In considering the elevation of Vinnie Nichols to the Archdiocese of Westminster, I’ve been pondering a little on Evelyn Waugh. You see, given the ingrained anti-Catholicism of English culture, including – or maybe especially – the English intelligentsia, it’s always puzzled me a little as to how Waugh’s novels gained such a cachet. Yes, he was a wonderful writer, but that’s not all there is to it. And I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of this has to do with class, ethnicity and romanticism.
The romanticism is easy enough. It’s something that was actually quite funny when all those High Church Anglicans converted some years back. Because the High Church Anglicans were notoriously more Catholic than the Catholics, and a lot of them seemed to have constructed for themselves a romantic image of Catholicism that was all purple robes, incense and Latin. Those guys got the shock of their lives on encountering the actually existing Catholic Church. All those jumper-clad priests strumming guitars – that’s just the sort of thing they’d been trying to escape.
And it feeds into the class-ethnic element in an interesting way. Historically, the large majority of England’s Catholic population have been strongly working class. They’ve also been, to a very large extent, Scotto-Irish in origin, although over recent decades the gene pool has been enriched by Poles, Italians, Ukrainians and others. But this has not necessarily been the most public face of English Catholicism. And it’s definitely not the image one takes from Brideshead Revisited, with its Catholic aristocrats steeped in tradition. That was very much English Catholicism as Waugh, whose reverence for the aristocratic virtues is easily mistaken for snobbery, would have liked it to have been.
Not, though, that Waugh was completely removed from reality. For, as well as this great grubby Catholic proletariat, there was in fact a thin but significant Catholic upper crust, which held enormous power in the community. It perpetuated its power via a network of elite schools. Its regular organ was the Tablet, as opposed to the Universe, which is still very much the paper of the Irn Bru-drinking classes. (To be fair, the Tab has opened up a lot, and these days is a must-read current affairs magazine. A bit like the New Statesman, only better written and more socially progressive.) Most importantly, since the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850, it’s the posh boys who have dominated the plum clerical positions.
The flip side of this is the Catholic hierarchy’s attempts to reintegrate with the English establishment. Even 25 years ago, it was common for British news bulletins to treat Catholicism as something exotic, alien, mysterious. Those were the days when, if a Catholic issue hit the headlines, the media would solicit quotes from Norman St John Stevas because, well, he was a prominent politician and a Catholic, so he could obviously speak for the Catholic community. The late Cardinal Hume laboured mightily to overcome this breach and normalise the Church’s social standing, something that’s been continued by Cardinal Cormac who, despite the Irish name, is very much an establishment figure. And not without success.
Which brings me to Archbishop Vinnie. The most significant thing about him is that he’s from Liverpool. He spent much of his childhood on the terraces at Anfield, which tells you a lot about him. In other words, while he doesn’t sound like a Scouse scally in interviews, his roots are in the plebeian end of the Church. And as the plebs have been gaining ground since Vatican II – indeed, the vernacular Mass was very much a gesture in their direction – the installation of one of their own in the top job is an important step.
What struck me was that the media coverage of Vinnie’s installation revolved largely around a couple of established talking points. One was that he was supposed to be Pope Benny’s enforcer, a hard man to rival his namesake from the Wimbledon Crazy Gang, and liberal Catholics were unhappy about this. Well, duh. Doctrinal orthodoxy is part of a bishop’s job description, and as for the liberal Catholics – who aren’t very thick on the ground, and may be happier in the C of E – they’re never happy. One may merely note that the real died-in-the-wool reactionaries don’t like him much either.
The other talking point was his pushiness. To approach it from another angle, he isn’t an apologetic Catholic – one of those Catholics you get in the law, medicine or academia who feel the need to pretend they aren’t Catholics. Nor is he as concerned as his predecessors with ingratiating himself with the establishment. No, he’s someone with interests to defend, who will defend them to the best of his ability. And while Cormac is a very nice man – perhaps too nice at times – it’s the steely side of Vinnie that we’re expecting to see.
Nonetheless, we’re talking here about a very capable operator, which is why he’s landed such a sensitive job. He’s proven himself a strong media performer, someone who’s able to argue his corner without being overly aggressive. He’s known as a good administrator, who would rather deal forthrightly with a problem than sweep it under the carpet. That’s why he was the central figure in setting up a vetting system to prevent recurrences of clerical sex abuse. (And this is an area where the English Church might have a thing or two to teach the Irish Church. On the Irish scandal, WorldbyStorm has been covering this exhaustively; also note that the Archbishop didn’t say what the media accused him of saying last week.)
And so, the new man takes the reins. Since there are more practising Catholics in England now than practising Anglicans (although the C of E still has an enormous nominal membership), he has a good claim to be the top Christian leader in England. He will, I fear, rub lots of secularists up the wrong way, used as they are to prelates who don’t defend their corner, and who in some cases don’t even believe in God. But that’s fine by me. After so many years of facing no resistance, it’ll do them good to have an able opponent. They might even have to remember some of their good arguments, going beyond the lazy saloon-bar atheism of Dude Hitchens and his ilk.
More on this from Red Maria.