The Westminster Succession

Who will replace Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor when he retires later this year? Here’s an evaluation of possible candidates.


What exactly has gone wrong with the English Catholic Church? Another way of asking the same question would be this: For what kind of priest are Pope Benedict’s advisers looking to replace Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor when he retires as archbishop of Westminster later this year?

I use the word “priest” advisedly: for if one thing is certain, it is that the attention of the Congregation of Bishops in Rome will be ranging far beyond the confines of the present English hierarchy. The reason for this is simple: ever since the appointment of the Benedictine Basil Hume to Westminster more than 30 years ago, the English bishops—more and more appointed on the advice of papal nuncios responsive to Hume’s wishes have been doing everything they can to turn the Catholic Church in England into a semi-autonomous organization, resistant to the currents flowing through the worldwide Church, and particularly to the great counter-revolution of the “hermeneutic of continuity” begun by Pope John Paul II and now continued by Pope Benedict XVI.

There are a handful of striking exceptions, but it has to be said that the English bishops are now, on the whole, remarkable for their personal mediocrity, for their spiritual shallowness, for their entirely secularized intellectual assumptions, and for their suspicion of—even their intense hostility to—the authority of the magisterium.

A striking example of this phenomenon was the reaction, or rather, the conspicuous lack of reaction, of the English hierarchy to the Pope’s inspirational “exhortation” on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis—a non-response that prompted England’s leading Catholic newspaper, the Catholic Herald, to publish a scathing editorial pointedly headlined “A Bewildering Silence.”

Imagine, the Herald suggested, “that Benedict XVI is a conductor and the Church an orchestra. Last Tuesday, the Pope took to the podium to lead us in a hymn of praise to the Eucharist through his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis. When he raised the baton, the Herald began to play at full volume, devoting pages to the new document and hailing it as a masterpiece. But we were bewildered when we looked up and saw that great sections of the orchestra were sitting in silence. There has been a lot of speculation about why the bishops of England and Wales did not join their counterparts in Ireland and America in immediately welcoming the document. Some have suggested that it was to ensure that Benedict XVI’s firm liturgical injunctions would never be implemented in this country.”

In fact, the document was about more than “liturgical injunctions”; it was about the entire significance of the Eucharist in the life of the faithful. It was also a clear and deliberate signpost of where the Pope now intends the Church to go. As the Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read put it in a 2007 article in The Spectator, Sacramentum Caritatis clearly “rejects most of the items on the liberals’ wish-list. Conjugal acts must be open to the transmission of human life; marriage and the family must be defended ‘from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature’ (i.e. civil partnerships) . . . The document also calls for the Mass to be celebrated in Latin at all international celebrations, discourages banal ditties and recommends Gregorian chant. No wonder the English bishops were silent about it.”


The bishops’ hermetically sealed resistance to influences that elsewhere are leading to new life and vitality in the Church—one striking example being their unremitting hostility to the new movements so beloved by the late Pope—poses a particular challenge to those advising Pope Benedict on the Westminster succession. They know that they have to break into this selfperpetuating ruling clique so that they can one day finally end its deadening effect on the spiritual life of the English Church.

Quite simply, the present hierarchy has presided over a growing spiritual crisis in the English Church. This is very marked, a fact which Basil Hume himself came with some dismay to recognize in his final years (belatedly encouraging traditional Eucharistic piety and bemoaning a widespread loss of reverence for the Mass).

Consider, for instance, the reaction of many bishops to the very large number of Polish workers who have flooded into Britain since Poland entered the European Union. The Poles really believe their religion. Surely, then, it can only be good news for the English Church that in some dioceses churches are being inundated by large numbers of Poles: might not some of this passionate belief rub off on English Catholics?

The trouble is that lack of conviction has its own almost irresistible power to discourage and dismay: the phenomenon has been likened to J.K. Rowling’s dementors, whose kisses suck out and annihilate the souls of their victims. Many English bishops want to integrate these embarrassingly spiritual Poles and have little respect for their religious culture.

