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The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, received an honorary doctoral degree from Birmingham City University, during an Awards Congregation, held at Symphony Hall in  Birmingham, on Monday 15 February, writes Peter Jennings.

The Honorary Doctorate of the University was conferred in recognition of Archbishop Nichols' distinguished service within the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular his recent service to the people of Birmingham.

Archbishop Nichols, the eighth Archbishop of Birmingham, 2000-2009, received his award in the company of the Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences, during a two-hour ceremony in one of the finest concert halls in Europe.

The Chancellor of Birmingham City University, Councillor Michael Wilkes, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, an old boy of St Philip's Grammar School, situated next to the Birmingham Oratory in Edgbaston, opened and closed the Congregation.  

Overcoming cynicism

In a challenging acceptance address Archbishop Vincent Nichols highlighted a few key concerns prevalent in society and suggested ways to help overcome what he described as 'the corrosive cynicism of today'.

Archbishop Nichols said: 'Many today tell us that there is a crisis of trust in some of the institutions of this country. They point first to the Houses of Parliament and the political process itself. Then they may well include the financial institutions whose crises have brought such hardship and austerity to people all over the world.'

The Archbishop of Westminster stressed: 'In political terms this means that we have to refashion a project, a vision, to which all can be committed and which can help to overcome some of the corrosive cynicism of today.

'One expression of such a project can be the phrase ‘working for the common good’, rather than evidently pursuing sectional or individual interest.'

The Archbishop emphasised: 'We are not isolated individuals, who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. Promoting the common good then, cannot be pursued by treating each individual separately and looking for the highest net benefit, in some kind of utilitarian addition.

'The pursuit of the common good is a demanding but also exciting project: it is the genuine service of all in society, to the exclusion of no-one, no matter their abilities or circumstances. If that were to become our stated aim, our clear commitment a restoration of public trust could follow.'

Archbishop Nichols explained: 'We care because we see in each and every person an innate and irreducible dignity. This dignity of the human person alone is the foundation of their human rights. That is why human rights are so important. We are all equal in dignity, even if we all differ in many ways which also have to be recognised.'

The Archbishop insisted: 'The unfolding of these rights and accompanying duties – for there is never a right without a corresponding duty – has to be handled and developed in the complex procedures of law, as we see at present, and not without great difficulties, in our society.

'Essential among these rights is the right to religious freedom: the freedom to live by faith, within the reasonableness of the common good, and to show that faith in action in the public forum. This is so because the human person is essentially a spiritual being, with a longing for love, for truth, for beauty, for happiness.'

Archbishop Vincent Nichols concluded: 'A reduction of the scope and role in our lives of the spiritual and the religious, which is the climbing frame of the spiritual does little to serve the common good, of which they are, in fact, essential parts and contributors.'

An honorary Brummie

Earlier in during the ceremony, the Orator, Professor David Roberts, Head of the School of English, said: 'For all his Liverpudlian roots, we celebrate Archbishop Nichols today as not just an honorary doctor, but an honorary Brummie. For nine years he served as Archbishop of Birmingham, years that underlined his reputation for speaking out on issues when others preferred to keep quiet.

'His quest for truth has left him unafraid to raise questions about aspects of our lives we take for granted: the responsibilities that may come with free speech; the pursuit of wealth; the functioning of the BBC; the relationship of church teaching to contemporary liberalism; the aims and identity of faith-based schools and universities; the role that technology plays in the lives of the young. Archbishop Nichols’s willingness to address those questions was one of the qualities that made him, for those who worked with him and many more, an inspirational leader in this city.'

Professor Roberts concluded: 'The values of this great man of the Church may seem foreign to some of you. You might not share his views on all sorts of questions; but you could not find a man more committed to the cause of education, more concerned about the pursuit of justice in all its senses. A man more engaged with the problems of modern society, or, most important of all, more alive to the challenges we will all face when we come down from the excitement of today and think about what we should do with the precious gift that is the rest of our lives.'