Cardinal Vincent Nichols ranks well below the Queen in terms of whom Britons consider to be the most convincing of moral leaders, according to a YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times. In fact, between Her Majesty in first place and the cardinal, in fifteenth, came the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Malala Yousafzai, Archbishop
Justin Welby, David Cameron and Nigel Farage. Nichols was on a par with Labour leader Ed Miliband but behind David Beckham and Judi Dench.
Catholics who think their bishops should be held in higher esteem than secular and other religious figures may have been surprised that Cardinal Nichols ranked below the Queen – not to mention the other 13. (Surely a sign of how self-referential Catholic discourses on authentic morality have become.) His comments on welfare reform garnered support from a small constituency, while he has won successes on human trafficking and business social responsibility. But this seems not to have been enough to win him more public recognition. Did his ranking represent a failure to perform with the same kind of success to which Pope Francis has made us accustomed?
The question itself of course is misjudged, because the Queen plays in a league of her own. Some years ago the Number 10 Strategy Unit, reviewing polling and other data on the Royal Family, was struck at how wide her personal popularity ran. It cut right across social class and geography in a fashion that the Catholic Church could only dream of.
There is also something deeply convincing about the example of a monarch who has raised a daughter who champions carers and an eldest son who defends disadvantaged young people; who has lost one daughter-in-law to divorce and another in a road accident; has worried about her husband’s health but is still able to smile at the wedding of her grandson and the arrival of a great-grandson. Her consistent example provides an impressive counter-point to the more vacuous varieties of morality marketed to us.
By comparison, Cardinal Nichols has not been in the job long, nor walks with as compelling a backstory. Indeed, a more thoughtful reaction to the YouGov poll might have been to note how well Cardinal Nichols fared in it. After all, in many European surveys the Church comes in as among the least trusted of institutions.
But perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from the Queen all the same. The Royal Household, for example, appoints intensely able staff. As well as being a centre of protocol it is a hive of groundbreaking charitable and philanthropic initiative. It is fully global in outlook while being deeply rooted in every county. The Queen speaks on issues where she is perceived to have authority, and communicates creatively.
The question for the cardinal and his team, then, is not whether we, or he, should feel slighted by his being ranked fifteenth, but more, how all Catholics in England and Wales might relate to a sceptical public.
Francis Davis is an Honorary Professor of Religion, Communities and Public Policy at the University of Birmingham