The shoes of Cardinal Basil Hume were never going to be easy ones to fill. One can only imagine how Cormac Murphy O’Connor (who died on Friday at the age of 85) felt, when he discovered in February 2000, that he was to be the one to replace Hume as effective leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Indeed, little could he have foreseen that Pope Benedict XVI would ensure that his influence was felt long after his retirement.
There is little that summarises Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s approach to the Catholic Church and Her faith more than his address to mark 50 years of his priesthood. On Sunday 29th October 2006, he told a packed congregation ‘vocations have not dried up. The faith has not dried up. The hope that is in Christ has not dried up. It is there, still in our midst.’ His optimism in the face of seemingly damning statistics on the decline of religious faith, and his staunch opposition to what he saw to be the attempted secularisation of modern Britain, is surely a defining feature of his time as an Archbishop and Cardinal.
However, one is not leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales without also causing considerable public controversy. In February 2008, for example, he demanded that the board of St John and St Elizabeth’s Hospital resigned because its GP service prescribed the morning-after pill, and referred women for abortions. Indeed, just over a year beforehand, the Cardinal had condemned Tony Blair for openly suggesting that religious groups should end their teachings against condoms. In response, Cormac Murphy O’Connor spoke of African dioceses being ‘flooded’ with condoms and, as a result, ‘more promiscuity.’
These controversies are to be expected. Far more than simply being the spiritual leader for the Catholics of England and Wales, the role of Archbishop of Westminster has a distinctly political aspect to it. Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s memoir ‘An English Spring’ reads like a ‘who’s who’ to political life in Britain, wherein he describes duetting with the Queen Mother, and includes pictures of himself and Bob Geldof.
It is perhaps this attitude that means his legacy is not completely rosy. It is not a secret that these very memoirs were allegedly censored by the church for his harsh choice of words with regards to child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy (when he first became Cardinal, he was rocked by a scandal concerning his poor management of a paedophile priest.) It is also not a secret that Cardinal Murphy O’Connor made many aware that he was proud of the influence he exerted in getting Jorge Bergoglio elected Pope. Indeed, when the newly installed Pope Francis met Murphy O’Connor at a papal audience, he pointed to him and said, ‘you’re to blame!’
The controversial aspect of this cannot simply be brushed over or ignored. As one Catholic priest, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: ‘he made no secret of the string-pulling he facilitated in order to get Bergoglio the white hat. For that he should’ve been excommunicated by the Pope. Oh wait…’ It is not hyperbole to suggest that, whilst he was a firm defender of Catholicism in the public eye, there are some in the Church who resent his interference in a Conclave that has so affected its internal equilibrium (and, most importantly, a Conclave which Murphy O’Connor could not even take part in.)
‘And yet’ – a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the enigma of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor. This is why there will be some who will remember him in only positive ways, ignoring the fair criticism that can be made of him, and those who will remember him only for his interference in either societal debates or Conclave. Many more, like this writer, will remember his whole character: flinching at the bad bits and smiling at the good bits.
Following his death, Cardinal Nichols – the now leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales – released a letter that the departed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor had written for distribution to parishioners. 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.
Surely, whatever our perception of the Cardinal, we can all take comfort from this.
Requiescat in pace.