We cannot set up a rival good to God’s

Following the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has spoken several times publicly of his perspective on the Synod. His first contribution was an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme, in which he made clear that he did not support the paragraph in the Synod’s concluding report on homosexuality, because it did not go far enough in expressing the need to “respect, welcome and value” homosexuals. The second contribution was a press conference on Tuesday 21 October; and the third was a pastoral letter this past Sunday (26 October) to the faithful of Westminster archdiocese.

Let us look at these second of these contributions.

In the press conference, Cardinal Nichols gave a chronological description of the Synod’s proceedings. He made a number of interesting observations.

He noted “anger” among African bishops at how foreign governments make acceptance of abortion and contraception a pre-condition of receiving aid. The cardinal said that the African bishops condemned this as “blackmail” and were determined “to keep their pro-life values”.

The cardinal reported that many Synod Fathers felt that the Synod’s controversial mid-way report “wasn’t balanced, because it didn’t also present a vision of the teaching of the Church and a vision of the goodness of marriage; and there was a broad view that it was careless in its use of language at some points.”

The Synod’s working groups therefore called for the Synod’s concluding report to contain “a trumpet-call in support of marriage and family” and “a systematic presentation of the Church’s teaching”.

Cardinal Nichols claimed that his thinking on the question of second ‘marriages’ had developed and deepened during the Synod. He said he now understood the idea of a ‘penitential journey’ for those in so-called ‘second marriages’,  that a broken sacramental marriage “remains a source of grace” for ‘remarried’ persons “as they carry on making the best of their lives with all sincerity and integrity”.

It is in the latter comments during the press conference that Cardinal Nichols started to sail into very dubious waters.

One of the journalists (named Andrew) put the following question to the cardinal:

“You were talking earlier about the first marriage remaining as a source of grace even to people making the best of their lives, but I take it from this that you assume that the second marriage is making the best of their lives, or can be sometimes.”

Cardinal Nichols responded:

“I think you will find in paragraphs in this report from the Synod precisely that conviction. You get it in paragraph 25, you will find that expressed. If I can try and translate it for you from the Italian:

‘The Church looks with love upon those who participate in Her life in an incomplete way, recognising that the grace of God is at work in their lives, giving them courage to live a good life, to take a loving care the one for the other, and to be in generous service of the communities in which they live and work.’

So there’s quite an explicit statement that we recognise the grace of God present in their lives.”

The journalist responded:

“To put it another way, we’ve come a long way from Brideshead Revisited.”

Cardinal Nichols replied:

(chuckling) “Thank you Andrew, yeah, yeah, yeah. So that’s the kind of paragraph which catches up, and develops actually, the interim report quite well.”

Brideshead Revisited is the famous novel of Evelyn Waugh, the Catholic writer, who himself had experienced divorce and a ‘second’ marriage, albeit a valid one following the Church’s granting of an annulment of the ‘first’ marriage. In the novel, Lady Julia Flyte, a Catholic going through divorce proceedings, decides not to marry her lover, Captain Charles Ryder, an agnostic who is also going through divorce proceedings. Lady Julia eventually takes to heart her brother’s accusation that she is “living in sin” with Ryder, and recognises that to ‘marry’ him would be “to set up a rival good to God’s”.

This is a most Catholic insight into the divine law of marriage, taught by Christ in the Gospels and taught infallibly by the Church down the ages.

One would be surprised if Cardinal Nichols did not understand fully the journalist’s reference to Brideshead Revisited, perhaps the most famous Catholic novel of the 20th century. It was published in 1945, the year of the cardinal’s birth. He studied for the priesthood in Rome during the Second Vatican Council, of which Waugh was a public critic. Waugh died in 1966, the year after the end of the Council and half-way through Vincent Nichol’s priestly education. As a specialist in Catholic education since the early 1970s, one assumes that Cardinal Nichols would be well aware of the keen interest which many young Catholics have shown over the decades in the novel. And that is not to mention the huge popularity of the 1981 television adaptation.

Those who have observed Cardinal Nichols closely over many years have noted his tendency to switch between statements of orthodoxy and statements giving succour to liberal agendas, such as those made during the press conference. This is a very grave matter for the faithful of England and Wales as the Church starts preparing for next year’s Ordinary Synod on the Family. May St Thomas More and St John Fisher protect us!

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