Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster

Cardinal Vincent Addresses Nikaean Club

On 11 September 2014, Cardinal Vincent addressed the Nikaean Club on the role of faith and reason in communicating the proclamation of the 'true image of God and the shape of our fundamental relationship with him.'

Founded in commemoration of the 16th centenary of the First Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches in Nicaea, the Nikaean Club's purpose is to further Anglican relations with non-Anglican churches, to assist students from such churches, and to offer hospitality on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury to representatives of such churches.

Cardinal Vincent's address was given at a dinner at Lambeth Palace hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Cardinal Vincent's Address to the Nikaean Club:

Your Grace, 

I thank you for your kind words of welcome and I express my delight at being here this evening and at being invited to address this distinguished Club with just a few words. 

One of the most enduring media images of recent days has been that of Jihadist John. 

He stands there, hooded and hidden except for his eyes, holding aloft a knife with which to kill. At his feet kneels his victim: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, shortly to be brutally killed. 

This is a message of defiance, of hatred, of revenge, of destruction. It is a statement of intent, of an ambition, which will tolerate no opposition or dissent. It is chilling and sobering, and it makes demands on all who treasure human decency and on democracies. Indeed it makes demands on us all. 

In many ways this image is an annunciation. And, in its authors’ eyes, it is an annunciation of the ways of God. In this it is blasphemous and corrupting. 

Whilst Iraq’s leaders have a case to answer for the deepening divisions in this fragile state, the depth and scale of barbarity perpetrated by ISIS is unconscionable and is to be repudiated, as many Muslims have already done. Its actions are calculated to turn Iraqis further against each other and increase sectarianism with grave consequences for Iraq and the region. Renewed political will is essential. 

Here I wish to add, emphatically, that UK Muslims have repeatedly condemned ISIS and the atrocities it has committed. For example, the Muslim Council of Great Britain, on 6 August, on 20 August, on 2 September issued statements. These sadly have not been given the attention they deserve. They expressed ‘unequivocal condemnation of the violence perpetrated by ISIS’ and stated that the perpetrators of these actions betray the very principles of Islam they claim to uphold.’ 

Last week I was asked to comment on a painting of the Annunciation of God’s news to Mary. It was a painting by Francois le Moyne, belonging to Winchester College at present on display at the National Gallery. The similarities between the two images are striking, but in its light and beauty this is the antithesis of the ISIS image. 

Here the angel is flooded in light; his hand is raised aloft pointing to our eternal destiny in the glory of heaven. Mary kneels at the angel’s feet, head bowed, showing her neck, ready to accept the plan of God for her. We know the words that are already on her lips, words which express the most important consent given in the history of humanity: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word’ (Lk 1.38).

The angel comes to seek Mary’s consent. Jihadist John comes to impose his. The angel brings a message and gift of life, both here and in eternity. Jihadist John announces death. The angel announces to us all that our greatest dignity lies in being willing co-workers with God in the life of grace. Jihadist John presents human life as disposable and nothing more than servitude. Mary represents all that is best in our humanity. Jihadist John, I suggest, represents all that is worst and, in its destructive savagery, most misguided. 

Reflecting on these two images called to my mind the witness that Pope Benedict has left us in his sustained treatment of the relationship between faith and reason. Arguing for the crucial importance of a systematic exploration of the question of God through the use of reason, Benedict shows us the way to understand what creates a morally coherent society.

Here Pope Benedict’s teaching and the events of recent months highlight a challenge to us all. The proclamation of our faith, our whole work of evangelisation, now takes place within a particular context, one in which, in different ways, the very notion of God is being publicly corrupted not only by those who refuse the see the rationality of faith but also by those who deny, by their actions, that faith and reason have anything at all in common. Jihadist John, in his blasphemous annunciation, corrupts the name of God. This spells out for us the full dimension of our task of evangelisation.

As we reflect on our society, we can recognise the truth of another of Benedict’s insights: that we live in a time of a real ‘eclipse of the sense of God’. There may well be an abiding and even increasing interest in the things of religion, and in religious experience. Yet the real challenge is surely to recognise that the broader kerygma which we must announce with courage and consistency is that of the true nature of God and the shape of our fundamental relationship with him.

Many of you will recall the opening words of Pope St John Paul’s teaching document ‘Fides et Ratio’: ‘Faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit soars.’ We have to work hard to ensure that they are not detached, for no bird has ever flown on one wing only. 

The use of reason in partnership with faith comes in many forms. Clearly there is a role for apologetics and the exploration of the mystery of God through rational dialogue. There is also the need for us Christians to show that our stance in society, our responses to its problems and challenges, are shaped and framed by rational analysis and argument, illuminated and deepened by faith, by the life of prayer, by the Word of Holy Scripture. 

This can often be what is needed in the realm of public ethics. I recall again the words of Pope Benedict spoken just over the road in the great Westminster Hall in 2010. He posed serious questions about the foundations of our democracy. From where do we get the values that underpin our democratic system and which we wish to protect and promote through that system? What is the foundation of our moral patterns and laws? Pope Benedict said: ‘If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy’ (Westminster Hall 17 February 2010). He went on to propose that within the teaching of the Church lays a valuable store of wisdom and truth, accessible to reason and lit up by faith. Catholic Social Teaching is a crucial fruit of the work of faith and reason and it is encouraging to see that many people from business and indeed politics are turning to that source as they face crucial issues of trust and public confidence and the fashioning of a healthy relationship between their corporate efforts of our wider society. 

I started with two images of annunciations. One is dominant in our public imagination at this time. The other is somewhat hidden, if not forgotten. The challenge that faces us, as inheritors of the promises of that annunciation of the true transcendence of our human nature, of its light, its life and its beauty, is clear. It is to set ourselves to the task of that primary evangelisation: the proclamation of faith in God, in every time and place, giving poise and purpose to every enterprise. 

In the words of St Paul, which we read on the Feast of St Gregory, the Apostle of England, “It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone into our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, the glory on the face of Jesus Christ.” Of course we are only the earthenware pots, the clay jars which hold this treasure, and we have the great mission to let it be known. And, thank God, we are here to help and encourage each other, to affirm all that is good in our mutual and separate endeavours and always to seek to praise and thank God for his endless gifts. 

It is with full awareness, then, of the challenge that we face together that I ask you to rise and toast with me the role and work of the Nikaean Club which does so much to support the Archbishop of Canterbury and our wider cooperation in the work of the Lord. 

+Vincent Nichols


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