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Austen IvereighFebruary 26, 2009

Might the shortly-to-retire Archbishop of Westminster sit in the House of Lords -- the first Catholic bishop since the Reformation to do so?

The question has been raised in The Tablet, which this week interviews the prime minister, Gordon Brown, and finds him open to the idea.

"So when the cardinal retires as Archbishop of Westminster would he consider putting him in the House of Lords?", is what the magazine’s editor, Catherine Pepinster, puts to the PM.

"Brown laughs, fiddles with his tie, and doesn’t rule it out. ’These are things to be discussed at a later stage’.

Reporting the Tablet interview, The Times adds certainty where doubt reigns: CARDINAL SET TO BE FIRST ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP IN THE LORDS SINCE 16TH CENTURY, is today’s headline. The Telegraph opts for a more cautious ’COULD BE MADE A LORD’.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor loves the idea. A life peerage, he thinks, would give him a platform with which to combat the shrinking of the Church’s voice in public life -- a central concern of his valedictory lecture last night, which offers an eagle’s view of the Church in Britain since the restoration of the hierarchy in the nineteenth century. (Read or watch here.)

And he would relish the further recognition of Catholicism by the British establishment which began under his predecessor, Cardinal Hume -- something that is very important to him. (He was thrilled to be nominated to join Claridge’s, one of London’s more exclusive clubs.)

And I’ve no doubt that Gordon Brown would like to nominate him. The two men get on well, and Brown sees the Cardinal as an ideological ally. In the Tablet interview, he heaps praise -- perhaps a little too insistently and anxiously -- on the Cardinal and the Church for their pursuit of global solidarity.

The PM badly needs to recapture Catholic sympathies lost by laws crushing Catholic adoption agencies and allowing for animal-human hybrid embryos. To be the first British prime minister to nominate a Catholic bishop to the Lords would give a high return on a small political investment. It is thought Gordon Brown discussed the matter with the Pope when he met him in Rome last week. 

But what of the obstacles in canon law -- notably c. 285/2: "Clerics are forbidden to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power"? According to my Commentary, this is an absolute prohibition on being "a member of Parliament, minister, judge, or to hold any other office endowed with civil authority".

But it is arguable that a seat in the Lords is not "political office" per se. A member of the House of Lords is a member of Parliament, but not of the executive, law-making chamber. And it could be argued that the defence of the Church and its rights are at stake -- an exception that c. 287 allows for. And we are talking here of a retired bishop, so there would be no conflict between ecclesiastical and civil office.

No one doubts that if the Pope were happy with the idea he could grant a dispensation, and the canonists would prop it up.

What of British constitutional obstacles? There aren’t any, because the Cardinal would not be one of the 26 "Lords Spiritual" -- seats reserved to Anglican bishops by virtue of the establishment of the Church of England -- but an individual alongside prominent Methodists, Jews, Muslims, etc. It would be the person, not the office, that merited the title.

And yet ...

There would be great confusion of clerical and lay, which is what c. 285/2 seeks to avoid. There are Catholics already in the Lords. Alhough they bring the voice of Catholics into the second chamber, they do not represent the Catholic Church: that task is reserved to bishops. But a Lord Cardinal pronouncing on some issue or other -- for whom is he speaking? On his own behalf, or that of the Church?

That may not matter. The Cardinal is not one given to broadsides. And his lecture last night was oddly downbeat, eschewing the opportunity which a final lecture brings to sound warnings and stir consciences. (It was barely reported today.)

But it would still be a voice in danger of eclipsing that of the new Archbishop of Westminster, who will not get a red hat until Cardinal Cormac reaches 80 in four years’ time. The potential for speaking with more than one voice would be so much greater.  

My bet is that a decision has not been made - and will not be until the new Archbishop of Westminster is announced in mid-March. (The Cardinal’s valedictory Mass is on 25 March; his successor’s installation will be on 23 April). The new man’s view may turn out to be the most important. If he says his predecessor should be content with a red hat and does not also need an ermine robe, it’s hard to imagine the Pope disagreeing.

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14 years 10 months ago
I think that it would be a great mistake for the Cardinal to accept a peerage, even if one were offered. The main problems are not canonical. Having a Catholic bishop in the House of Lords sends all the wrong signals. I think it also risks serious harm both to the Catholic Church and to the Common Good. It fails to represent the role of the bishop as spiritual and pastoral leader of his flock and not as a civil legislator. It would also fail to represent the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the dignity and the role of the laity in political life. It would also complicate the lives of Catholic members in the House and make it harder to negotiate controversial legislation. It could easily be a lightning rod for enemies of the Church. Furthermore the presence of a retired bishop in the Lords would be a distraction in the relationship between the current Archbishop of Westminster and the government of the day. The Catholic Church in the United Kingdom has benefited from being a little at arms length from the establishment and this should not be surrended without very good reason.
15 years ago
Leaving aside other considerations, I wouldn't do it unless it became convention that every retired Archbishop of Westminster becomes a life peer. Otherwise, it leaves the PM in judgment of the witness of the Archbishop, as to whether or not a particular Archbishop of Westminster gets the nod.

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