Gerard Noel recalls a man who accepted his role as head of the Catholic laity with humility, but whose presidency brought much needed verve and resolve to the Catholic Union
Faith, duty, Queen and country
Not only was Miles a devout Catholic, but he always took a lively and well-informed interest in the Church’s history, theology and effectiveness, especially as far as England was concerned.
His involvement became much greater after he inherited the Dukedom early in 1975. Until that time, Miles had deliberately taken a back seat in Catholic affairs, but almost immediately he was inundated with invitations and requests to be involved in one of the many Catholic societies or charities of England and Wales. One of the first posts to which he was elected was President of the Catholic Union of Great Britain – the country’s most significant lay society, a non-political association of members of the Catholic laity that watched over Catholic interests.
I happened to be on the executive of the Catholic Union at the time when Miles first became President, and it is true to say that his advent produced a welcome breath of fresh air. Miles sometimes chaired the meetings which, at that time, were held in the Challoner Club in Pont Street.
He was the ideal chairman. His military efficiency saw to it that business was dispatched smoothly and briskly, but his unfailing courtesy and attention to detail ensured that all points of view were given adequate expression.
Miles’s London flat at this time was on the opposite side of Pont Street, and he often asked me to come over and have a drink after the meeting. We would sometimes be joined by other members of the Union executive, and a lively discussion invariably ensued. I particularly remember Miles’s disarming modesty on such occasions. “I’m only a new boy in these Catholic matters,” he would say. “It’s up to you lot to put me on the right track.” Miles would say things like: “What are our bishops like? Are they good chaps? I’ve never met Cardinal Heenan for example. Is he a good man?” I knew John Heenan well and greatly liked and admired him. His years as Archbishop of Westminster (1965-1975) were important, but, in many ways, frustrating ones.
These were the years following the Vatican Council (1961-64) which had produced, at every level, so startlingly different an outlook and atmosphere in the Church.
They were also the years following the prolonged sitting of the unprecedented large and international commission called to consider and report on representative opinion throughout the Church on the vexed question of the morality of birth control. The question came to be a very important one for Miles not very long after his inheriting the Dukedom.
In July 1968, following the publication of Humanae Vitae, Cardinal Heenan issued a pastoral letter stating that “those who have become accustomed to using methods of birth control that are unlawful may not be able all at once to resist temptation ... They must not abstain from the sacraments.” It was a holding action. On September 25, he further declared that the “priest is never bound to go against his conscience but he is bound to make clear that the encyclical is the teaching of the Pope. He can then say as a matter of conscience that he does not agree with it.” On December 6, the Cardinal was interviewed on television by David Frost and said: “The teaching of the Church is very clear. A man is bound to follow his conscience and this is true even if his conscience is in error.” David Frost then asked: “And if they go to their priests and say that they’re doing precisely that, what should the priest say?” Heenan replied “God bless you! If they’re really following their conscience in the sight of God, which is all that matters – the priest, the bishop, the Pope doesn’t matter compared with God.” This virtually clinched the matter. The leading English Catholic churchman had been seen and heard by millions of viewers.
Miles, in years to come, often referred to those words of Cardinal Heenan. (Coincidentally, David Frost had become Miles’s son-in-law, having married his second daughter, Carina.) Miles, in other words, had long been anxiously concerned about the 1968 ruling on birth control and its effect on ordinary Catholics, but it was only after 1975 that he himself became publicly involved in the controversy. At one of those discussions at his flat in Pont Street, several of us urged Miles to lose no time in getting to know Cardinal Heenan.
Indeed, there was a particular reason for his so doing, as the Cardinal’s state of health was giving cause for alarm. Within a short time, to the great satisfaction of all, Miles and John Heenan had become close friends and allies. Each admired the other’s rock-like faith combined with an honest determination, as Miles put it, to “call a spade a bloody shovel”.
No sooner, however, was their friendship deepening when, that very autumn (1975), the Cardinal’s health took a sudden turn for the worse. His illness became common knowledge and he died on November 7 that year. Steps for the appointment of a new Archbishop moved ahead rapidly.
Quite soon afterwards, I was at a meeting of the Catholic Union executive chaired by Miles, after which he asked me to come across the street for a drink, since a long-time friend of his, Fr Michael Hollings, would be coming.
Conversation, not unnaturally, quickly turned to the burning topic of the moment, namely who the next Archbishop of Westminster would be. Miles then turned to Fr Hollings and said: “You’d be the best chap, Michael.” “Out of the question, Miles!” he replied immediately. Miles got up to replenish our drinks and I remember hearing myself saying: “What a pity it can’t be someone like Basil Hume.” It was then that Michael said: “If Basil Hume is to get it, there is only one person to pave the way. And that’s you, Miles.” Miles rang up the Apostolic Delegate’s Secretary the next day and went to see the Delegate, Archbishop Bruno Heim. He went straight to the point in mentioning Basil. All of this happened in late January, 1976.
Events moved fairly rapidly and in early March it was announced that a press conference would be held at the Press Club in Shoe Lane, near Fleet Street, at which the name of the new Archbishop of Westminster would be announced. A slip of paper was circulated on which was written the name of Abbot Basil Hume, OSB.
Miles, the “new boy” in Catholic affairs, was grateful for any help and advice he could get, and this he received, from no one more importantly than someone who became a close friend, Philip Daniel. This was particularly true with regard to the Catholic Union, in which Philip was a key figure for many years. Tragically, Philip died in early 2004.
When working on this book, I naturally contacted Philip, and we had a most interesting lunch at which Miles was the chief topic of conversation. Subsequently he sent me his own personal appreciation and memories of Miles. This is what he wrote: “Miles, his name so aptly chosen, was truly a soldier, and has that good soldier’s attribute of transparent honesty and a directness that can be utterly disarming. Confronted at an early stage of his succession to Duke Bernard as Earl Marshal with the ‘leadership’ of the visible Catholic presence in Parliament and with it ‘the Establishment’, his answer was swift and memorable. ‘Very good,’ he said, ‘but if you want me to do the job, I want to know why, and how you propose to support me by doing the real donkey work yourselves; a general’s no good without a loyal army.’ “In the tussles in the committee rooms, and in influential gatherings and broadsheet interventions outside Parliament on such matters as educational administration, data protection, the nationality and immigration laws, mental health and criminal justice, human fertilisation and embryo research, and the increasingly baleful effect of the abortion business, the person of the ‘good Duke’ was a rock around which others gathered whenever the seas seemed stormy.
“A Liberal Democrat peeress remarked in a meeting where she was not meant to be quoted: ‘Miles Norfolk’s lot is always good for 50 votes.’ “In the new dispensation, whatever be the form of the House of Lords which finally emerges, it is unlikely that an essentially non-party figure, such as Miles Norfolk, will be able to rally a distinct and coherent body of followers of a sufficient size to make a real difference to business in the way the Catholic ‘rump’ has been able to do.” As Mark Bence-Jones wrote in his book on The Catholic Families, there was a time, around 1829, when it became “fashionable to be a Catholic”. Those times have long gone, but in the second half of the last century there was a strong and discernible Catholic influence, inspired by Vatican II, in the non-elected part of Parliament, at the centre of which for 27 years was Miles, 17th Duke of Norfolk; a soldierly figure, a plain speaker, and a statesman of stature.
Miles: a Portrait of the 17th Duke of Norfolk by Gerard Noel is published by Michael Russell at £17.95