Basil Hume: The Monk Cardinal

Howard, Anthony
Headline (2005)
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As you would expect from such a distinct political commentator as Anthony Howard, his account of the life of Cardinal Basil Hume enjoys all the advantages of his craft: the facts are marshalled; the sources are cited; the outlines are clear and the analysis is clean. Yet, not unnaturally, it suffers from the associated disadvantages: Hume is treated as might be a bright, middle ranking politician, say Damian Green or Hilary Benn with undue attention to 'climbing'; hindsight is more often invoked than surprise; and Howard shies away from any discussion of the monk's spirituality.

The general theory which Howard shares with many contemporary commentators is that Hume was a breath of spiritually frank fresh air after the highly political Cardinal Heenan who sustained in Westminster the alliance he had forged in Liverpool with Harold Wilson. It would, then, have been natural for Howard to look at Hume's impact on the English Christian community as a whole but instead he stays largely in Westminster where it can be seen that Hume was not particularly successful. In a wider context, too, Hume's careful liberal instincts were stifled as Popes Paul VI and John Paul II neutered the reforms of the Second Vatican Council with the gentle ruthlessness unique to the papacy since the ottoman overthrow of Byzantium.

Hume suffered from the same ecclesiological paradox which gripped the Church of England in the second half of the 20th century, an increasingly self-conscious spiritual leadership presiding over catastrophic numerical decline. Reflecting the surreal indifference of his Vatican superiors, Hume apparently had no strategy for stemming, let alone reversing, the trend and thus came to be admired for what he was rather than what he did, a sure warning for Archbishop Rowan.

For all its faults this is a thorough and instructive biography which describes a highly engaging man who wore his dignity lightly and never abandoned, in his head at least, the cloister for the court.