Interview with John Cardinal Heenan (1966)

I found this interview fascinating because it gives us an insight into the mindset of a Cardinal who was known to be on the more conservative side. While the ideas expressed in this interview are more on the popular side some of the Cardinal’s comments are intriguing. I sense a certain uneasiness with the disastrous results of the Council while not seeing that any of it could have possibly been due to the Council texts.

In this interview he talks about the priesthood, authority, the Pope, the Council, conversion of the English people, and the relationship with the Anglican church.

Another point – This interview was given before Muggeridge’s conversion to the Catholic faith.

The English Cardinal
BBC-1, 21 April 1966, directed by Kevin Billington
A personal view of John Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster
(Taken from Muggeridge: Through the Microphone; BBC Radio and Television, Edited by Christopher Ralling, Fontana Books, London, 1969, pp. 141-149)

In back numbers of Punch funny bishops and curates abound. Similarly in novels of clerical life, like Trollope’s Barchester Towers. But there are no funny Cardinals. The traditional English scene just doesn’t seem to accommodate them. Yet Cardinals indubitably exist. Witness John Carmel Heenan, our only extant specimen; Archbishop of Westminster, and head of the Roman Catholic Church in England; the English Cardinal.

Muggeridge: I always feel that almost the only reason that I’d like to become a Cardinal would be to be waited on by nuns.

Cardinal: I think you’d make a very good Cardinal as a matter of fact.

Muggeridge: I doubt it strongly. Not a Cardinal, perhaps a bishop.

Cardinal: Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Muggeridge: I always like lunching on Fridays because we don’t have meat.

Cardinal: You’re not getting any fish, by the way, you’re getting an omelette.

Muggeridge: No, no, it’s very nice. This would be part of the Catholic life that I would find least difficult. I suppose it dates from a time when eating meat was a tremendously important thing.

Cardinal: Well, you know what they say. They say that it was an example of the Jewish instinct of the twelve Apostles; they were all fishermen, and they decided that if they made a rule about fish on Fridays, it would be good business. But I don’t think that’s a theological doctrine.

Muggeridge: How powerful is a Cardinal today?

Cardinal: How powerful? It really depends on what you mean by power.

Muggeridge: But aren’t you the boss of the bishops?

Cardinal: The boss of the bishops? No, the Pope is.

Muggeridge: But he’s your boss?

Cardinal: The Pope is my boss, but he’s also the boss of all the bishops. The Pope deals directly with the bishops, not through me necessarily.

Muggeridge: He can go over your head as it were?

Cardinal: Well, yes. I wouldn’t think of it in that way.

Muggeridge: No. But the thing is that of course the Church does indulge in the sort of magnificence and outward show which one associates with worldly power.

Cardinal: When you’re taking part in ritual, as I do very often, it is burdensome rather than self-glorifying.

Muggeridge: You mean you personally don’t like it too much?

Cardinal: Well, no, and also you’ve got to wear the robes. The same as the poor Queen when she wears the crown and the royal robes. I’m sure she’s most uncomfortable but nevertheless she knows that by doing this she gives a certain satisfaction to her people.

Muggeridge: To me, at any rate, such emulation of the trappings of earthly authority would seem to have a certain danger.

Cardinal: This outward panoply and foolishness that you are thinking of, this has its uses, because even sticking a chain round a man’s neck and calling him mayor of Wigan – I don’t mean that with any disrespect to Wigan, of course – but putting a chain round a man’s neck marks him out as chief citizen. If he’s not a fool he doesn’t really think he’s the brightest and best and best and most intelligent man in that particular town. Nevertheless, that chain of office shows him to be what he is; it’s a sign – a badge of his office. Incidentally, I’ve got a chain on too, with a Cross, and I always envy a Mayor his chain, because at the end of the year he can just take it off and go off on his own, but this thing will be with me until I’m in the coffin in the Cathedral…
Cardinal Heenan’s own origin and background – Irish extraction, lower middle class – have been no impediment to his elevation to his present eminence. Indeed, these antecedents become the Roman Catholic Church in England better than, say, a seat in the House of Lords. A large proportion of the English Roman Catholic Church’s four million or so members are Irish, or of Irish extraction. There is a small admixture of aristocrats from the old English Catholic families and a few notable intellectual camp followers. But in the main English Roman Catholics tend to be artisans and poor. This may partly account for the continuing appeal of a glittering liturgy and ceremonial: the poor needs dreams of magnificence to compensate for the bareness of their lives. Only Quakers are rich enough to worship austerely.
Muggeridge: How about your role as proselytizer?

Cardinal: I loathe that word.

Muggeridge: Presumably you want more people to become Roman Catholics?

Cardinal: Yes. I want everybody to.

Muggeridge: Therefore you are a sort of missionary.

Cardinal: I object to the word proselytizer because it sounds like something very underhand, some poison, some snaky movement by which you’re trying to drag people from the truth and indoctrinate them….No, you wouldn’t call Christ a proselytizer; a preacher perhaps. We call the Apostles –

Muggeridge: Evangelists.

