The English Catholic paradox
On Aug. 27, Cardinal-designate Arthur Roche will kneel before Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope will place a red biretta on the Vatican liturgy chief’s head.
It will be a significant moment not only for the Yorkshire-born official but also for the English Catholic Church. For this small community on the fringes of northern Europe will now have three living cardinals.
To put that in perspective, a country with roughly 4 million baptized Catholics will have three times as many cardinals as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where around 35 million Catholics live. The historically Protestant nation will also have three times as many red hats as its neighbor, the former Catholic powerhouse of Ireland.
The three cardinals are not the only English Catholics in positions of global influence. The Vatican’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher, was born in Liverpool. So was Fr. Andrew Small, the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Just this past weekend, Pope Francis named Kevin Ingram, a former auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers in London, as a board member of the Vatican’s Supervisory and Financial Information Authority (ASIF).
But while English figures have prominent roles in the College of Cardinals, Holy See diplomacy, child protection, and Vatican financial reform, the Catholic Church in England is in many ways embattled. Let’s call it the English Catholic paradox.
In statistical terms, the situation looks bleak. A little under half of people raised as Catholics in England and Wales no longer describe themselves as members of the Church. Among those who still identify as Catholic, only 28% attend church at least once a week. For every Catholic convert, there are 10 cradle Catholics who have left the fold.
While the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a baptized Catholic who got married at Westminster Cathedral, the mother church of England and Wales, he refuses to discuss his faith publicly. He’s not an outlier: it’s rare to find a public figure who admits to being positively influenced by Catholicism.
This is partly due to the residual prejudice that endures almost 500 years after the English Reformation, but mainly because of England’s intimidating secularist consensus.
The Catholic impact on English public life, whether through politics, the pro-life movement, ministry to prisoners, or care for migrants, therefore remains largely hidden and hard to quantify.
Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to Britain boosted Catholic confidence and inspired hope of a “Benedict bounce” in Mass attendance and priestly vocations. But the downward trends persisted — and may have accelerated during the coronavirus crisis.
Given all these challenges, it’s curious that English Catholicism seems to be “having a moment” within the wider Catholic Church.
Why might English Catholics be rising to positions of international prominence? One explanation could be the country’s widely recognized contribution to Catholic intellectual life.
St. John Henry Newman, the most recent Englishman to be canonized, was a creative theologian who anticipated the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. G.K. Chesterton, the vigorous Catholic apologist, has admirers around the world, apparently including Pope Francis.
But although England continues to produce bright Catholic minds, its intellectual peak has long passed. As the historian Edward Norman noted in his 1985 book “Roman Catholicism in England,” there was a shift in the Catholic hierarchy as far back as the early 20th century, from bishops who engaged in “scholarly enterprise” to those “characterized by administrative skill and the encouragement of devotional practice.”
Anglican and royal connections
Another possible explanation for English Catholicism’s prestige in Rome is that it’s a conduit to the Anglican Communion and the royal family.
It’s fashionable to dismiss Anglicans as irrelevant. But Anglicanism is the third-largest worldwide Christian communion after Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Justin Welby, the spiritual head of the 85 million-strong Anglican Communion, is one of the Vatican’s main ecumenical partners. He was due to travel with Pope Francis to South Sudan on a now postponed trip billed as an “Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage.”
Welby’s London residence, Lambeth Palace, is within walking distance of Archbishop’s House, Westminster, home to Cardinal Vincent Nichols. The two men have presented a united front since Welby was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury two days after Pope Francis’ inauguration.
Meanwhile, Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, has shown increasing support for Catholic causes, recently attending a fundraiser for Archbishop’s House. He was present at Newman’s canonization and has shown solidarity with persecuted Christians. The Vatican is likely to see him as an important future interlocutor.
The moral theologian Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith suggested that England’s association with aristocracy helped to open Vatican doors. “Never underestimate Italian snobbery and obsession with all things English.... the Monarchy, Burberry, ‘il look inglese,’” he told The Pillar.
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Crossroads of cultures
Historians describe 19th-century English Catholicism as being composed of two main groups: recusant families and Irish immigrants. Today, the picture is more complex.
English Catholic parishes are, in general, highly diverse. According to the sociologist Stephen Bullivant, the proportion of Black people in the Catholic Church is higher than in the general population. Many parishes have a significant number of Catholics of African origin, as well as large contingents from Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland.
Syro-Malabar Catholics, originally from southern India, are well integrated into parish life but also have their own bishop, based in the northern Catholic stronghold of Preston. They are an increasingly dynamic force in English Catholic life.
