Opinion: In praise of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor

To my deep amazement, it was standing room only at 9.30 am Mass at St Piran’s Catholic Church in Truro, Cornwall, on Easter Sunday. I arrived shortly before the service started but could only get a space on the floor at the back. Every bench and chair was occupied. It was easily the best church attendance I have seen for over a decade.

And for a practising Catholic like me, it was an inspiring – not to say, astonishing – sight, given the accepted wisdom that God is irrelevant, churchgoing is in terminal decline, and the only people who are likely to attend regularly are impoverished, ignorant or delusional (or all three).

It is clear on this evidence that religious faith is still very relevant, and that the Catholic faith still matters to a lot of people in Britain. As both a liberal and a supporter (on balance) of the Roman Catholic Church, I believe that this success, amid such a secular age, is in no small part down to Catholics’ willingness to embrace a more liberal approach to what is essentially a conservative faith.

For this we can thank one man in particular – Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the outgoing head of the Roman Catholic Church in England.

Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, like Pope John Paul II, was a subtle reformer. Under his leadership the Roman Catholic Church in England has taken a more liberal stance on key social issues, without causing the huge public ruptures that have bedevilled the Church of England.

When I was growing up, the Catholic Church was highly intolerant of gay relationships, gay rights and gay marriage. That is no longer the case. Female altar servers have also been introduced, paving the way (some of us hope) for the possibility of female Catholic priests and bishops. There have also been important moves to build bridges with other faiths, particularly Islam, and to developing inter-faith community projects.

All of this might sound like the progress of a previous century, but for the slow-moving and instinctively conservative Catholic Church these are incredibly progressive liberal developments. It has all happened under the watch of the good Cardinal – and is reflected in increased chuch attendance.

Unfortunately, the signs are not good that this progress will continue. Pope Benedict’s remarks last year about gay and lesbian people made liberal Roman Catholics cringe. And his recent appointment of the conservative Archbishop Vincent Nichols to replace Murphy O’Connor gives pause.

I have some sympathy with the Church’s desire not to pander to secular values or political correctness, but I hope that the Archbishop will be able to build on the excellent progress made by his predecessor, and recognise that “family values” does not have to mean the values of a hetrosexual couple.

* Joe Taylor is Liberal Democrat Organiser for Camborne and Redruth.

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  • I don’t care how conservative an institution is, that progress took too long.

  • I strongly believe that the catholic church, along with any other religious body, has the right to hold their own beliefs. If they don’t like gay people, then its their loss. If they don’t want women to be priests – then that’s ok, as long as they can accept that most women will think they are irrelevant. As long as their views don’t break national laws (i.e. anti discrimination, incitement to violence etc etc), then broadly, it’s their own problem.

    The bigger issue is that the state and all religions should be kept separate.

    There should never be a point where any individual religious organisation should have even the smallest influence on the democratic process which involves those spanning more than one religious belief. Since that basically means every level of the political process then “church & state” must never mix. This should and must include all levels of education.

    Apart from that, who cares what the views of each religion are, as long as it makes its members happy.

  • Summary: “Aint my faith progressive and liberal, despite the piles of evidence to the contrary!” What a naff article.

  • Cormac Murphy-O’Connor spent the middle part of his career in Sussex under the patronage of the Duke of Norfolk – the “Premier Earl of England” and a major landowner.

    Clearly, he isn’t at home in the sectarian culture of Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast. You have to be nice to Protestants in Cormac’s world, because you need them to let you chase foxes over their land.

    Now, before we are too nice about Cormac we need to acknowledge that he has a rather nasty blot on his CV, and that is the crime of perverting the course of justice. Remember Father Michael Hill, the paedophile priest, whom Cormac shielded from justice and put in a position where he could offend again?

    True, Cormac only did what all other RC prelates did in those days, but that doesn’t dinmish the heinousness of his crime.

    But Cormac doesn’t see it as a crime. Far from it. To a Roman Catholic, the UK secular authorities are emanations of the illegitimate Hanoverian dispensation. To hand a Roman Catholic priest over to the pagan Police is a betrayal of the Church and a crime against God.

    If the RC Church really is in the business of changing, then that kind of thinking has to go, and go fast. Mary Tudor is dead, and so is Bonnie Prince Charlie.

    Of course, RC apologists tell us that Cormac is simply an idiot – he believed the devious priest’s assurances that he wouldn’t do it again.

    Two points:

    (1) Can you get to the top of the RC Church in Britain by being an idiot?

    (2) If he really is an idiot, then he’s not going to be any great shakes at liberalising the Church.

  • Bruce Wilson 14th Apr '09 - 5:13pm

    I liked you article, Joe. I don’t like Catholic bashing. Which, some of the above articles are. Religion still gets peoples’ blood going. I will admit that liberal Catholics fascinate me. There is something of a contradiction at the core of the belief system. Similarly, I never understood what Tony Blair was about.

    The new pope is very conservative, even reactionary. He gets a lot of criticism in the foreign press too.

    Keep up the good work.

  • This is a guy who described atheists as ‘less than human’ during an intemperate rant about, of all things, overly aggressive secularism. If any bishop deserves a good bashing, it’s surely him. The man is an odious old fool.

    Incidentally, there’s a petition on the no 10 website demanding that O’Connor not be given a seat in the Lords when he retires, in case you’re interested.

  • Laurence Boyce 14th Apr '09 - 7:19pm

    What the f*** is this?

    Joe, the belief that there is some kind of liberalising tendency with the Catholic Church is even more delusional than the ridiculous chimera of half-truth and outright falsehood that comprises your religion in the first place. Listen to these gems:

    “When I was growing up, the Catholic Church was highly intolerant of gay relationships, gay rights and gay marriage. That is no longer the case.”

    Really? You can get a gay Catholic marriage now? That’s news to me. I heard that Murphy O’Connor sacked a press officer for being gay. Like you say, he’s a subtle reformer. Very subtle.

    “Female altar servers have also been introduced, paving the way (some of us hope) for the possibility of female Catholic priests and bishops.”

    Dream on, that is completely impossible. Married priests could be a possibility, but there is no sign whatsoever that the Vatican is going to move on that either. Women priests is pure heresy. You’ve got to have a cock – end of story.

    “There have also been important moves to build bridges with other faiths, particularly Islam, and to developing inter-faith community projects.”

    Oh yes of course. Particularly Islam. You must be thinking of the Pope’s Regensburg lecture which led to worldwide unrest, or his earlier statements that other religions are “defective.”

    And this is what you call “incredibly progressive”? What are you on man? You’re only supposed to take a small sip of the communion wine. You sound like you swigged the whole bottle.

    But thanks for one thing Joe. Whenever somebody questions the relevance to this site of one of my anti-religious rants, I can point to this absurdly irrelevant article. Hey, maybe it’s time I wrote another one!

  • Laurence Boyce 14th Apr '09 - 7:28pm

    “Who cares what the views of each religion are, as long as it makes its members happy?”

    Good point Paul. Truth doesn’t matter at all, does it?

  • Laurence is right – for as long as religions keep trying to get the law changed to suit their particular superstitions, then I and many others will care what their views are. Looking forward until they day when they butt-out of politics… then none of us will care what they think…

  • Laurence Boyce 14th Apr '09 - 9:04pm

    Oh I’m so sorry Huw. Note to self: must spend more time attacking your rival superstitions.

  • We did the islam one last week.

  • The notion that Murphy-O’Connor could be elevated to the peerage fills me with disgust.

    This is a man who knowingly and wilfully protected a priest who had buggered little boys in his parish and allowed him to repeat those vile deeds in another part of the diocese. The crimes of Archer and Black pale in comparison.

