He came to give a talk on his memories of every Pope since St John XXIII, and what struck the packed house was the extent to which he admired all of them, and spoke with equal warmth and affection of Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, and of St John XXIII and St John Paul II. It felt like a welcome outbreak of Catholic ecumenism after some of the comments I have seen on the Internet and in the newspapers and elsewhere in the media. Utterly unfazed by the furore (in some quarters) over Amoris Laetitia, the Cardinal responded to a question by reminding us all that it had changed no doctrine, and that a;; the Pope was doing was emphasising the collegiality, synodality and decentralisation which the Second Vatican Council had approved. He reminded us, too, that Bishops were not simply postboxes for communications to and from Rome, they were the successors of the Apostles and exercised their ministry in accord with Rome, but that whilst all were bound by the same doctrine, all Bishops possessed the power of binding and loosing, and that just as the ancient church had not referred every pastoral issue to Rome, so too the modern church was free to do the same. He clearly wondered why some people wanted everything referred to Rome, especially when those same people seemed to be deeply suspicious of the present Pope. He reminded us that collegiality mattered, as it had for the Apostles, and it was interesting listening to someone who knew the Vatican well, talking about the way in which a man he described as one of the greatest intellects ever to occupy the Papal throne, Benedict XVI had been worn down by problems with the Curia and the bureaucracy. It was moving to hear him pay tribute to the great personal sacrifice Benedict had made by assuming the role of Pope when, Cormac thought, he’d rather have been in his study writing books. Knowing, as he does, both men, he dismissed any idea that the present Pope and his predecessor were in any way at odd. The Holy Spirit guides the Church, he reminded us, and we should have faith in His power to write straight with crooked lines.
The testimony of someone who has given so much service to the Church is not, I think, to be set aside lightly, and he reminded us that there are many ways of being a good Catholic – but that we are all sinners in need of redemption and forgiveness, and that if we start there first in our dealings with each other, we do well. To those who asked him about the present Pope and orthodoxy, the Cardinal simply replied that of course the Pope was orthodox, and those who thought otherwise might ask themselves why they thought they were more qualified to pronounce on this than the successors of the Apostles; as he mused, either we had faith in the Church and in those who led it, or we did not, and if we did not, then in what way did we differ from our Protestant brothers and sisters? To say we were the keepers of the real flame of real Catholicism was, he thought, a profoundly unCatholic way of seeing these things. He got fairly close to wondering how far some of this was a consequence of many converts bringing their essentially protestant way of thinking about these things into a church in whose culture they had not been born, but which they felt an obligation to shape into the image of the culture into which they had been born? There was an implication here, I thought, that some of the bitterness which has marked the American culture war had seeped into the Church via America – which left some wondering whether we really wanted to end up in a situation where whatever the Catholic equivalent to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were our best options?
It was an interesting talk, marked throughout by good humour and wit, and shot through with the experience of a man who was talking from wide experience, not from theoretical constructs.