In his book Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition of May 2012, Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge University, writes about St John Fisher, the former Chancellor of Cambridge University and founder of the theology departments at both Oxford and Cambridge universities. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, was a man of great spirituality and a leading theologian in the Europe of his day. He ghosted writings for Henry VIII that led to him being granted the title of “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope.
As Henry moved towards his English Reformation, the Pope made Fisher a cardinal to try to warn the King off from that intention. This enraged Henry, who had John Fisher’s head, like that of Thomas More, lopped off at Tower Hill, boiled and stuck on a spike for refusing the oath of supremacy.
All cardinals wear scarlet red cassocks to demonstrate that they will die for the faith if need be, but according to Professor Duffy, Fisher is the only cardinal ever to have been martyred. The newly appointed Cardinal Vincent Nichols will know this story well – St John Fisher was the subject of his MA dissertation.
Many Catholics will have been impressed last weekend by Vincent taking on the Government and voicing his concerns about the punitive aspects of the reform of Britain’s benefits system. He has, of course, the examples of Pope Francis and his Victorian predecessor, Cardinal Henry Manning, who was an advocate for the poor and oppressed, a mediator in the London Dock Strike of 1889 and a contributor to that first great Catholic social teaching encyclical, Rerum Novarum. That said, Manning was said to be a very high-handed and political prelate, very ultramontane, and one would hope that Cardinal Nichols would not emulate him in these respects.
Having read Nichols’ interview with the editor of The Tablet, I was impressed by his wanting to be a “champion of people who have few others to speak for them”, that is, those on benefits, migrants, or the foreign spouses of residents. But I was rather concerned at the impression that Cardinal Nichols gave that he is not in favour of disclosing full the outcome of the consultation with the laity on such matters as marriage and the family and contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. Why?
Because the consultation did not come up with the right answers?
Catholics like me in England and Wales had hoped that Cardinal Vincent would show that he had the courage to listen to the laity on these matters. We still hope though that he will support some of the church reforms that the Pope wishes to make. In particular Cardinal Vincent and the rest of the bishops’ conference should open up space for dialogue within the Church in England and Wales, rather than maintaining the unreformed top-down concept of how the Church should function.
He is already a member of the Congregation for Bishops so it is hoped that he will be involved in selecting pastoral bishops who “smell the sheep”, as Francis put it. If he takes heed of his priests and many lay Catholics Cardinal Vincent will push for the jettisoning of the clumsy Latinate translation of the liturgy in favour of the previously agreed dynamic and inclusive language translation that preceded it after wide consultation, and was then suppressed by the Roman Curia.
Michael Phelan is a permanent deacon in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire