Pope makes waves in Westminster
By Jerome Taylor and Simon Caldwell
Conservative candidates tipped as Benedict attempts to stamp his authority on Roman Catholic Church
Pope Benedict XVI will appoint a new leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales this week, sources at the Vatican have said.
The identity of the successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as the next Archbishop of Westminster is being kept secret – but it could be announced as early as today.
Insiders say the Vatican is likely to pursue one of two possible options. The first would be to appoint someone from within the Church's current hierarchy, a centre-right bishop with a more conservative outlook than Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, but someone who can nonetheless appeal to liberals.
The second – and much more controversial – option would be to appoint a little known conservative from outside the current hierarchy; one who could reform the Church along radically orthodox lines and break up the liberal consensus among the English bishops. If the Vatican appoints a traditionalist outsider, it would be a clear indication that Pope Benedict aims to install conservative prelates in the traditionally liberal bishoprics of western Europe.
Until recently, speculation as to who would succeed Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, 76, centred on Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Birmingham, Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Cardiff, and Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham. But, in recent weeks, a number of radical outsiders are thought to have been considered by the Congregation for Bishops, the Vatican body responsible for the appointment of new bishops.
The man tipped as the leading outsider is Father Allan White, a little-known Oxford University-educated Dominican monk. Father White, who is in his 50s and comes from London, was formerly the head of the Dominican order in Britain and now serves as assistant to the order's Master General in Rome.
He has a reputation as a persuasive preacher and is "very orthodox", according to one priest close to Rome. "They [the Vatican] want their own man in Westminster," the priest said.
If appointed, Father White would be the second monk since the Reformation to occupy the most senior position in the English and Welsh Church. He would follow in the footsteps of Cardinal Basil Hume, an obscure Benedictine monk who was appointed to Westminster in 1976 against the expectations of the English bishops.
Other potential successors from beyond the mainstream hierarchy include Dom Aidan Bellenger, the Abbot of Downside Benedictine monastery, and Bernard Longley, an auxiliary Bishop of Westminster who holds strong evangelical views.
Since his election to the Papacy in April 2005, Pope Benedict has taken the Roman Catholic Church in a much more theologically conservative direction than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
But recent high appointments suggest the Vatican currently favours assigning bishops with a conservative track record, rather than introducing radical outsiders. John Allen, a Vatican commentator, has described these preferred candidates as "centre-right with a human face". Last month, the Pope made Timothy Dolan, formerly the Archbishop of Milwaukee, the Archbishop of New York, the most prominent position in the American Catholic Church. A theological orthodox who is close to the Pope, Archbishop Dolan is an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage, but has an easy demeanour and is good with the press.
Gerry Noel, a former editor of The Catholic Herald newspaper and a close friend of Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, said: "Most people believe that Vincent Nichols is the obvious frontrunner. He's an extremely experienced administrator and is very good at dealing with both the everyday questions and the more controversial issues, such as reports of abuse."
Archbishop Nichols, 64, is extremely popular within his diocese and has won support from Rome with his campaign to have Cardinal Newman, Britain's most famous Catholic convert, canonised. Mr Noel believes that a cleric like Archbishop Nichols would avoid alienating Britain's comparatively liberal Catholics while simultaneously appealing to conservatives in the Vatican.
"I think what most British Catholics want is a middle-of- the-road man, someone who will work with up-to-date principles and support the reforms of the Second Vatican Council," he said. "They want an open-minded bishop who will continue a good relationship with the Anglican Church."
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor will retire to a six-bedroom house in Chiswick, west London, once his successor is consecrated archbishop. He will continue to sit on Vatican committees and until he is 80 can vote in a conclave to choose the next Pope. His successor is unlikely to be made a cardinal for at least three years.
As long as the Vatican approves, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor also looks set to become the first Catholic Bishop to sit in the House of Lords since the 16th century. Last month, Gordon Brown confirmed the Cardinal's elevation to the Lords would be discussed at a later date. But his ennoblement would require consent from Rome, as clergy are generally banned from occupying any political office.
Archbishop of Westminster: The favourites
*Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham
Nichols, a football-mad 64-year-old, was passed over by the Vatican last time around, largely because Rome considered him too liberal. Since then, he has emerged as a more orthodox defender of the Church, regularly appearing on TV to answer criticism of clerical paedophile abuse, as well as supporting adoption agencies that refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Some suggest he is the obvious front-runner but he is not the bookies favourite.
*Peter Smith, Archbishop of Cardiff
Formerly the bookies' favourite, Battersea-born Smith was the Papal nuncio's first choice but many in the Vatican may regard him as being too liberal. Pope John Paul II made Smith the Bishop of East Anglia in 1995. The 65-year-old was sent to Cardiff in 2001 following the resignation of his predecessor amid a controversy about paedophile priests in the archdiocese. He is widely thought to have done a good job there.
*Malcolm McMahon, Bishop of Nottingham
A left-wing Dominican in favour of the Latin Mass, McMahon was recently summoned to Rome and, alongside Smith and Nichols, is thought to be one of the three names on the "terna" list drawn up for the Papal nuncio. Courted controversy last year when he suggested there was no doctrinal reason why Catholic priests should not marry. In January Paddy Power suspended betting on McMahon after a surge of late bets.