In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, published on 1August 2010 Archbishop Vincent Nichols has spoken about the relationship between the Catholic Church and government, the need to rebuild communities based on mutual support and genuine care and his hopes for the forthcoming State visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK.
The interview, by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, can be read below and on The Sunday Telegraph's website
Listening to David Cameron’s first speech on the steps of Downing Street, Archbishop Vincent Nichols says he nearly fell off his chair at the Prime Minister’s pledge to work for “the common good”.
His surprise was down to the fact that only a few weeks earlier, Catholic bishops had published a document offering election advice to churchgoers called “Choosing the Common Good”.
Sitting comfortably now in a shaded garden off the main road in Lourdes, the leader of the Church in England and Wales admits to being encouraged at the echoes of Catholic teaching emerging in the language of the new Coalition Government.
In particular, he is enthusiastic at the opportunities offered by Mr Cameron’s call for a Big Society. The concept may have been widely derided, described by David Davis, the Conservative backbencher, as “Blairite dressing”, but the Archbishop believes that it offers the chance to rebuild communities based on mutual support and genuine care.
There is no better model for this, he says, than in Lourdes.
While it is doubtful that David Cameron had the French market town in mind when he launched the policy, across the cobbled road from the garden where we talk, smiling teenagers push elderly pilgrims in their wheelchairs. Around the corner in the hospital, groups of volunteers care for the sick and the frail.
“It gives us an experience of being together in a place that turns things on their head a bit,” he says.
Much of Archbishop Nichols’s thinking seems to be driven by a desire to see things turned around, but while he is surprisingly candid in revealing his dismay with the previous government, he does not spare his own Church from criticism either.
Whether it is due to the glorious French weather or to the holy water of Lourdes, the Archbishop appears filled with an infectious optimism that the country could be on the cusp of returning to a more cohesive, united society.
Britain might be facing its worst economic crisis since the Second World War and experiencing an unprecedented level of cuts, but he believes it will emerge stronger through overcoming its current challenges.
“One of the things that we see in Lourdes is the great value of tapping into people’s goodwill. If we can generate that sense of volunteering and the sense of fulfilment that comes from it in our society, then we would be better for it. The Big Society is a step in that direction.”
Having earned a reputation as a combative church leader during his time as Archbishop of Birmingham, whether in his battles with the BBC or the government, he has been careful to avoid making political pronouncements since his move to Westminster.
Now, however, he expresses an excitement at the potential for the Coalition and reveals he had become disillusioned with the Labour administration.
“The last government was too overarching. In attempting to create a state that provided everything, it ended up losing touch with the people it was trying to serve.”
The introduction of laws that allowed the creation of animal-human embryos and greater rights for homosexuals also seemed to suggest that it had lost touch with the Catholic Church.
For the first time, Archbishop Nichols admits that this is true.
“I think if there had been more thorough and genuine engagement on some of the bills, especially, for example, in some of the equality legislation, it could have been less confrontational. Another example would be around the school admissions scrap that we had.
“There was a lack of consultation because it [the government] was a long time in office, had a big majority, and had some quite strong ideological positions at certain levels which the government would be determined not to concede.”
He says that the secularist agenda was more successful in securing its objectives, but has been encouraged by the attitude of the Coalition towards faith groups.
“My guess is that this Government is more pragmatic than the previous administration was.”
Although the Archbishop is too canny to confirm suspicions that the Church’s election document was an endorsement of the Conservative Party, he says that David Cameron has read it and suggests that many of the steps taken by the Coalition in tackling the economic situation resonate with the document.
“The Catholic Church has highlighted the need for society to not fall into the trap of thinking that everything is to be provided and that it is somebody else’s responsibility.”
As someone who grew up in Liverpool, a city bruised by the swingeing cuts of the Thatcher years, he is well aware of the dangers if the impact of government action is not spread fairly. Nevertheless he believes the current age of austerity can help to rebuild communities based on mutual support and hopes that faith groups can play a key role in achieving this.