    Incidentally, Murphy-O’Connor will have to change his nationality if he wants to get into the Lords. It will be amusing to watch him go to Westminster City Hall and swear allegiance to the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Apr '09 - 10:19pm

    Andy Hinton – your understanding of the Catholic concept of “infallibility” is completely wrong, go and look up what it actually is.

    Sara – why are you opposed to a Christian leader promoting the idea of fidelity in marriage? Contrary to what you suggest, it is something that gets a fair bit of mention in the New Testament. The Pope did not in fact say or intend to say what he has been reported as saying in his recent comment on condoms. It was reported as if he meant “the use of a condom in an individual sex act will not prevent the transmission of AIDS”. He neither said that nor intended that. What he meant has been well covered in Catholic circles, but it has been impossible to get the media to report it accurately, or to withdraw their false accusations.

    I have tried to say more, but LibDem Voice’s spam detecting mechanism won’t let me, so at least do the fair thing and try and look it up yourself rather than jump to conclusions.

  • Laurence Boyce 14th Apr '09 - 10:54pm

    Matthew, if the Pope possessed any humility (a virtue frequently preached by religious leaders though seldom practised), then he wouldn’t have proffered any opinions about condom use. He would simply have endorsed the recommendations of experienced and professional health workers who know the terrain. (They say condoms are essential by the way). But instead of doing that, he brings all of his arrogance and ignorance to bear on the problem, and naturally ends up with egg all over his face. Again.

    By the way, life’s to short to go researching into Papal infallibility. Why don’t you just give us one example of where a Pope has said something which is infallible? Also could you please tell whether you believe it or not?

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '09 - 12:00am

    It takes just seconds to do the research, Wiki’s good enough:


    in particular “It is incorrect to hold that doctrine teaches that the Pope is infallible in everything he says. In reality, the invocation of papal infallibility is extremely rare”.

    On condoms, the Pope was asked. He noted that many of those working in the field and who know the terrain are Catholic. His point of view was that campaigns which advocate sexual fidelity first tend to be more effective than those which suggest condom usage alone will solve the problem. The fear is that if condoms are heavily promoted with the line “it is impossible to stick to one sexual partner, but don’t worry, condoms will always solve the AIDS problem”, it could be counter-productive because in practice condoms aren’t always used even when people know they should be. The new leader of the ANC may be able to tell you something about that …

    What I am saying here is that what was reported in most of the media was a lie. The Pope simply did not say that using a condom in a single sex act wouldn’t help stop AIDS transmission. The reports in the newspapres suggested he did. As a liberal, I believe in free speech and fair speech. We did not get that here. We got anti-Catholic lies reported in our newspapers, who then refused to print corrections.

    One does not need to be a Catholic to wish for fair reporting. I would hope that anyone interested in the truth would want to hear all sides correctly.

    The idea that heavily promoting condoms could be counterproductive because it could lead people to believe sexual promiscuity was the norm, and in reality they wouldn’t all use condoms all the time and effectively does not sound to me inherently unreasonable.

    If the claim that the Pope and the RC Church are responsible for millions of AIDS death were true – one could test it – is there a correlation between AIDS prevalence and RC prevalence? The true scientific test would be to find out. The unscientific approach is to shut one’s mind off to an opinion with which one disagrees and then lie about it and pretend it was something else. That was the approach most liberals took on this.

  • Laurence Boyce 15th Apr '09 - 12:32am

    “What I am saying here is that what was reported in most of the media was a lie.”

    Yes of course, and the Lancet fell for it, hook line and sinker.

    “The idea that heavily promoting condoms could be counter-productive because it could lead people to believe sexual promiscuity was the norm, and in reality they wouldn’t all use condoms all the time and effectively does not sound to me inherently unreasonable.”

    It certainly sounds inherently illiberal and patronising. Do we not think that Africans are capable of making their own informed choices? Do we think that it is any of the Pope’s business what anyone does in bed? It’s perfectly clear that he thinks it is very much his business.