London, the administrative headquarters of English Catholicism, is a hotbed of religiosity as well as a crossroads of the world’s cultures. When St. Josemaría Escrivá was establishing Opus Dei worldwide, he insisted on having a foothold in England’s capital. “He thought it was influential in the world, and a lot of good could be done from there,” said Opus Dei priest Fr. Andrew Soane.
Catholics form London’s largest Christian community and have strong connections with their coreligionists around the world.
A laboratory for Catholic-Muslim relations
England is also a notable center of Catholic-Muslim dialogue — possibly the most important interreligious relationship in the 21st century. Around 1 in 10 Londoners identify as Muslim and the Islamic community’s profile is rising in England as a whole.
In 2017, Cardinal Nichols brought four imams to Rome for an audience with Pope Francis, following years of dialogue and joint efforts by Catholics and Muslims to welcome Syrian refugees, run food banks, and care for the homeless.
Pope Francis appeared to recognize the English contribution to dialogue with Islam when he named Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald a cardinal in 2019. Fitzgerald, an expert on Christian-Muslim relations, led the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 2002 to 2006, before serving as nuncio to Egypt.
The head of a Catholic charity in London once told me that the English were often called on to lead international bodies because they were seen as consensus-seekers.
While generalizations about national character are risky, history has taught English Catholics how to operate in a society that is at best indifferent, and at times hostile, to their deepest convictions.
Edward Norman noted that after the English Reformation, “Catholics cultivated habits of discreet worship and careful withdrawal from occasions of offense,” in deference to their Protestant neighbors’ sensibilities.
This diplomatic approach might explain why the Vatican has an English “foreign minister,” while English Church leaders pursue international ventures such as the Santa Marta Group, combating modern slavery, and the Holy Land Coordination, supporting the region’s Christian communities.
England’s geographical position means that its Catholics can easily travel to Rome or meet with Catholics elsewhere in Europe. With English as their native tongue, they can also serve as a gateway to the wider Anglosphere.
Cardinals and cocktails
All these factors are no doubt advantageous for English Catholics. But they don’t explain the current bonanza of English cardinals. The key to understanding that is the figure of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The genial cardinal served as archbishop of Westminster from 2000 to 2009. But he probably reached the peak of his influence after his retirement.
Murphy-O’Connor received his red hat at the same consistory as Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2001. The two men were outwardly quite different: one was a towering former rugby player with a fondness for Negroni cocktails, the other an austere Jesuit who ministered in the slums of Buenos Aires. But they quickly established a rapport.
Shortly after Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013, he greeted Murphy-O’Connor with the words: “It’s your fault! What have you done to me?” There is, of course, no way of knowing how many cardinals received the same greeting. The English prelate was over 80 and therefore unable to take part in the conclave. But he undoubtedly contributed to the pre-conclave fanfare around his Argentine friend.
It seems likely that Pope Francis was showing his respect for Murphy-O’Connor when he made his successor at Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, a cardinal in 2014. Looking back, the decision sticks out because Francis has repeatedly passed other traditionally cardinalatial sees.
Murphy-O’Connor may have also paved the way for the then-Bishop Arthur Roche’s move to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship in 2012. He had ordained Roche as a bishop in 2001. The Yorkshireman served for barely a year as an auxiliary bishop of Westminster before moving to the northern English Diocese of Leeds to serve as a coadjutor.
Roche is no doubt receiving the red hat because of his position as head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. But he likely benefited from Murphy-O’Connor’s support earlier in his ecclesiastical career.
It is, however, hard to see Murphy-O’Connor’s hand in the creation of England’s third living cardinal. Pope Francis gave Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald the red hat two years after Murphy-O’Connor’s death. In addition to honoring Fitzgerald’s work with Muslims, the pope may have also wanted to affirm the Englishman’s tenure at the Vatican’s interfaith department, which seemed to end abruptly under Benedict XVI.
An English Catholic revival?
Setting aside the dismal statistics, there are signs of new life within the English Catholic Church. They include the growth of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which is attracting former Anglican bishops including the high-profile Michael Nazir-Ali. There is also a small but spirited traditionalist movement.
But,In characteristically self-effacing style, some English Catholics told The Pillar they saw little evidence that their community punched above its weight in the wider Catholic world. Certainly, its influence should not be exaggerated. It doesn’t compare to, say, that of the Church in France, Germany, Italy, or Spain. But it has arguably enjoyed a smoother relationship than those countries with the world’s first Latin American pope, to its considerable benefit.
Still, the creation of England’s third cardinal does not, unfortunately, indicate a Catholic revival.
While it is noteworthy, it is probably little more than a historical quirk.
Luke Coppen is The Pillar’s senior correspondent. He edited the U.K. Catholic Herald from 2004 to 2020 and was Europe editor of the Catholic News Agency from 2020 to 2022.