Did Archbishop Conti criticise Archbishop Nichols for denying that Christians are being persecuted? Maybe, maybe not: but he certainly disagrees with him

Archbishop Nichols (Photo: Mazur/

I was interested to see, on the admirable Protect the Pope website, the intriguing headline “Archbishop Conti challenges Archbishop Nichols’ dismissal of the UK persecution of Christians”. Deacon Nick thinks that in a recent sermon, “it seems pretty clear” that Archbishop Conti was responding to Archbishop Nichols’s recent statement, published in the Guardian newspaper, that Christians are not persecuted in this country and should not claim that they are: “I personally don’t feel in the least bit persecuted. I don’t think Christians should use that word,” Andrew Brown reports him as saying (in a tendentious opinion piece, of which more presently).

I’m not at all certain it’s absolutely “clear” that Archbishop Conti was in fact targeting Archbishop Nichols, or was even aware of what he had said (I don’t somehow see Archbishop Conti as the archetypal Guardian reader); but he was certainly expressing, with admirable eloquence and force, a very different point of view:

All around us we hear ideas advanced which seem alien to our understanding of things … unborn and vulnerable life is snuffed out with impunity; attempts are made to disfigure and corrupt our understanding of marriage and family life; the very symbols of our faith – the cross of Christ worn around our necks or on our lapels – is denounced as an offensive sign, one that must remain hidden from public gaze!

What we are really seeing is an attempt to remove Christianity from the public forum; to erase the Christian markers from our path through life and to airbrush our Christian heritage out of our consciousness.

This is not the persecution your forebears experienced as they huddled, shivering, around Mass rocks, but it is a persecution nevertheless, and being more subtle, it is more difficult to resist.

But resist we must, and the greatest weapon we have in our armoury is … fidelity. Fidelity to the faith of your fathers. Fidelity to the traditions of home and hearth which have distinguished Irish life for centuries. And fidelity to the Mass.

“It is the Mass that matters”… remember the Pope’s words.

Those words were spoken at a Mass he celebrated for the Irish community in Glasgow, and they would no doubt for that reason alone be despised by the very sophisticated Andrew Brown, who writes appreciatively about Archbishop Nichols (and most of the English bishops) for putting a distance between themselves and Rome: their general posture is, he says, all part of “a careful balancing act between the demands of Catholic theology, and of conservative factions in the Vatican, and the reality of the English Roman Catholic Church, where several of the most prominent [my italics] lay figures [unspecified] are either gay themselves, divorced, or married to divorced people”.

He goes on to say that the emergence of the Catholic Church into the mainstream of national life “has been accompanied by a change in character: the old working-class Irish-based Catholicism has almost vanished, to be replaced by a much less traditional English middle class which largely rejects the Church’s teachings on birth control and homosexuality, while still treasuring it for its spiritual value.”

I have to say that this isn’t the English Catholic Church I know and of which I have been a member for over 20 years now, despite the fact that many of the English bishops are undoubtedly open to criticism for reflecting, all too often, what can only be called a secularised version of Christianity, a version which reveals them as being distinctly not, as Pope John Paul said we should all be, “signs of contradiction”.

Most of the Catholics I know (I live in Oxford) are believers in the faith as it is taught by the present Pope; they are mostly not working class, nor are they ignorant or uneducated; some are present or former fellows of Oxford colleges (as I am) and most are graduates. I do not say this to indicate any kind of superiority on my part or theirs to the “working class Irish-based Catholicism” that Andrew Brown despises so much: it was, indeed, the five years I spent in Ireland as an undergraduate and then as a research student, during which I was greatly impressed by the fact that the Catholic religion (unlike Anglicanism) made sense to the Irish working class just as much as it did to the Catholic intellectuals I knew, that as much as anything else convinced me of the viability of the Catholic tradition.

What disturbs me more than anything else is the fact that Archbishop Nichols should attract so much approval from Andrew Brown, who one might characterise as an archetypal Guardian man. Take a look at this:

The reasoned tone seems a deliberate attempt to take the high ground in the national debate. The statements of the English Catholic bishops in favour of civil partnership (as an alternative to gay marriage) contrasts very noticeably with the grumbling anathemata issuing from the Scottish and Irish churches on the subject.

When asked how to interpret the notorious Vatican description of homosexuality as “a tendency towards an objective moral evil”, Nichols gave me a carefully prepared talk on the roots of Catholic philosophy. “This is a philosophical construct,” he said.

In other words, he was (and good for him) wriggling out of supporting the teachings of the Magisterium. Now, since we are dependent on Andrew Brown’s account of their conversation, I don’t know if he was or not. And neither, I suspect, does Andrew Brown, who is about as qualified to write in an authoritative way about the Catholic Church and its teachings as a eunuch is qualified to talk about the meaning of marriage. But I am disturbed that it is possible for a Catholic bishop to be reported so favourably on the assumption that he is prepared to argue in a way which distances the English Church from the Pope and his teachings.