    Now you haven’t answered my question. You didn’t answer it the last time either. Why don’t you just give us one example of where a Pope has said something which is infallible? Also could you please tell whether you believe it or not? What’s the matter? You’re not embarrassed are you? You certainly should be.

  • Laurence Boyce 15th Apr '09 - 1:03am

    “The Christian massage of hope and love is as relevant to the 21st century as it was to those that preceded it, but only if stripped bare of power-seekers and superstition.”

    You can give me a massage of love any day, Sara.

  • Isn’t also the point on Papal condom use that the Catholic Church/Pope has only been explicitly anti condom since 1968?

    So the dozens of popes before then (including several who fathered children) had different, but yet strangely infallible views?

    It’s not catholic bashing to point out the ludicrousness of this particular church’s position, just as it’s not anti-semitic to criticise Israel on its murder of innocent Palestinian children in Gaza or anti Muslim to campaign against female genital mutilation.

    As Liberals we shouldn’t be scared of standing up to their influence or the fear that by doing so we’ll be branded discriminatory.

  • I too grew up in the Catholic tradition and community with a strong faith, and a belief in the value of a “universal” (the technical meaning of the term catholic) church that is open to all, but have long given up any hope that the church hierarchy will open their eyes and adapt their precepts to be both relevent to, and accommodating of, contemporary society. So as an adult have quitely withdrawn from all religious practice and church related activity.

    …I am appalled though by much of the biggoted commentary above – you call yourselves liberal and tolerant etc, but your words are anything but! Perhaps they just reflect gross ignorance about our shared religious heritage (which is perhaps not surprising given how as MatthewH says catholic teaching is misrepresented and lampooned in mainstream press), but I’m not sure why ignirance should be an excuse for the kind of anti-catholic biggotry that you’re putting on display here.

  • Matthew, predictably, has risen to the Laurence Boyce bait. He always does. In fact, one can set one’s stopwatch and time him. What he has neglected to do, quite deftly, it seems, is defend Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s conduct vis a vis Father Michael Hill. Matthew, are Catholic prelates justified in shielding from justice priests who bugger little boys?

  • Laurence Boyce 15th Apr '09 - 3:29pm

    “I am appalled though by much of the bigoted commentary above – you call yourselves liberal and tolerant etc, but your words are anything but!”

    This won’t do really James. If, like me, you think that Catholicism is inherently illiberal, then it is perfectly liberal to attack it. At the end of the day, the argument has to be won or lost. Just saying, “Oooh you sound a bit mean!” doesn’t advance things either way.

  • In order to have a proper conversation, rather than a slagging match, it is necessary to establish a relationship of respect. I was brought up a Catholic but have questioned my inherited faith for many of the same reasons pointed out on here. But boorishly shouting arguments both strong and weak is not how liberals win arguments. You have to make the case for change and then help people feel safe doing so.

    It might make you feel good but it wins few arguments.

    Shirley Williams’ book on Catholicism, btw, is a fairly interesting read: God & Ceasar.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '09 - 11:38pm

    I have corrected two mistakes made by contributors to this thread. One is the idea that “infallibility” means Catholics hold that Popes can never get things wrong. It is simply factually incorrect to hold this to be the case, that is simply not the official line of the RC Church – I pointed out the Wiki article which explained that. Yet STILL someone called “Dan” goes on ignorantly making this mis-assumption.

    The other is that the Pope’s recent remarks were intended to put across the message that the use of a condom in a single sex act wouldn’t stop the transmission of AIDS. He neither said that, nor intended that.

    It is OF COURSE acceptable to criticise the official line of the RC Church. All I am saying is at least find out what that is and criticise it on that basis, rather than assume it is something else and criticise it for being that something else.

