Is it ethical to snoop around an Archbishop’s sitting-room? Surely, I decide, a gentle stroll around furniture is OK: past a gilt mirror and a large crucifix, past a picture book of the Jewish Haggadah and over to a baby grand tucked into the curve of a bay window. There are two piano pieces on the stand and no sign of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor — it seems sensible, not sneaky, to see if the music offers any insight into the man’s mind.
The first piece is Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante; underneath it, Francis and Day’s Community Song Book with optional guitar accompaniment. Then, behind me, a voice, ‘Do you play the piano?’ The Cardinal is smiling, dressed in immaculate black, thinner than I expected, older. No, your Eminence, good morning, your Eminence. I follow him through a door into his study — clean, green and full of framed photos — for what turns out to be a heartfelt discussion about the dismal state of Britain’s moral health.
First on the agenda is abortion, and the Cardinal’s recent attempt to lower the legal time limit for terminations from 24 to 20 weeks. ‘I believe that there is a growing concern about abortion in this country,’ he says. ‘More and more people are realising that it is wrong. I’ve received many disturbing letters from women about the effects abortion has on them years and years after the event. It’s really very upsetting.’
Even non-Catholic women? Even atheists? ‘Yes, yes absolutely,’ says the Cardinal. ‘In my experience, women often feel forced into abortion by pressures of modern life and then regret it much later.’
So what can be done? ‘We need a free vote on abortion and, whatever happens, women with an unwanted pregnancy should be given better help and advice. They should be told about the possibility of adoption,’ he says.
‘But I’m not just worried about abortion; it’s also our whole attitude to life, family and marriage. Some of the teaching, especially in state schools, is utterly negative about the centrality of marriage, even though most young people long for a life-long relationship between a man and a woman. Ah! I wish I could have a teaching session with all young people, with the whole country!’ The Cardinal’s hands shake a little as he lifts them up, appealing to the nation.
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is a charming man; everybody says so, and they’re right. One feels warm in his company, welcomed, inclined to stay for a scotch, then maybe a community song with optional guitar accompaniment — but even his friends admit that he can be naive. Earlier this year his official spokesman resigned after it was discovered that, despite the Pope’s quite clear condemnation of active homosexuality, he and his boyfriend were living together. ‘You mustn’t think that he turns a blind eye to employees’ bad behaviour,’ says a lay friend of the Cardinal’s. ‘It’s just that he’s not always savvy enough to know what’s going on.’
So he’s not streetwise, and he lacks both Pope Benedict’s terrifying clarity and his predecessor Basil Hume’s pop-star cool, but the more we chat the more impressed I am with Murphy-O’Connor’s conviction. Perhaps it’s because he retires next year, aged 75, and has nothing to lose, or perhaps it’s because his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury has morphed from the people’s prophet into an anxious consultant. But the Cardinal, it seems, has decided to take our grubby nation in hand.
‘There is often a sort of Christophobia in the intelligentsia and opinion-formers in our society,’ he says, ‘but England urgently needs to hear the Christian message. This is why I’ve spoken out against abortion — not just to be heard, but for the sake of this country. It comes down to the Sermon on the Mount — if you are poor in spirit, if you are humble, if you are pure in heart and gentle and merciful and seek justice, then you’ll be happiest. We need to relearn this.’
Isn’t that a rather tall order for we Big Brother addicts and shopaholics? How can we begin to realise that this sort of happiness is possible? I ask.
‘We need a revolution!’ said the Cardinal. ‘Another moral awakening! It happened in the time of St Francis of Assisi and I have a suspicion that it may be beginning to happen again. There is an intense desire at the moment to ask: what is the meaning of life? Why am I here? And in a way it’s the consumer society which has forced the moment to its crisis. People are unhappy with seeing everything in utilitarian terms, so they’re finally ready to listen to the truth.’
And does this moral awakening mean opposing contraception? I ask, a little snippily. How will a prohibition on condoms promote happiness in Africa, where there is an Aids epidemic? The Cardinal looks suddenly cross. ‘I wish people would remember that the Catholic Church teaching on abstinence and fidelity has been proved to be the most effective way of reducing Aids in Africa. It’s also true that the widespread promotion and use of condoms in Africa does not lead to a decrease in Aids. In fact, bishops have said to me that their dioceses in Africa are flooded with condoms, and what has it led to but an increase in promiscuity and in Aids? People should listen to the whole story. As for our own country, it’s curious, isn’t it, that we have the healthiest and the wealthiest continent ever, but it is committing demographic suicide. It says something about our culture that we don’t wish to repopulate ourselves.’
But for all his passionate concern about moral issues, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is still very careful not to cause offence. I egg him on, but he won’t criticise Patricia Hewitt, who last week refused his request to review the abortion time limit, or even Tony Blair who, despite his attraction to Catholicism, has voted for embryocide on several occasions. Could or should a Catholic MP ever vote for abortion, I ask, hoping for the makings of a swipe at Blair. ‘All Catholic politicians should make clear that they believe all abortion is wrong,’ he says. But could they stay in the Church if they actively voted for it? ‘I wouldn’t advise Catholics how they should vote on this matter in a particular situation,’ says the Cardinal. ‘Politics is the art of the possible.’
Even on the subject of the Anglican Church in America and the ordination of the first woman bishop, the Cardinal is reluctant to criticise. I ask: is all hope of intercommunion dead? The Cardinal’s eyes flicker to left and right like unhappy fish. ‘There is no doubt that the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate is a very severe obstacle to ecumenism, because the Catholic Church does not and will not accept women priests. But our relationship can continue in parallel and relations between myself and the Archbishop of Canterbury are, thank God, very good.’
Bing Crosby starts singing in my head: ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive/ Eliminate the negative/ Latch on to the affirmative….’
But then again, why not? Why should the Cardinal take political sides? The Catholic Church is not, after all, a party animal but follows a line that both Left and Right find equally queer: conservative on marriage and morals, but with a concern for human rights that, even now, brings most Tories out in hives. In favour of the free market and of migrant labour, but with a left-wing concern for the wellbeing of illegal immigrants.
‘Some time ago we had a Mass here in the Cathedral for migrants in London,’ says the Cardinal. ‘There were huge numbers of people here from Africa, South America and Asia. My message to them was that though some were illegal, all had settled here and they should not be exploited. Which is why I have called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants.’
Won’t it just encourage other people to come here illegally? I ask.
‘Well, the government can be as tough on immigration as they like. All the same,’ says the Cardinal, ‘once people are actually here, we should make sure they’re not badly treated.’
So let’s be sensible, but not cruel or governed by fear, says the Cardinal. And his advice about Islam is much the same. ‘I wish we wouldn’t always preface it with the word “militant” as if they were all like this,’ he says, ‘because it isn’t true. By far the best way of combating the terrorist few is to make sure that the peaceful Muslims in this country encourage them to reject violence. Islam will listen to Islam.’
With our time running out, the Cardinal and I start to talk in more general terms about the Catholic Church in England.
‘Of course, it’s true that in many ways there is a diminishment of Christian faith in Europe, but the Catholic Church is in many ways developing strongly in this country,’ he says. ‘There is an increasing desire among Christians to witness to their religion because they know they’re swimming against the stream and they’re conscious of the fact that they have to keep their faith, to witness to the truths of the Gospel not just for their own sake but for everyone’s sake. Christians, Catholics have to show that the teachings of Jesus Christ are not only good for them, but are necessary for society.’ Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor looks suddenly urgent.
‘They are becoming braver and more inspired, taking inspiration from their fellow Catholics around the world, so as to show the rest of this country that their faith is strong, that this is real, that they believe in a life to come and will not be overpowered.’