The life and legacy of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor

The former cardinal archbishop of Westminster, who died on September 1st, had a significant and sometimes controversial role in the Church in Britain for four decades, and was part of the lobbying group that helped elect Pope Francis in 2013.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, retired archbishop of Westminster, second from left, and Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols of Westminster, left, arrive for a meeting of cardinals in the synod hall at the Vatican Feb. 20, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The final note in the life of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the piano-playing former cardinal archbishop of Westminster, was played out with his last illness and death on Friday 1st September. He was 85 years old.

“I willingly join you in commending his noble soul to the infinite mercies of God our heavenly Father,” wrote Pope Francis. “To all who mourn his passing in the sure hope of the Resurrection I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of consolation and strength in the Lord.”


Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was born in Reading, England, the fifth son of Dr George Murphy-O’Connor and his wife Ellen, who had emigrated from County Cork, Ireland.

He trained for the priesthood at the Venerable English College, Rome, where two of his brothers, Brain and Patrick, were also studying. He was ordained on 28 October 1956.

Ten years later he was chosen as private secretary to Bishop Derek Worlock of Portsmouth, a post he held until his return to the Venerable English College, Rome as its rector in 1971. The appointment as private secretary and rector were indications that the young Fr Cormac was being prepared for higher office.

Bishop and ‘Renew’

Blessed Pope Paul VI named Cormac bishop of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton in 1977. Among the usual duties of a diocesan bishop, two things stood out during his 23 years of service.

First, he introduced the American ‘Renew’ program into the diocese in 1988, with the aim to make his diocese an engaged community of small communities within parishes. It seems things did not go to plan.

According to research published by a UK editor of a Catholic journal, comparing diocesan statistics at the start of the bishop’s tenure in 1977 and at the end of his tenure in 2000, the number of priests in the diocese fell by 17 percent, mass attendance fell by 18 percent, marriages declines by 51 percent, and converts diminished by 4 percent.

A separate analysis shows that these declines were happening at a low rate prior to the introduction of Renew, but were significantly accelerated post-1988 when the programme was introduced.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor later admitted: “Renew had mixed results, but I think we went some way to recapturing the basic concept of Christian community.”

However, as cardinal, he introduced a similar programme, called ‘At Your Word’, into the Archdiocese of Westminster, again with a focus on small communities. An initial preparation meeting for clergy included guest talks by Rev Dr John McDade SJ, and Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium.

Fr McDade SJ later left the Jesuits and the priesthood in order to marry, while Cardinal Danneels has been mired in scandals over his handling of paedophilia crimes, and support for legal recognition of same-sex unions, among other things.

The case of Fr Michael Hill

The other notable incident was the case of Fr Michael Hill, a priest of the diocese who in 1997 was sent to prison for five years for sexual crimes against children over a 19-year period.

Bishop Murphy-O’Connor had received complaints about Hill, including from a parent of one of the abused boys. Hill was removed from parish assignments and sent to a therapeutic centre, where he checked-out a few months later. A letter to Bishop Murphy-O’Connor from centre staff stated Hill remained a threat to children. However, Hill was appointed chaplain to Gatwick airport, where he continued to abuse children.

In his 2015 memoir An English Spring, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor wrote: “Of course, with hindsight, I should have reported Hill to the police, I don’t want to make any excuses. I had to bear the shame, for me and for the church, and try to do something about it.”

As cardinal he would commission senior judge Lord Michael Nolan to chair an independent review on child protection. The commission report led to the establishment of an independent office to oversee the protection of children and vulnerable adults. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor also commissioned a review by Baroness Julia Cumberlege, which led to the establishment of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission.

Cardinal and ‘Soho Masses’

In February 2001 in a teeming Piazza San Pietro, Rome, he received the cardinal’s red hat from the hands of Pope St John Paul II. By providential coincidence, an Argentine by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was also made a cardinal that day. Bergoglio would go on to become Pope Francis, reportedly with some assistance from Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor.

