Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent From The Times
The Pope has been forced to intervene in a damaging power struggle over who will become the next spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Pope Benedict XVI will decide next week who should succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor as Archbishop of Westminster. It is possible that he will shun all five candidates vying for the post and impose a Vatican diplomat instead.
The highly unusual move is the result of his advisers’ failure to reach a consensus on the best candidate.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales is riven by splits and opponents of at least two of the candidates have lobbied the Vatican in an attempt to sabotage the candidates’ hopes.
Some senior insiders say that the Church is in crisis and the wrong choice of Archbishop could cause it severe damage. The need for decision is urgent as Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is retiring soon and next week begins a series of farewell Masses to congregations around his diocese.
The five candidates to succeed him are the Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols; the Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith; the Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon; the Bishop of Leeds, Arthur Roche; and Bishop Bernard Longley, an auxiliary in the Westminster diocese.
If the Pope, who is currently touring Africa, decides that none the men meets the criteria, he may chose a relative unknown for the post.
The Times has learnt that the most likely candidate in that event is Archbishop Paul Gallagher, a Vatican diplomat and priest in the Archdiocese of Liverpool.
The Pope has previously appointed Vatican diplomats to dioceses in the United States after his advisers were unable to agree on one of the original candidates.
Last month Archbishop Gallagher was appointed Nuncio in Guatemala, before which he was Nuncio in Burundi. He is known for his skilled diplomacy and courage. Last April his diplomatic residence in Burundi was bombed. He was out of the country at the time but the attack did not stop him returning to his post.
However, the Vatican may wish to keep his talent in the diplomatic service and in a part of the world where the Church is growing fastest.
The lobbying for and against the official candidates has been fierce. One bishop has written to the Nuncio to argue against Archbishop Nichols, saying that he would be a divisive choice, while it is understood that the Pope has taken telephone calls from opponents of Bishop Roche, with several lobbyists claiming that Bishop Roche would be as divisive a figure as Archbishop Nichols.
Bishop Roche emerged as one of the strongest contenders after Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor visited Rome and lobbied hard on his behalf.
He is a conservative pastor who has done his best to reorganise his diocese to cope with declining Catholic populations in Bradford and Leeds, but he has left some parishioners upset by church closures.
He had been ruled out of the running initially and was not even on the first terna, or list of names, because he had been earmarked for a senior post in liturgy at the Congregation for Divine Worship at the Holy See.
However, his appointment to the congregation has been put on hold and the post he was supposed to have taken left open, so that he will be free to succeed Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor if the Pope chooses him.
Bishop McMahon, a conservative also supported by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, had been a favourite until his chances were damaged by reports of his backing for married clergy.
Bishop Longley is being touted by bloggers in Rome as the current favourite.
Archbishop Smith, who chairs the Catholic Truth Society and is an expert on the media, is another candidate from the conservative wing. He was ruled out by a majority on the Congregation for Bishops, whose job is to chose new archbishops, but his name is still going forward because it was on the original list.
The last time the Roman Catholic Church in England in Wales was thrown into such a crisis was when the Archdiocese of Westminster became vacant in 1976. The favourite, Derek Worlock, lost out to Cardinal Basil Hume after opponents lobbied hard against his appointment. Cardinal Hume was not an obvious choice for Archbishop as he had no experience running a diocese. He was also the first monk to hold the post since the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850.
The confusion has even affected the normally suave demeanour of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor himself. At the consecration yesterday of Bishop Canon Seamus Cunningham as new Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, the Cardinal began his concluding remarks with the phrase: “When I became Archbishop of Canterbury . . .”
In the race
Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham. The 63-year-old from Liverpool, served as an auxiliary in Westminster before moving to Birmingham. He impressed Rome by successfully challenging the Government’s plans to introduce quotas for faith schools. He is diligent and regarded as ambitious
Arthur Roche, Bishop of Leeds. The 59-year-old from Batley, West Yorkshire, was destined for a top liturgy post in the Vatican until the appointment was put on ice after the present Archbishop of Westminster lobbied hard on his behalf. He is loved by many but also has some well-placed opponents
Peter Smith, Archbishop of Cardiff. The 65-year-old from Battersea, South London, is a chain-smoker whose affability disguises a steely intellect. He was once a conservative and now seems to have upset some conservatives in South Wales. He had the backing of some in Rome and Westminster, but it was not enough to get the majority he needed at the Congregation for Bishops
Bernard Longley, auxiliary bishop in Westminster. The 53-year-old from Manchester is an unusual candidate in that he appears to have no enemies. The main mark against him is his lack of experience as a diocesan and that he is simply too nice. He is urbane, conservative and popular on the dinner party circuit
Malcolm McMahon, Bishop of Nottingham. The 59-year-old serves as an auxiliary to the Cardinal in the Westminster diocese. He is left-leaning and seemed a certainty until reports appeared in a national newspaper showing that he had supported married priests. Even so, the bookmaker Paddy Power suspended its Westminster stakes last month after a rush of bets
Paul Gallagher, Apostolic Nuncio in Guatemala. The dark horse of the race is a bright Vatican diplomat. He has all the skills urgently needed in an archdiocese desperate for gentle but strong leadership. He is not on the list of candidates and has not been considered by the Congregation for Bishops, but is well known in senior circles in the Holy See. His appointment could depend on whether the Pope believes his talents would serve the Church best in Westminster or in Latin America