A study of Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor and the 21st-century
Church is an obviously rushed job, says Brian Brindley
Archbishop Cormac and the 21st Century Church by Nick Baty, Fount £8.99
THE COVER of this book has a photograph of a large man in a black clerical suit with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, the fingers of his left hand pointing in a slightly admonitory way. The verbal portrait inside is not so very different; this is the public image of the new Archbishop of Westminster.
Naturally we are all keen to learn more about Archbishop Comae, who maintained a fairly low profile in his many years at Arundel and Brighton, so there is likely to be a rush to buy this unpretentious little paperback. The first chapter is much the most useful, giving us as it does a summary uf the Archbishop's life and ministry, with even some history of the Murphys and the O'Connors, explaining why such an English priest has such an Irish-sounding name. The time has not yet come for a considered assessment. In five or ten years' time the judgment will be very strict — as the Archbishop must know it will be.
Nick Baty introduces himself to us as a former altar boy who can still sing the Missa de Angelis by heart, thus establishing himself as a pukka Catholic. He treats us to a brisk survey of the problems that have faced the Church in England over the past 50 years, and goes on to examine a number of issues that are troublesome today. Looking at the education of young Catholics, he records the criticisms that have rightly been levelled at some of the recent catechetical material. Looking at problems of marriage and divorce, he seems to have much sympathy with those caught in matrimonial tangles, and with those who dislike the procedures for seeking a nullity. Feminism, and agitation for the ordination of women to the priesthood, get short shrift: he includes one paragraph from a very amusing parody of "wimrnin's" writing by Joanna Bogle that actually found its way into a Catholic feminists' newspaper: "We began with a foot massage; over avocado and salads we shared music, and there was talk about the Church and the way it/he oppresses us."
A chapter on homosexuality seems to endorse the Archbishop's gentle, pastoral approach, while recording the whingeing of some practising Catholics – practising, that is, either Catholicism or homosexuality, in varying degrees. There is a chapter on the formation of the clergy, and the opening out of the religious life, in which he seems to approve of change; and another, sadly topical, on priests who "go wrong", either with women or with children; several cases are cited, though not, as it happens, the one that has recently made headlines in the press. Is it not monstrously unfair that Archbishop Cormac should be attacked for applying, to the best of his ability, the guidelines available to him at the time? He trusted a man who did not deserve that trust; who can blame him for that? A final chapter deals with the great and the good, a mixed bag: Tony Blair is not a Catholic, the Duchess of Kent and Miss Widdecombe are converts, Ronan Keating and Lily Savage are cradle Catholics.
There is throughout the book a puzzling ambiguity: whose side is Nick Baty on? When it comes to looking back at the past, he seems to be at one with the traditionalists: he quotes from Mrs McLeod of Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice this breathtaking piece of wishful thinking, "When we were children we didn't fidget, because we had the Tridentine Mass," but he is levelheaded enough to concede that nobody can know whether attendance at Mass would have fallen less drastically if the old Mass had not been changed. Yet, when it comes to specific issues, you get the impression that he is a radical, quoting the traditionalists only to mock them. I suppose there are many Catholics in that position.
Nick Baty is to be congratulated on the speed with which this little book has appeared, only five months after the appointment was announced. Unfortunately, it carries several marks of hasty preparation. Mr Baty is a journalist, and he does not here aspire to anything higher than journalism; who am I to complain about that? But he chooses to write journalese, which stands out unattractively between the covers of a book, even if they are soft ones.
Had this been a series, What's Wrong with the Catholic Church?, in a daily newspaper, one might have smiled at its infelicities; here, they jar. Mr Baty will never stoop to use an original thought when a cliché will do; vales of tears and cans of worms abound. What can you say of a man who can write a sentence like this: "It seems that the barque of St Peter — and England, the Dowry of Mary in particular — had also finally hit a rock"? I should love to see a dowry hitting a rock. He deploys words like "odyssey" and "plummeting" without regard to their true meaning.
HE GOES in for heavy-handed facetiousness in an attempt to be satirical: thus he characterises liturgical change as the removal of "altar-rails that were funded by great-aunt Mary's sponsored walk across the Pennines"; he must surely know that sponsored walks are a phenomenon of the past 40 years, long after altar-rails ceased to be put in. Never mind — anything for a laugh! He is careless with words: in two consecutive sentences we are told that the Archbishop now lives, "on the mean streets of London," and that the sisters who look after him, "make a mean shepherd's pie".
If you would know about the new Archbishop of Westminster, here is a handy way of finding out. But, in truth, this book tells us more about Nick Baty than it does about Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.