Among yesterday's tributes to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, one stood out. It came not from a churchman, but from one of Britain's most divisive politicians. Tony Blair described the late cardinal as a ‘wonderful advertisement’ for Christianity.
Now, you might expect a well-known Catholic to say something like that. Some reports did, after all, present Murphy-O'Connor as the man who ‘converted’ the New Labour leader. But while it's true that the cardinal received Blair into the Catholic Church months after the latter resigned as prime minister, their relationship was complicated. Together they helped to decide the place of Catholics in Britain today – and not in an entirely happy way.
At the beginning of 2007 the cardinal wrote to Blair asking for an exemption from new gay adoption laws. The Cabinet said no, forcing the Church to shut or cut ties with its adoption agencies. The cardinal was furious. In one of our last email exchanges, earlier this year, he confirmed that he still felt strongly about it a decade later.
At times he seemed to blame Blair. But he also recognised that the prime minister's authority had, by then, all but drained away. There was a small ‘Catholic tendency’ in the Cabinet, but a larger secularist one, led by ministers like Alan Johnson, who had lost a scuffle with the Catholic bishops over church schools a year earlier.
When Murphy-O'Connor succeeded the sainted Basil Hume as Archbishop of Westminster, he took up Hume's quest to lead Catholics back into the establishment. He did well at first. In 2002, after the Queen Mother's death, he became the first cardinal in centuries to read at an English royal funeral. That year he was also the first Catholic cleric to preach to the reigning monarch since 1688.
But his tussle with the Blair cabinet confirmed a new reality. The establishment was no longer exclusively Anglican, but it was embracing a new belief system – secular liberalism – that was no less hostile towards the Catholic Church. Hume had glimpsed a place at the heart of British affairs for Catholics; Murphy-O'Connor had discovered that it didn't exist after all.
But he didn't give up easily. He considered an offer by Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, of a seat in the House of Lords. He even rehearsed the opening of his first speech (‘As my predecessor, Cardinal Pole, was saying...’) But almost five centuries after Pole's death, Rome had a different attitude to earthly power and vetoed the idea.
‘There is still a sense that being Catholic is different,’ the cardinal told me after his retirement. ‘You're not part of the establishment and most Catholics wouldn't want to be.’ If, in order to gain admission, he was required to abandon Catholic teaching, then ultimately he preferred to remain an outsider.
Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald.