Cardinal Nichols: We're Not Policemen But Helping Build a Community of Life

Archbishop of Westminster Discusses Priorities as Britain’s New and Only Serving Cardinal

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Cardinal Vincent Nichols was one of 19 new cardinals appointed by Pope Francis last week. The Archbishop of Westminster, who is also president of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, sat down with ZENIT on Feb. 26th to discuss his new role, concerns over the upcoming synods of bishops on the family, and how he approaches the challenging task of disciplining heterodox bishops and priests.  

ZENIT: How will your elevation to the College of Cardinals change your work as archbishop?

Well I’m just going to have to find out; I’m not entirely sure. Clearly it’s easier to attract attention in the media, that’s the first thing I’ve learned. Obviously there are additional responsibilities here in Rome. I’m a member of the Congregation for Bishops which meets here fairly regularly and I’ve just been appointed to the Congregation for Eastern Churches. I’m not quite sure what that means. And then, thirdly, I think there are probably more expectations around England and Wales just for very special occasions, so we’ll have to wait and see.

ZENIT: There are quite a few episcopal vacancies in England and Wales. Do you plan to play a key role in helping to fill those positions now you are a member for the Congregation for Bishops?

I’ve been to one meeting of the Congregation and it’s a big meeting, so it’s not as though one person can shape or dominate it. The process that was used I personally found quite impressive – for the first meeting. So I will play my part and obviously I have some things very much in mind, but it’s a Congregation for the Church throughout the world and we have to, you know, take our turn.

ZENIT: Have your plans and priorities changed, or will they change, as cardinal?

I don’t think so. Over the last couple of years, what I’ve focused on more and more have been three things: one is service of the poor, because both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis clearly give that priority. For Pope Benedict, he said our service to the poor is what gives credibility to the Gospel. That’s a strong statement. So that’s a very real priority and in the diocese, certainly, we’re developing a Caritas over-arching umbrella to help parishes to focus and bring their resources to that service of the poor.

The second thing comes from being in London: I want to continue the engagement I have with the business community because London is a city of plenty. Along with the poverty, one has got to be engaged with the business world and, for the most part, I’ve found a real positive response, especially with business leaders who to some extent know they have faced a crisis of trust and are ready to look again at their underlying sense of purpose and to recognise that a clear, purpose-driven business is a better business. So we have this project going under the title of ‘Blueprint for a Better Business’.

And the third priority for me is parish life. That’s where most people experience and live their faith, where it’s enriched. That obviously needs the support and preparation of priests and the encouragement of parishes who are looking ahead, looking at what their challenges are, and trying as it were to respond as best we can. So, for example, the theme of the next two synods on family and marriage – that’s a priority for every parish and I view these times as a good examination of conscience as to how we’re doing in those areas of ministry in our parishes.

ZENIT: When you say the poor, do you also include the unborn, the vulnerable, and not necessarily those who are materially poor?

In the document [of Pope Francis] the ‘Joy of the Gospel’, it’s quite startling the Pope actually says that the most tragic form of poverty is spiritual poverty – [poverty in] a kind of a way of life where the spiritual dimension is really the source of such enrichment and sense of purpose when we get up each morning. If that’s squeezed out, then what is left is a rather dried-out form of human living. So there’s that poverty certainly, and then there are those who are most vulnerable – as you say, the unborn, and the very elderly. So we are constantly – especially as a bishops’ conference – battling on the front of euthanasia, and on the front of abortion.

ZENIT: There are concerns about possible changes in doctrine under this pontificate connected with the two synods on the family coming up and particularly with regards to administering the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics. Should the faithful be concerned about this?