The Poles, however, will resist. Even many of those born in England and their children still, wherever they can, go to Mass in Polish. Why should that be? Undoubtedly, because they have detected that there is something badly wrong with the dominant culture of the English Church, and that it is a matter of spiritual life or death for them to keep it, if they can, at arm’s length. What the Poles have always understood is that secular culture, any secular culture, is something from which their faith has set them apart: their Christian calling, in the words of the late Pope, is that they should be “signs of contradiction.”

This is not the perception of most of the English bishops. And that simple fact defines the challenge that Pope Benedict must now confront as he contemplates the critical choice (critical in the most literal sense of the word) of a spiritual leader for English Catholics. If this Pope knows—has always known—one thing in his bones, it is that a modernist Catholicism that has simply embraced the values of the current secular altruism is not merely ineffective; it has actually joined the enemy and will destroy real faith wherever it can be hunted out and subjected to the dementor’s kiss.

It will do this because it has entirely forgotten that though we must, in Cardinal Newman’s words, accept “the reality and importance of the secular,” nevertheless “this well-ordered… world, with all its blessings of sense and knowledge, may lead us to neglect those interests which will endure when itself has passed away…” Or, in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews (13:14), “here have we no abiding city, but we seek one that is to come.”


There are some English bishops who believe these things, and who without sparing themselves seek to drive out from the institutions of their dioceses the spirit of accommodation with worldly values. The Congregation of Bishops will certainly have noted with considerable interest the name of Patrick O’Donoghue, bishop of Lancaster, who in December published a document addressed to Catholic schools in his diocese called Fit for Mission. This document attracted strong reactions, both hostile and the reverse, and, following a public endorsement by Archbishop Mauro Piacenza , secretary for the Congregation for Clergy, garnered requests for copies from dioceses throughout the world.

Bishop O’Donoghue insisted, among much else, that every teacher in a Catholic school should be given a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and that schools should have sufficient copies of both the Catechism and its summary, the Compendium, so that these books can be the basis for all religious education in the diocese.

The bishop’s real passion comes through in the document Fit for Mission. “Have we forgotten that Jesus Christ is the true center of all that we do?” he asks. “Is the Catholic faith a living reality at the heart of every diocesan school and college? Are our pupils having a rich and living encounter with our Risen Lord?” These are, it is made plain, real questions, not the usual empty diocesan rhetoric. And the consequence of these answers is real, too: “If we cannot answer a confident ‘Yes’ to…these questions, the point of keeping our schools is lost and the project of education in our diocese has failed,” he writes.

No wonder that Rome is astonished and gratified. So is O’Donoghue headed for Westminster? I fear not: Bishop O’Donoghue is not in good health, and has asked for a coadjutor to be named for the Lancaster diocese. But he has set the bar that has to be jumped; he has shown that there is indeed passionate faith in the English Church, and he has raised expectations.

The English Church needs a man who combines ability with an orthodoxy that is more than a simple matter of toeing the party line. He must have a visible passion for the faith and a charismatic presence that will be felt not merely among the faithful but on the national stage: for, with the continuing decline of Anglicanism (despite the decline in their own numbers, there are now more Catholics in church on Sunday than Anglicans), the head of the Catholic Church in England is more and more seen as the natural spokesman for Christian values. The cardinal archbishop of Westminster has to be a national figure and not simply an ecclesiastical leader.

From the point of view of personal ability and proven skill in moving naturally on the national stage, there is one obvious candidate: the archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev. Vincent Nichols. He is a gifted communicator. For years, well before he was appointed by Basil Hume as one of his auxiliary bishops, his was the voice on the BBC that explained the Catholic viewpoint and gave a running commentary on televised Catholic ceremonies, conveying in a restrained but nevertheless dramatic way the momentous character of what was unfolding on the screen.

Even as archbishop, this role has continued, and it was he who he provided the commentary for the BBC’s coverage of the funeral of the late Pope. When prompted by the BBC anchorman, Huw Edwards, to describe what was taking place at the elevation of the host, he simply replied, “No, Huw.