Cardinal: Evangelists, men who have the message, which they believe to be truth, and want to spread it everywhere. Now there’s nothing strange about that, because even if you happened to have discovered a cough cure and it really works, and you take this thing, this drug or injection, all winter, and never have a cold, you know well that you cannot stop telling your friends about it. If you’re a good man and you possess a good thing, you want to share it. There’s an old philosophical saying, Bonum est diffusivum sui. You’ll know this, of course, but for the sake of my colleagues on the bench I will translate. It means that goodness diffuses itself, spreads itself, it can’t help it, just as heat can’t help expanding, warmth glows. In this kind of way a person who possesses the faith wants to spread it, want his warmth to go out to others. Now that’s no problem to me. Is it a problem to you?

Muggeridge: No, not a problem at all.

Cardinal: But this is what you’ve got to remember. Although we don’t use the word because it’s an offensive kind of word to use, this country’s full of pagans, this country’s full of people who know as little about God as the so-called heathens that you mentioned.

Muggeridge: Since you would hold that your Church in certain respects has the message uniquely, you would presumably wish good Anglicans also to join it.

Cardinal: Well naturally; after all this country was once a completely Catholic country, as you know. It would be lovely if once again it would be a completely Catholic country, from my point of view. Whereas, as you know, others would say, ‘Oh no, just a moment, it was once a Catholic country, but the corruption of Rome spread, and it has to be cured by a complete revival and renewal, and then the old Catholic faith was restored and Romanism dissipated.’ That’s another point of view – not, as it happens, mine.

Muggeridge: I didn’t think it was. Anyway, the point is that presumably, in so far as you would in the long run hope to bring back the Anglican church into the fold, into the Roman Catholic fold, that would mean that you were a missionary in relation to them also; that even the Archbishop of Canterbury, say, is a target.

Cardinal: Well, target is hardly the word.

Muggeridge: How do you get along with him, incidentally?

Cardinal: He’s a very great friend of mine; I’m very fond of him, and of his wife too.

Muggeridge: Do you argue with him when you’re there?

Cardinal: I don’t think we argue in the sense of having controversy. It’s clear that as the Chief Bishop of the Church, the Anglican Church in this country and throughout the world, it’s hardly likely that when I go to Lambeth I would go with a whole bundle of tracts in my pocket and say, ‘Look, I must explain to you about Papal Infallibility.’ Of course not. Our conversation is on a very different level, and I don’t think he ever seriously tries to persuade me of the errors of Rome or offer me a job as his assistant or auxiliary bishop in Canterbury. No, we don’t do that. But if you ask me, I don’t want to appear in any way insincere. I do agree that my greatest desire would be to have all Englishmen Catholics again.

Muggeridge: And those little churches and cathedrals that used to be Catholic – all their bells would be ringing.
In Rome, of course, bells of Catholic churches have been ringing longer and more loudly than anywhere else. In Rome, the centre of Christianity since its beginning some 2,000 years ago, Cardinal Heenan’s position is both magnified and reduced – magnified because he is part of a universal church rather than head of a minority communion – reduced because he is one Cardinal among many instead of the unique specimen. There are many Cardinals but only one Pope.

The Ecumenical Council, somewhat impulsively called by Pope Paul’s predecessor, Pope John, has been inescapably confronted with some of the most explosive dilemmas of our time. The twentieth century, it would seem, has broken into one of the last and most powerful citadels holding out against its incursions. Yet, in the eyes of an outsider like myself, this seems more of a lavishly mounted spectacular than a solemn act of worship.

These Cardinals and Bishops – such extraordinary and diverse old faces! Such a variety of races and nationalities! These are the appointed custodians of the rock on which, in their estimation, the whole structure of Christendom has been founded. None more so than Cardinal Heenan. He has been educated, brought up, trained for that very purpose. He looks around on a world full of doubt and uncertainty and rejoices the more in his own certainties. Then the scene changes, the authority that’s everything seems to be wavering. The rock itself is shaken. Basic concepts like original sin lose their fine definition. Is it possible that concupiscence, fortified by the birth pill, is after all permissible? Can it be Lady Chatterley approaching the altar rails?

Rome is for Cardinal Heenan almost as much home territory as London or Liverpool. He was a student at the English College and the Georgian University here. Yet I should not say myself that he seems more at home than he does in St James’s Park. All unusual men, I have noticed, give an impression of being strangers in a strange land; only mediocrities easily acclimatize themselves to their mortality. Yet it is, of course, impossible really to get inside someone else’s skin, least of all a demolition man inside a custodian’s. Yet one can, without presumption, sense in Cardinal Heenan the strain and even the anguish of seeing cherished beliefs under attack. Not just from without – that’s taken for granted, that’s what martyrdom, which he has been taught to believe is a Christian’s highest destiny, is about – but from within the Church itself.
Cardinal: You’ve got to be quite mature before you realize what being a priest involves, particularly in the question of celibacy, giving up the right to a family and so on, and it’s at that time, I think that the crisis comes with most people. These young men realize, they might be 20, 19, 21, anything, but they’ll be quite mature and they will then say, ‘Now, for the first time I realize that this really does mean a lonely life.’ You’re not feeling miserable because you’re alone, but you’re a man apart.