“There is a fresh attitude on the part of the Government that seems to respect the integrity of what a faith group wants to do, and respect its language, so that a faith community coming into cooperation with others will not have to sing from their hymn sheet.
“It marks a shift from the last government, which required a high degree of conformity to its own theories. And if they clashed with those of a faith community then either the partnership came to an end or the faith group had to conform.”
While the Catholic Church is already playing an increasingly active part in society, most notably through its schools, the Archbishop warns that it could be generations before the Muslim community is properly integrated into British life.
“'Integrated’ means we become accustomed to having a Muslim community in Britain which we view in a reasonably positive way and which we know is committed to the well-being of this country.
“It will take time for a small mosque in Birmingham that is basically a replica of a village in Pakistan to grow in confidence, to learn the language and cultural ways that enable it to become a contributor to society. It could take generations for them to become integrated.”
This observation carries particular weight from the leader of a community that has grown from its migrant roots and today is learning how to incorporate Catholics arriving from African and European countries.
He fears that the burqa can hinder the ability of Muslims to fully integrate into British society, as it limits the ability of Muslim women to communicate.
In 2006, Aishah Azmi, a Muslim teaching assistant, complained after she was suspended for refusing to remove her veil in class, but the Archbishop says schools should be free to take action.
“My own instinct is that it must be very difficult to teach and learn without any facial expressions. I would hope that a school could come up with a policy that honoured the different traditions of its people, but which put in first place the primary purpose of the school, which is good teaching and learning.”
However, he agrees with the Government that it would be “un-British” to introduce a ban, as he stresses that everybody should be free to express themselves.
That includes the protests bound to be staged when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Britain next month.
Richard Dawkins, the atheist polemicist, has already stated that he will try to have the pontiff arrested “for crimes against humanity” in his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.
It is also highly likely that homosexual rights groups will demonstrate against statements made by Catholic leaders, including the Pope, who described homosexuality as a tendency towards an “intrinsic moral evil”.
The Archbishop has been fierce in his criticism of secularists such as Dawkins, yet he is not blind to the failings in the Church’s response to the child sex abuse crisis.
Even though it is incredibly rare for a Catholic leader to criticise the Vatican, he is not afraid to speak out on an issue that has left such deep wounds with the victims and also scarred the Church.
“On this issue, the Vatican has got itself in a very defensive position, which probably inhibits some of the positive initiatives which we could be taking,” he says.
“The Holy See can do a lot better in its understanding of how the media perceives things and how important those perceptions are.”
Since his appointment to be Archbishop of Westminster in the spring of 2009, the Church has been engulfed in a series of sex abuse cases across the world and its leaders have been lambasted for ill-judged statements on homosexuality and women’s ordination.
Furthermore, Pope Benedict XVI’s offer to disaffected Anglicans to defect to the Roman Catholic Church was viewed as an undiplomatic attempt to poach clergy.
Yet, while the storms have swirled in neighbouring countries, the Catholic Church in England and Wales has remained relatively unscathed and the reputation of Archbishop Nichols, its leader, has been enhanced.
As other Churches were slow to denounce the crimes committed by priests in their countries, he issued a statement that was unequivocal in its condemnation, even though this country has had very few cases in recent years.
He repeats this now: “Child abuse is a dreadful scandal which is to be condemned and it’s something for which every Catholic feels ashamed and sorrowful.”
Nevertheless, the Archbishop finds it difficult to recognise claims that the crisis has been as far-reaching as some have suggested.
“I think there are difficult issues in certain countries, but I don’t get any sense of it here.”
Rather than focusing on the past, the Archbishop is keen to look forward to restoring trust and rebuilding communities and he believes that the papal visit promises to bring hope to a society suffering from the strain of financial troubles and family breakdown.
“He represents a depth of commitment to humanity that finds an echo in many people.
“This is an opportunity to move away from seeing faith as a problem and seeing it as a resource to be discovered afresh
“It will be a symbolic embrace by the leader of the Catholic Church of Britain as it is today: multi-faith, multi-cultural, facing inner difficulties, but with great inner human inner resources which are strengthened by faith in God.”