30 December 2014, The Tablet

The Catholic Church has much to learn from the Queen

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

What do you think?


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User comments (9)

Comment by: Francis Davis
Posted: 06/01/2015 23:12:00

I do make the point that the Palace appoints top talent to support its work. I'm sure there is a cost implication. But also that the Queen comments where she has clear authority.

So if you wanted to declare all out war on welfare reform - as Cardinal Nichols did - when the country supports it you'd need to spend a good deal more wouldn't you?

Comment by: Marion (Mael Muire)
Posted: 06/01/2015 13:27:57

Very interesting article. I do wish Professor Davis had included some statistics about the size, professional background, and annual budget of the public relations departments of Buckingham Palace compared with that of Cardinal Nichols.

I wouldn't know as I am only an American, but it wouldn't surprise me if the measurable difference between the two proved to be in the ballpark of 15:1.

Comment by: Catholic father
Posted: 05/01/2015 14:18:48

Archbishop Nichols comes across as a man who likes to say things which will go down well with a slightly left-wing Guardian reading constituency.

He seems however to avoid clarity when speaking on many moral issues to do with marriage and sexuality. He shows apparently little inclination to suffer for the truth on these issues. He may say rather more out of the public eye, of course, but certainly his public pronouncements seldom pack any punch.

It is hardly surprising that many Catholics do not have a high regard for him as a moral leader.

Comment by: mamamia
Posted: 01/01/2015 14:05:31

It is hard to justify the necessity in religious terms for a Cardinal appointment to the Church in England & Wales, so such an appointment must surely be a political one. There can be no correlation between the Queen as Head of State (political title without authority) or Head of the Anglican (religious title without authority). The CC cannot ever be regarded as political, but can given religious leadership to those who are. As she has no personal input to either of her titles, she consequently has no responsibility either.

Bishops of the CC should get involved with the grass roots instead of staying aloof in their ecclesiastical palaces while laymen and women do the donkey work. They are given their titles to show leadership which, unfortunately few have the personal faith and fortitude to do. Until such a time comes the native population of the CC in England & Wales is doomed.

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 31/12/2014 18:59:01

This article pre-supposes that there is any real interest in Christianity in this country. I am genuinely surprised that in a poll of this type, those questioned would even know who Cardinal Nichols was.
The article could also have mentioned the general paucity of ambition in any nation that views the Duchess of Cambridge a moral guide. It might have been more revealing to ask what those questioned understood "moral authority" to mean.

Comment by: Jim Scott
Posted: 31/12/2014 18:56:08

The final 13 words of this article make a lot of sense.

Comment by: secular franciscan order
Posted: 31/12/2014 10:51:25

Yes indeed. Queen Elizabeth Regina II is just unbeatable. She is clever, funny, witty all at the same time. Transparent and serious minded. No nonsense type. But can be extremely mellow and pampering to her grandkids as any granny is One of a kind. The British are lucky to have here.

Comment by: Francis
Posted: 30/12/2014 17:35:25

The moral credibility of the Catholic hierarchy evaporated after the child abuse scandals and it will take years for it to be restored. It is no surprise that the cardinal is 15th in the list. Perhaps the cardinal would have been higher in the poll if, for example, he had given a truly Christian response to the government's proposal for gay marriage, in a similar vein to that of the Anglican Area Bishop of Buckingham, Dr. Wilson, whose video I have just watched. Instead, the hierarchy chose to incite homophobic attitudes in the church by flooding parishes with postcards to send to their members of parliament, opposing the measure, the cardinal and Archbishop Smith obviously not caring about the feelings of gay members in the church, and the gay community at large, so long as it earned them brownie points in the Vatican. I suspect that such negativity from a church leader is not attractive to the general public who have a better understanding of human sexuality, are more caring and more Christ-like.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 30/12/2014 15:48:38

Interesting analysis. Cardinal Nichols works with his fellow archbishops and bishops in a collegial way which places each in a significant leadership role in his own area. I have been especially pleased in recent years to see Archbishops Smith and Longley making impactful statements on English matters. I have no doubt that we will hear a lot more from Archbishops Stack and McMahon in the years ahead.

YouGov Polls usually cover the whole of Britain and our Catholic Church has its own separate hierarchy in Scotland.

Archbishop Welby has a much wider responsibility than Church of England in England and is seen by many in Britain as their Christian spokesperson as witnessed by BBC and other media over the Christmas period, when even his absence was noted.

My message to "the cardinal and his team" is well done and keep up the good work.

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