What is clear in the mind of Pope Francis is that he wants us to engage in a kind of two year process of reflecting on the reality of marriage, on a renewed teaching about marriage and the family, and a renewed pastoral care characterised, he says, by the words intelligent, courageous and full of love. So I think that’s the agenda, if you like, that he’s given. I don’t think for a minute that fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church are going to change. I think what we will be looking at – and the signs were there in some of the two days of conversations [last week] which have opened this – of the need to be more sensitive to the cultural and social circumstances in which people have come to marriage, and therefore the degree to which they are fully and, at a sufficient level, aware of the consent they are giving. So for example, I think it would be true that many people enter marriage with the hope that it will last, but not necessarily with a commitment to its indissolubility. I think that’s the kind of area where there are all sorts of implications. It has implications for marriage preparation, it has implications for the support that family and marriage life gets, it has implications for the patterns of the justice of the Church: that people have a right to have the validity of their marriage looked at that’s sufficient and seeking the truth.

ZENIT: Cardinal Kasper mentioned the possibility of the Sacrament of Penance being used to help address this sensitive issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. Do you think that’s a real possibility?

Having listened to Cardinal Kasper and all the speeches that followed, it is clearly a line that’s to be explored. But as Cardinal Kasper said, what he did was an overture, and an overture just picks up some of the key themes that the opera or symphony will develop later on. So it’s not a good idea to try and second guess the process.

ZENIT: But is there a danger in sending out a questionnaire because, as happened during the Second Vatican Council, it allows the media to raise false expectations and can ultimately influence the outcome or consequences of the synod?

The great issue around that questionnaire was that it was so easily interpreted as an opinion poll, and therefore put into that pattern of political life that we’re very familiar with. Opinion polls are taken in order to guide the formulation of policy because policies have to have the support of the public. Now it wasn’t anything like that.

ZENIT: Some say it seemed to be like that.

Well it can be interpreted to be like that, I agree. But what it was, and it was in my view right to do it, was a structured attempt to listen to the experience of Catholic life and every priest has to do that. Every priest, as he visits people, as he meets them at the back of the Church, is always listening to the experience of the people. And it was put on a big stage. I think most Catholics will begin to understand that distinction and certainly, when I’ve talked about it in public, people do know that this is not an opinion poll designed for a reshaping of policy because we don’t have policies. We have teachings and we have pastoral practice, and the pastoral practice is something that in my view has lost a bit of focus in the Church. So for me it’s quite lov
ely that the titular church I’ve been given is the church of St. Alphonsus, and St. Alphonsus was one of the great masters of pastoral practice in the Church. So we have things to recover from our own treasury that can help us in the pastoral care of the family. 

ZENIT: Was it kind of inevitable that those countries, such as Switzerland and Germany where there is a great deal of dissent, would make their results public in an effort to try and change the Church’s teaching on these issues?

Well I wouldn’t sit here attributing intentions to the people. We were asked quite clearly – I don’t know about the bishops’ conference of Germany – not to make our formal response to the Holy See public and I agreed to that because I said if every bishops’ conference makes its response public, then it limits the space in which the synod process can operate. But we will reflect on the questions we have heard to see exactly what the challenges are for parishes because this is not a process in my mind directed towards synods of bishops. It’s also telling us what the challenge is Sunday by Sunday.

ZENIT: One concern increasingly heard over the years is that those bishops or priests who are heterodox don’t receive as severe sanctions as those, for example, on the traditionalist side. What’s your view on this? Would you like to see more even-handed discipline?

The relationship between a bishop and any particular priest is quite sensitive. It can be quite subtle and, in my mind, I view that as quite a personal relationship. My aim is always to try and help this priest to live his ministry to which he’s been called, and ordained by the action of God, in the best way possible. I think if you engage with priests, they know what the teaching of the Church is. Sometimes they’re very obstinate, and sometimes, though not very often, I have said: ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that.’ I think they’ve understood and reluctantly accepted. But we’re not policeman. It’s a communion of life, and a priest and people accept, if you like, the authority of a bishop. You don’t have much choice about the rules of a nation, you have to [accept them], but this is something that builds and grows and is nurtured more through relationships than anything else.

ZENIT: But if a priest or bishop is teaching heresy, he’s placing possibly many souls’ at eternal risk. Isn’t that so serious that it needs heavy sanction?

Yes it is, and as I say, sometimes I’ve said: ‘You can’t do that.’ I’m also aware that when I sit and talk with priests, those who have claimed it is heresy have only partly heard, and partly heard what they’ve wanted to hear. 

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Edward Pentin

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