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Basil Hume

Basil Hume

The archbishop of Westminster from 1976 to his death, Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999) sought to increase tolerance and understanding between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths.

As archbishop during the last quarter of the twentieth-century, Cardinal Basil Hume presided over one of the most turbulent periods of Catholicism in British history since the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther all but abolished the practice of Catholicism in England in the 16th century. From his office, Hume dealt with such issues as the declining in the number of practicing British Catholics, as well as abortion, female priests, birth control, homosexuality, the continued violence in Northern Ireland, the plight of the homeless, and married clergy. During his tenure as leader of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, Hume displayed a dislike for dogmatic observance of Vatican pronouncements. Rather than actively protest, however, Hume chose a more diplomatic approach, encouraging tolerance, diversity, and a liberal understanding of the Roman Catholic faith rather than rigid adherence. Among the views he held in conflict with Rome were the acceptance of homosexuals into the Church, the ordination of female priests, and the abandonment of the vows of chastity required of Catholic clergy. While advocating reform within the Church, however, he also supported the tenets of modernism enumerated by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s that freed priests to celebrate the Catholic Mass in their native languages rather than in Latin. He also upheld the Church's refusal to recognize homosexual marriages. Hume was instrumental also in opening dialogues between British Catholics and British of other faiths. His diplomacy especially was noted when he worked with Pope John Paul II to allow married Anglican clergy unhappy with the Church of England's decision to ordain female priests to become Roman Catholic priests. Hume's efforts to modernize the Catholic Church were appreciated by many, although he also had his detractors. Citing Hume's quiet dissent against the Vatican as a factor weakening the Catholic Church in England, the cardinal's detractors pointed to the dramatically falling numbers of professed practicing Catholics in England as evidence of the failure of his more relaxed approach and proof that its members appreciate the structure of the traditional Church.

From Birth to the Benedictines to Westminster

Hume was born George Haliburton Hume in 1923. His father was a Protestant heart surgeon from Scotland, and his mother was a Roman Catholic from France. The couple met in France, where Hume's father was stationed during World War I. Raised as a Catholic by his mother, Hume decided to become a monk when he was 11 years old. Two years later he took the name Basil upon entering the Order of St. Benedict, and, in 1945, took the vows of a monk. At age 18 Hume was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. From the early 1950s to 1963, he coached secondary school rugby and was head of the modern languages department at Benedictine-run Ampleforth College. In 1963 he was named abbot of the monastery.

In 1976 Hume was named by the Vatican to replace Cardinal Heenan as archbishop of Westminster, traditionally the highest Catholic office held in the United Kingdom. The announcement surprised many, as an Irish clergyman traditionally occupied the post. In 1976 Hume was elevated to cardinal. He served on several Vatican-appointed committees, including as president of the Bishops's Conference of England and Wales, as chairman of the Benedictine Ecumenical Commission, and as president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences. When he attempted to resign in the 1990s, Pope John Paul II refused his resignation, and Hume carried out the duties of his office until his death in 1999 from cancer two weeks after receiving the Order of Merit from Queen Elizabeth II. Called a "personal gift of the queen," the distinction is limited to only 26 living people, and represented the first instance of a Catholic receiving the honor.

Viewed as England's Spiritual Leader

Hume was perceived as the man largely responsible for creating an active spiritual dialogue with the Anglican Church, the most influential church in England. His popularity endeared him to Catholics and Anglicans alike, and through his efforts Hume was able to create a truly ecumenical conversation among all faiths, Jews and other Protestant faiths included. In his first act as archbishop of Westminster, Hume led Benedictine monks in singing Vespers at the Anglican Westminster Abbey for the first time since the Protestant Reformation. Among the many homilies he delivered as part of the Catholic Common Ground initiative was one titled "One in Christ: Unity and Diversity in the Church Today." He also urged acceptance of non-Catholic Christians who wished to partake of such Catholic sacraments as the Eucharist, reconciliation, and the anointing of the sick. These efforts caused Hume to be considered the spiritual leader of England despite the fact that the official Church of England is the Anglican Church.

Through Hume's efforts, the Catholic Church gained acceptance as a native church for the first time since Henry VIII established the Anglican church as a means to secure personal ends. The Penal Laws put in place during Henry's reign, which were repealed in the early 1960s, had continued to inspire prejudicial behavior against British Catholics through the 1970s. Hume's stance did much to end such prejudice. For his many supporters, however, Hume also had his detractors. Such staunch Roman Catholics as Auberon Waugh considered Hume a "profoundly silly man," while Free Presbyterian minister Reverend Neil Ross echoed traditional Reformation attitudes in declaring that the only destination for a man answering to the Vatican in Rome is hell.

Hume supported an open debate over the policies of the Catholic Church, telling the National Catholic Reporter: "I ask myself whether it is even sensible to stifle debate in the church. … I am constantly being urged to suppress this group or that, drive out of the church this lot or that. I do not believe this is right. I believe that as a bishop I have to try to lead people from where they are to where they never dreamt they might go." On matters of sexuality, he often demurred by explaining that he had no direct experience with the subject. He famously put off a television host's questions about a priest's vow of celibacy when asked how Hume would react if a physically attractive woman were to enter the room. Hume responded that he was married to the Church, then asked the married host how he'd respond under similar circumstances. On homosexuality, Hume wrote a paper in 1993 urging homosexuals against feeling "a sense of guilt and … think[ing] of themselves as unpleasing to God. On the contrary, they are precious to God." He also interceded on behalf of social and economic injustice, arguing for the release of reputed Irish Republican Army terrorists imprisoned on circumstantial evidence; persuading the Thai government to release a British woman suspected of drug smuggling; and visiting Ethiopia during the 1985 famine and lobbying European nations to send increased assistance. In 1986 he joined Pope John Paul II at a gathering of world religious leaders at Assisi to pray for world peace. In his later years, he concerned himself with such issues as human rights, homelessness, and nuclear disarmament. He also organized seminars on business and moral standards in the former European communist-bloc nations, the arms race, and debt-relief for impoverished third-world countries.


Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 1997.

New Catholic Encyclopedia: The Wojtyla Years, Catholic University of America, 2000.


Christian Century, July 10, 1999.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), June 22, 1999; June 26, 1999; July 14-21, 1999.

Financial Times, June 19, 1999.

Guardian, June 21, 1999.

Independent, January 20, 2000.

Irish Times, July 3, 1999; August 4, 1999.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999; July 16, 1999.

New Statesman & Society, September 20, 1996.

New York Times, June 18, 1999.

Publishers Weekly, February 21, 2000; November 27, 2000;August 13, 2001.

Spectator, July 3, 1999. □

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