    Sesenco says “are Catholic prelates justified in shielding from justice priests who bugger little boys?”. Why ask this? The fact that I corrected two factually incorrect assumptions about the RC Church does not mean I think every position taken by every RC leader is a correct one. If I had felt the comment made on this issue was unfair or incorrect, I would have said so. Obviously, when one finds the media making grossly prejudiced misassumptions about the RC Church, as they did in the way they reported and commented on the Pope’s recent remarks, it’s difficult to trust everything they report about it. However, I’ve no reason to believe the facts of this case were significantly misreported. So far as I can make out it was badly handled – the priest in question was moved to a post where it was felt he would not be in contact with children (airport chaplain rather than parish priest) with the belief that this would be cause less harm than bringing victims to a court case. The same mistaken way of handling these things was also common in schools, sports clubs and the like at the time. It is now generally accepted that it should not be handled in this way, and the police should be brought in.

    The RC Church in England and Wales has since this case brought in some fairly hefty child protection measures. Of course, this didn’t get reported in the press. My experience now is that as a result of this, priests are very wary about having any contact with children. For example, I sometimes help answering the door at a presbytery, and we are forbidden ever to allow an unaccompanied child in.

  • Matthew, your statement that the media did not report that the RC Church was forced to introduce child protection measures is simply false. I read about it in the media, so it must have been reported there.

    Your devious spin to the effect that Murphy-O’Connor was motivated by concern to prevent the victims having to appear in court is distasteful; and ill-founded. Hill had admitted his guilt, so there would have been no trial.

    Oh, and do I have to point out that the fact that other organisations tolerated paederastry in no way means that it was OK for the RC Church to do it? What a desperately feeble argument.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '09 - 10:45am


    I am not saying it was OK for the RC Church to have behaved in this case and others involving child sexual abuse as it did. Noting that attitudes to these things were different in the past is not the same as saying they were OK. Of course in trying to sweep it under the carpet with the argument “it’s better for the child not to make a fuss about it” there’s a self-serving wish not to cause embarrassment to oneself and one’s organisation. O’Connor got it wrong here, I accept that, I never said I didn’t. We do now know better that pederasty isn’t something that goes away easily no matter how much the abuser promises not to do it again, and that victims suffer life-long harm from it, it isn’t easily “forgotten”.

    Regarding media reporting of RC measures on child protection, I have had many arguments with people who claim it has done nothing to prevent the abuses which undoubtedly happened in the past. So it does seem that if it was reported it wasn’t reported in any great detail.

    You say the RC Church “was forced to introduce child protection measures” which suggests you feel it did only because of outside pressures. You are unwilling to suppose it might have been because it accepted it got things wrong in the past and wanted itself to stop that sort of abuse happening again.

    Your thinking seems to be on the basis that the RC Church and its leaders are evil, and that therefore anything it says and does must be because it is motivated by evil. I do not think this to be the case. Saying that is not to say it hasn’t got things wrong, and it is not to say that its leaders were never motivated by self-protection. One would hope they would always be motivated by the best possible intentions (which would still not mean they would always get things right), but of course they are not, no humans are. Which is, after all, one of the core beliefs of the RC Church – we are all “sinners”.

    Yes, I am a member of the RC Church, but not an uncritical one. I intervene in comment on it only because in liberal circles it seems to be commonplace to assume the RC Church is motivated by evil, and therefore to make assumptions on that basis. This is not an easy thing to do because often it means “look, here’s the other side of the argument”, because I believe that other side deserves to be heard and not necessarily because I fully agree with that other side. In doing so I have probably ruined any chance of a career in the Liberal Democrats, because no doubt you and others have already labelled me as “that Catholic nut – don’t trust him, he’s controlled by the Vatican”.

    But actually I would do the same to defend anything or anyone which I believe is being treated or portrayed unfairly and where I have knowledge or an ability to see the other side in a way I feel others, seeking easy knocking targets, haven’t.

  • Matthew, I was waiting for you to wheel out the tired old canard that in the 1980s people didn’t realise that paederasts are recidivists and that child sexual abuse causes lifelong harm – and you haven’t disappointed me. Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. It was known to everyone then as it is known to everyone now.

    Oh, and before we forget it. Murphy-O’Connor didn’t “make a mistake”, he committed a serious CRIME, known as perverting the course of justice.