There were again several moments of his tenure that brought him into the spotlight of the religious and secular media. One such moment was his sanctioning of the so-called ‘Soho Masses’ in 2007, organised by ex-Catholic priest Martin Prendergast, who is in a civil partnership with Julian Filochowski, the former head of the Catholic bishops conference official overseas charity Cafod.

The Masses were ostensibly organised for as a means of pastoral support for people with same-sex attraction. However, it remained a persistent source of consternation, with critics arguing the Masses and organising group were disregarding Church teaching and promoting the LGBT agenda during Mass.

LGBT agenda shuts down Catholic adoption agencies

2007 was also the year the Sexual Orientation Regulations came into legal force. They were introduced by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the name of equality, these regulations required adoption agencies, including Catholic agencies, to place children with same-sex couples.

In January that year, the cardinal wrote to the prime minister to secure an exemption for Catholics. It would be “unreasonable, unnecessary and unjust discrimination against Catholics” if Catholic adoption agencies were required to place children with homosexual couples, he told Tony Blair.

However, his letter also argued that “Catholic adoption agencies have readily accepted their responsibility to provide an informative, sympathetic and helpful service to all those who enquire about adoption, whether or not they meet the agency’s criteria for acceptance for assessment. Catholic adoption agencies welcome adoptive applicants from any or no religious background. Homosexual couples are referred to other agencies where their adoption application may be considered. This ‘sign-posting’ responsibility is taken very seriously by all Catholic adoption agencies.”

That could be called material cooperation, or an unacceptable compromise, or both. Either way, it made no difference. The regulations brought about the closure or disaffiliation of all 12 catholic adoption agencies by 2012. Some went down with a fight.

Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth scandal

A year later, the cardinal faced a boardroom revolt at St John and St Elizabeth, a large London-based Catholic hospital. A battle ensued over the Catholic nature of the institute, which also included the introduction of a general practice centre which provided the morning-after pill and abortion referrals. The cardinal is reported to have wanted a stricter Catholic ethical code in place which did not sit well with some of those in charge, who ultimately resigned.

The remaining board members, considered those looking to keep the hospital Catholic, suspended the hospital chief executive who wanted a secularised ethical code in line with NHS and professional standards. However, the appointment, by the cardinal, of a new chairman of the board, Lord George Guthrie, also resulted in the cardinal suddenly demanding the resignation of those who were trying to implement the Catholic ethical code. The chief executive was also re-instated.

Tony Blair’s conversion, and the royal family

When Tony Blair, then Anglican, resigned from the office of prime minister in 2007, he turned to the cardinal, a long-time friend, requesting admittance to the Catholic Church.

He was duly received into the Catholic Church in a private ceremony held in the cardinal’s private chapel, following years of attending Mass with his wife Cherie Blair, who is Catholic.

Questions were asked by pro-life leaders about Tony Blair’s repentance over his track record in office, including his introduction of same-sex civil partnerships and liberalised laws on embryo research. Tony Blair’s subsequent comments do not appear to show any repentance.

The former prime minster was not the only ‘establishment’ figure to form part of the cardinals’ circle of acquaintances.

He also enjoyed the respect of the royal family. At the funeral of Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002 he became the first cardinal to read prayers at a royal funeral since 1509. He was also invited to preach at a Sunday service for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Sandringham Palace. He, in turn hosted them for lunch at his official residence in Westminster.


Following his 75 birthday in 2009, he offered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI, making Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor the first archbishop of Westminster to retire from office since the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, the others having died in post.

Although retired, his experience was put to use, with Pope Benedict XVI appointing him to the Congregation for Bishops, where he served for three years, and in 2010, he was sent as apostolic visitor to the Diocese of Armagh, Ireland, to lead an investigation into clerical sex abuse. He also served as papal representative on trips to Sweden, India, Bangladesh and Norway.