This is an important part of the Mass. We will be quiet.” This indicates one dimension of Nichols’ spiritual life that will undoubtedly resonate with the Holy Father: his real and heartfelt Eucharistic piety. He undoubtedly shared the near despair of Basil Hume’s latter years over the loss of reverence among English Catholics for the Mass and for the continuing presence of Christ in the reserved sacrament.

As one of Hume’s auxiliary bishops, he published a book on the Eucharist for use in schools. In the accompanying volume of notes for teachers, he advised that wherever possible, teachers should take their children to a Catholic Church, explain to them what the tabernacle is, ask the priest to show them his monstrance, and then, if possible, to end with a period of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. After he became archbishop, he made a point of encouraging the recently revived Corpus Christi procession through the city center in Oxford, himself carrying the monstrance through the streets.

At one time, Nichols seemed destined to rise naturally to Westminster. He is steeped in the internal politics of the English Church (he was for nine years general secretary of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales). But his close relationship with Basil Hume was a mixed blessing for him. For years he was thought of as Hume’s protégé, and it was almost certainly Hume’s own wish that Nichols should succeed him. The difficulty for him now is that Hume’s leadership of the English Church was overwhelmingly liberal, suspicious of Rome, given to all the secularist reductionism of the post-conciliar years: hence his despair over the Eucharist, when he belatedly perceived a state of affairs to which he himself had so significantly contributed.

When Vincent Nichols went to Birmingham, it was considered a “liberal” appointment. The arch-liberal weekly The Tablet could hardly contain its satisfaction that this conservative archdiocese would soon feel the Spirit of Vatican II rippling through its dusty corridors. But The Tablet was soon to be bitterly disillusioned: his first action as archbishop was to confirm his predecessor’s withdrawal from a disastrous entanglement (hotly supported by The Tablet) in a Catholic-Anglican ecumenical school. He has since given many signs of his support for the present Pope; when many of his episcopal brethren were doing everything they could to undermine the motu proprio establishing the right to celebrate the old Mass, he made clear his belief that the rite “is not a relic, not a reverting to the past, but part of the living tradition of the Church.”

But however unambiguous his present support for Rome and all its works, there remains a suspicion that at heart he is still the unregenerate liberal everyone supposed him to be when he was—as a result—prevented from succeeding Basil Hume. It is generally believed in Rome that at the 1999 European Synod of Bishops when Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, then still archbishop of Milan, was thought to be advocating a third Vatican Council (he was at the least pressing for more collegiality, i.e., less papal authority) he was supported by the then-Auxiliary Bishop Nichols. Nichols was quick to deny it; but his denials were not believed, and the story has persisted in Rome among many who will have influence in deciding the Westminster succession.

Similar suspicions attach to others who have recently been seen as supporters of the present Pope, but who are thought by some in Rome to have liberal skeletons in their closets dating from the heyday of the post-conciliar derangements. Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, for instance, has gained enormously in credibility through his work as the chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, responsible for presiding over the more faithful (and more resonant) new translation of the Novus Ordo (though it is Father Bruce Harbert, the ICEL secretary, who has the expertise and has done the actual hard work).

In contrast with his predecessor, who openly and immoderately attacked Liturgiam Authenticam, the document that established the criteria for the new translation, Bishop Roche has thrown all his weight behind it, and the fact has been greatly appreciated in Rome, though he may have done himself harm by what has been seen as an obstructive response to the motu proprio within his own diocese. But he is undoubtedly on the papal nuncio’s list of those seriously to be considered for Westminster.

Another candidate for Westminster whose name is always mentioned can be dismissed more easily: Peter Smith, archbishop of Cardiff. A canon lawyer, he has played a prominent role in pro-life issues and in defense of the family, and he may be the choice of the present incumbent, Cardinal Murphy- O’Connor.