    The late Cardinal Thomas Winning, RC supremo north of the border (and an overtly deeply unpleasant man), actually ORDERED his followers not to report paedophile priests to the Police. And I think I am right in believing that Ratzinger has issued similar instructions in the not-too-distant past (though he might not have been Pope at the time).

  • Laurence Boyce 16th Apr '09 - 11:37am

    Matthew, I think you protest too much. Whatever the official technical position on infallibility may be (and it’s all a complete load of Papal bull anyway), it must be perfectly obvious that the Pope carries with him an air of infallibility in many of his pronouncements, including this recent episode. As long as Catholics continue to follow and defend everything the Pope says (as you have been doing), then the jokes will go on. And you still haven’t answered my question. One last try:

    Why don’t you just give us one example of where a Pope has said something which is infallible? Also could you please tell us whether you believe it or not?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '09 - 12:50pm

    Laurence, the question you are asking has no relevance to the subject of this thread, and I don’t want to be sidetracked into lengthy discussions on these issues. I was simply making the point that it is not the case that “infallibility” means everything every Pope say cannot be wrong.

    Sesenco, I’ve already said I agree O’Connor handled this wrongly. What else do you want me to say “The RC Church is so evil that it is unacceptable for anyone to say anything in its defence on any matter”? I wasn’t the one praising O’Connor in this thread, I am not suggesting he deserves a peerage or any other award.

    On the Ratzinger instruction, was this the one that was the subject of a BBC documentary recently? My recollection was that the intepretation the programme put on the document was not what I read in when I saw it – it was specifically about abuse committed in the confessional box rather than abuse generally, and was intended to say that any such allegations should be passed confidentially to hgher up in the organisation to be dealt with.

  • Sesenco,
    My reading of Matthew’s remarks is not to deny wrongdoing, the commission of a crime or anything else. It was more of a plea of mitigation than a dispute of guilt. The RC Church was horribly compromised by what went on, as were many other organisations at the time.

  • Laurence Boyce 16th Apr '09 - 4:39pm

    Lance??? Is that me? Woof woof!

    Huw, I’m think I’m going to be kind to you and make a number of discrete observations . . .

    1) It’s a really poor argument to say, “you would never insult Islam in the same way.” There are a number of reasons why people don’t like to insult Islam. Firstly, politeness might persuade one to attack one’s home culture before attacking a foreign culture. Secondly, an attack on Islam might appear xenophobic or even racist to a casual eye. Thirdly, people are cowards and don’t particularly want to end up being beheaded by some deranged jihadist. I can understand this, especially if they have a family to consider. However . . .

    2) None of this applies to me, because I have slammed Islam as hard as I can, including in an article for LDV. (Formerly you might have known this by clicking on my name, but I no longer provide the link as it simply prevents any of my comments being published.) When I criticise Islam, far from obtaining the protection of a big dog, everyone lines up to distance themselves from me, maybe because they don’t want to be beheaded or whatever.

    3) Pursuing the dog analogy for a moment, could it in fact be you who is taking cover from the big bad dog of Islam, in order to shield your own religion from criticism? No, I said I was going to be kind . . .

    4) I don’t think I’m backtracking on infallibility because I never brought it up in the first place. Someone else did. But I do find these defences of infallibility pretty laughable. The doctrine of Papal infallibility was declared in 1870. But to follow Matthew’s logic, clearly this doctrine cannot itself be infallible without a pre-existing doctrine of infallibility. What this shows is that the 1870 declaration is an irrelevant charade, and that the Catholic Church has always assumed itself to be infallible. People who disagreed with church teaching were literally set fire to. Here’s something you never heard a medieval inquisitor say: “you know there’s always a chance we might be wrong about this.”

    Like I say, an air of infallibility . . .

  • Andrew Grey 16th Apr '09 - 8:27pm

    “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

    – “Subtle reformer” John Paul II

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