It was reported that upon his retirement, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wanted to make the cardinal a member of the House of Lords. The proposal came to nothing, following discussions with fellow bishops and the Vatican. It was a reminder of how the cardinal was regarded by the political establishment.

Conclave lobbyist

In April 2005 he participated in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI.

Following the election of Cardinal Bergoglio to the See of Peter, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and several other well-known cardinals made headlines with revelations they were part of the secretive Saint Gallen club of cardinals and bishops, who met regularly between 1996 and 2006 to plan how they could get a more ‘reform’ minded candidate, such as Bergoglio, elected pope. Members included Cardinals Walter Kasper and Carlo Martini.

Two books attest to Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s persistent efforts to elect his preferred candidate, even after the Saint Gallen group disbanded.

Author Austen Ivereigh, and former editor Catherine Pepinster have both detailed the lobbying efforts of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor in the days leading up to the conclave.

Examples cited include an exclusive reception held at the British embassy for commonwealth cardinals, with the notable exception of conservative cardinals Marc Oullet of Canada and George Pell of Australia, who were not invited, claims Pepinster.

Meanwhile Iveriegh, a former public affairs director and spokesman for Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, says the cardinal ‘toured’ dinners of commonwealth and North American cardinals ahead of the conclave, to win support for Bergoglio and the cause of reform.

On the night Pope Francis greeted the enthusiastic crowds gathered in Piazza san Pietro, Cardinal Danneels, also a member of the Saint Gallen club, could be seen standing quietly next to the newly elected Pope.

Last message

From his sick bed Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor penned a final message to Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, which was shared with the faithful. “My dear Cardinal Vincent, I would be very grateful if you would convey this short message to the priests, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese, of which I as well as you have been privileged to serve as their Bishop,” he wrote.

“At this time, the words I pray every night are never far from my thoughts: ‘Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”. Please tell them that I am at peace and have no fear of what is to come. I have received many blessings in my life, especially from my family and friends.’

“I thank God for the many priests, religious and lay faithful who have helped and sustained me in my Episcopal life. Nor should I forget the many Anglican and Free Church colleagues whose friendship I have valued very much. Above all, as I now commend myself to the loving mercy of God, I ask them all to pray for me as I remember and pray for them. Fraternally in the Lord, +Cormac.”

His funeral will be held on Wednesday 13th September at Westminster Cathedral. May he rest in peace.

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About Daniel Blackman 6 Articles
Daniel Blackman is a journalist who has written for New Blackfriars, Catholic Herald, Catholic Times, Pro-Life Times, SPUC blog, Humanum, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Human Life Review, MercatorNet, Christendom Awake, The Remnant, Regina, Catholic Voice, Thomas More Institute, LifeSiteNews, Aleteia, and Israel Affairs.


  1. The church needs more saint gallen clubs and people like cardinal murphy-o’connor. May he leave an everlasting legacy of church reform.

  2. Ivereigh’s first edition of The Great Reformer was immediately revised after realizing his gaff citing Cardinal Murphy O’Connor as a “Conclave Lobbyist”. It left me with reservation regarding Pope Francis’ legitimacy, and the fearful similarity to Saint Francis of Assisi’s death bed prophesy. That conjecture aside the Cardinal like so many of us is an anomaly of good and bad. We remain transfixed in an unprecedented dilemma, which the Cardinal and members Kasper, Daneels, Basil Hume of the infamous St Gallen Group are at least partly responsible. A dilemma some compare to The Apostle’s “Mystery of Iniquity” 2 Thess 2 and which the Catechism refers to as a “Religious Deception”, a proposal that satisfies our difficulties and unfortunately leads to perdition. Cardinal Caffarra seemed convinced. He now knows the full truth as does Murphy O’Connor. We in this world struggle with what appears a compassionate solution to Mankind’s travails. What’s couched as narrow discernment has burgeoned to panoramic license. A Messianic paradigm shift. The Cross. What Christ presented to us on Calvary spells either or. I will pray for Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.

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