There is, however, a skeleton in his closet that cannot be ignored, since it consists of a direct and angry confrontation with the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a certain Joseph Ratzinger, who against Smith’s obdurate opposition removed the imprimatur granted in his former diocese of East Anglia to a clearly heretical religious education textbook entitled Roman Catholic Christianity. The Pope will not have forgotten that his demands that the book be removed from schools in the diocese were ignored (it is still in widespread use), and that its author, Clare Richards, retained Smith’s open support (and, indeed, that of Basil Hume). Smith will not be going to Westminster.

Another candidate, perhaps the only one from the current hierarchy who has no such black mark (real or suspected) against him, is Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark, almost the only bishop with any theological background. His appointment to Southwark is worthy of comment. He was not on the papal nuncio’s terna, the list of three candidates from which Rome normally makes its choice; the first choice on the terna, unbelievably, was Crispian Hollis, bishop of Portsmouth, the hierarchy’s most fanatical and anti-Roman liberal. It is thought that this terna was the wake-up call that finally alerted Rome to the urgent need to do something serious to address the English problem. The nuncio was changed, and the safe and orthodox Kevin MacDonald, who once worked at the Vatican, was appointed to Southwark. Whether or not he has the “presence” for Westminster, however, is another matter.


And in any case, the conviction has grown in Rome that—in the words of one very senior and very influential cardinal (one of those responsible for the speedy election of Pope Benedict)— “it is time to go outside the episcopal club of England and Wales.”

The search has been on for some time now and has ranged far and wide: and more and more, it is focusing on one name. A number of Vatican officials have now made the long journey to Benedictine Pluscarden Abbey in the northeast of Scotland, and some of them have made retreats there.

They have all been deeply impressed by the abbot, a stirring preacher, much sought after as a spiritual director, who seems to fulfill, uniquely, all the criteria for Westminster. He is well outside the English episcopal club. He has presence, and could “move on the national stage”; as an abbot he is perfectly at home as a public figure and often meets the bishops of Scotland. He is a man of prayer, with that most rare of qualities—a palpable charisma that really is a matter of personal spiritual quality rather than a self-conscious communicator’s personality. And his name is now circulating in Rome among senior cardinals.

He is Dom Hugh Gilbert, an Englishman born in 1952, a convert to Catholicism. He was educated at St. Paul’s School (famous for producing original and independent minds, among them one of the greatest of English converts, G.K.Chesterton) and King’s College in the University of London, where he read history. On leaving university, he entered Pluscarden in 1974. He was ordained in 1982 and was made novice master. He was elected abbot in 1992 at the early age of 40. Under his leadership, the abbey has grown and flourished, founding two daughter houses in Africa and the US. This compares strikingly with the decline of other monasteries and religious orders.

Abbot Gilbert is a man with a very definite and impressive presence. He has a dry sense of humor; there is about him an attractive sense of vitality and sparkle. He is also genuinely humble and self-effacing, and is said by one source to be “mortified and embarrassed at the attention he is receiving.”

He is said to be greatly loved by his community, which is fearful of losing him to the episcopate. Like the Pope, he is a supporter of the new movements (“That’s where the future lies,” he is on record as saying), and sent two monks to a recent meeting of one of the most successful in England, Youth 2000. Like the Pope, too, he has an instinctive preference for a traditional liturgy; under his leadership, Pluscarden has chosen to keep Latin in the Mass and the Divine Office, except for readings. The whole office, the opus Dei as drawn by St. Benedict, has been retained and, apart from Vigils, is sung.

If Abbot Gilbert goes to Westminster, he would be the first convert archbishop since one of the greatest holders of the office, Cardinal Manning, in 1865. At one time, English converts tended to be suspected by Rome of doctrinal unreliability; precisely the reverse now applies. Abbot Gilbert would be an orthodox, dynamic, and charismatic choice: he really does fill all the criteria that Rome knows it must now satisfy if the challenge of the English crisis is credibly to be met.

The trouble is that this particular challenge has been avoided so often in the past that it cannot be said there is any confidence here in Rome’s willingness to do any more than utter inspirational words. The right appointment could change that, too. There really is a lot at stake.


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