The relationship between a Catholic priest and his people is something you’ve got to experience to understand, they call me Father and that’s a term of tremendous affection. Now that Fatherhood I find enormously attractive and uplifting, but the shouting and the kissing, that means very little indeed.

Muggeridge: What do people want from their religion?

Cardinal: It’s the unchanging teaching of the Church which answers the deepest appeal, I think, in the heart of the people.

Muggeridge: What is that unchanging teaching, in a word?

Cardinal: In a word, if you want a word – authority.

Muggeridge: Authority, whose authority?

Cardinal: The authority of the Church, made known through the Pope and through the Council.

Muggeridge: Contrasting with that, when you’re standing at the altar…?

Cardinal: Now that’s quite different. When I’m standing at the altar, I am there representing Christ. When I offer the Mass, I don’t say, ‘This is the Body of Christ,’ I say, ‘This is my Body,’ because I, John Heenan, don’t exist. That’s why the vestments are there to disguise my personality. I am standing there a mediator, as one representing Christ. That’s quite different; there I am the Church, so to speak.

Muggeridge: This is the difficult thing to understand.

Cardinal: Of course, of course.

Muggeridge: I mean, how do you feel, when you’re doing it?

Cardinal: Well, I’ve been a priest for thirty-five years, and I’ve offered Mass every day.

Muggeridge: For thirty-five years.

Cardinal: Yes, and sometimes more than once a day. Now there’s an old saying, an old Latin saw, – Ab ssuetis non fit passio – a thing you’re used to doesn’t affect you, and so, obviously, I don’t feel emotionally now as I did the day I put on vestments for the first time, and offered my first Mass as a young priest. I don’t feel the same but perhaps I treasure the Mass even more; the Mass means more to me now after thirty-five years of celebration daily, than it did then. But how to describe that and how to show that that should be so is very difficult.

Muggeridge: Does it add to your worries when you think that by and large people are falling away from the Christian religion?

Cardinal: Of course, of course. I don’t use the word worry, because I don’t worry about these things. It’s God’s business, you know. If they’re falling away from religion, they’re falling away from Him.

Muggeridge: But you wouldn’t feel that it’s because you’re being inadequate?

Cardinal: Yes, yes.

Muggeridge: Do you, when you wake up in the night, think that…

Cardinal: How do you know I wake up in the night?

Muggeridge: I’m sure you’re a fellow-insomniac. I can spot them. When you wake up, would it be a bad thing that would worry you to think to yourself, ‘Well, are we really making a great mistake’?

Cardinal: No, I don’t. On this, no. I have no doubts whatsoever.

Muggeridge: You would regard yourself as being a person who held, on the whole, for tradition?

Cardinal: Well yes, I would say that every Catholic really at heart values the tradition. You can’t be a Catholic without holding for tradition. We’re the one thing in a changing world that’s solid. We’re the thing that people can reach for.

Muggeridge: But you are going to go on being as solid as you have been?

Cardinal: I hope so. Of course we are. Rome is the centre of Christianity. This pace is still the centre, and that’s not because of that material building. Because, you see, this city of Rome could be taken over by the communists tomorrow, or next year. But even if materially we abandoned Rome, the spiritual centre of the Church is the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, and, as you know, there have been Popes that have never seen Rome. At one time there were no less than three people claiming to be the Pope. There was vice in this Vatican. This was a centre of vice from time to time, the Borgia Popes and so on, and therefore we are sometimes inclined to think that this was the most wicked of all ages, but in fact, in many ways, it’s the best of all ages. And you asked some time ago where I stood, and was I against progress. The answer is no. But obviously when you get people emotionally charges and determined to broaden the view, there are going to be excesses, they’re going to exaggerate, they’re going to get it wrong, and some of us have got to stand quite firm and say, ‘Yes, I love this wide open view, but we mustn’t for a moment forget truth, we mustn’t pretend that truth doesn’t matter.

I put myself these questions about Cardinal Heenan: A hard man? I shouldn’t say so; severe, perhaps, though even that more in outward appearance than inward temperament. Severe certainly with himself. An ambitious man? Yes, but only in the sense of wanting to fulfill to the uttermost his priestly functions. An intolerant man? Undoubtedly with, for instance, the uncertainties and hesitancies of intellectuals. A narrow man? In a way, yes. An evangelist through and through, wrapped up in pastoral duties and responsibilities, wholly concerned with propagating the Faith, of which he has a clear, but possibly over-simplified version. A good man? Who can tell? Lacking some elements of greatness, like a wide vision and the imaginative gifts to project it, but possessing others, like clarity, sincerity and an all-absorbing passion to carry out God’s will; underneath the surface confidence, a touching and true humility which I have glimpsed from time to time. A great and formidable priest, anyway, for the mid-twentieth century.

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