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Roberts, Thomas d'Esterre


Archbishop of Bombay (193750), outspoken defender of the importance of personal conscience and intelligent obedience; b. March 7, 1893 in Le Havre, d. Feb. 28, 1976 in London. He was the son of a British consul descended from a line of French Huguenots. His father became a Catholic in 1900 and Thomas was educated at the Jesuit college in Liverpool. He entered the Society of Jesus Sept. 7, 1909 and was ordained to the priesthood Sept. 20, 1925. After teaching at Jesuit colleges at Preston and Beaumont, followed by a term as rector of St. Francis Xavier's College, Liverpool, he was appointed archbishop of Bombay in 1937, an appointment he first learned about from reading a local newspaper.

The See of Bombay at the time of his appointment had a long history of ecclesiastical divisions. The Portuguese, the original colonizers, had received from the Holy See the privileges of padroado protectorate, the government's right to approve ecclesiastical appointments. With Bombay under British rule, an agreement was reached that the archbishop would be alternately English and Portuguese. The sharp rivalries among the different factions within the archdiocese Abp. Roberts sought to overcome first, by personal diplomacy with the Portuguese government in Lisbon and then by reorganizing parish boundaries. He initiated a wide-ranging program of social services with particular emphasis on the needs of women, soldiers, and sailors. He also wrote a series of letters to children in the local newspaper that became an effective vehicle of instruction for young and old.

Above all, Abp. Roberts recognized that at a time of nationalistic aspirations for independence, the Church in Bombay should eventually be guided by an Indian archbishop. He pressed this view on the Holy See and, in 1946, an Indian, Valerian Gracias (later Cardinal), was appointed auxiliary. Bp. Gracias quickly assumed the day-to-day administration of the archdiocese as Abp. Roberts deliberately absented himself. When, in 1950, Bp. Gracias was officially named archbishop, Roberts returned to England.

In the next 25 years he became known as an unconventional churchman who labored indefatigably for such causes as disarmament and world peace, for a rethinking of Church teaching on artificial contraception, and for the rights of personal conscience. In 1954 he published Black PopesAuthority: Its Uses and Abuses, a small volume which attracted attention for its frank criticism of secular and ecclesiastical authoritarianism. He urged the need for "intelligent obedience," which he understood to be a characteristically Jesuit and Ignatian ideal. One of the most painful episodes in his life was his delation to Rome (1960) by the apostolic delegate for his views and public statements. Abp. Roberts, insisting that most of the charges were untrue, urged a full and impartial hearing. Although Pope John XXIII promised such a hearing, it never was held. Roberts was not satisfied with assurances that he had been vindicated simply because the matter had not been pursued. Instead, he contrasted the standards of fairness found in English Common Law with the secrecy of ecclesiastical procedures, where there was never reparation of the damage done to personal reputation.

Through the years of vatican council ii (196265), Abp. Roberts called for reform of the Roman curia. Although he never did speak in the formal sessions of the council (despite his request to do so), he became a popular figure at the press briefings outside of the formal sessions. He sought to have the council issue a strong condemnation of all nuclear weapons, to support the rights of conscientious objectors to war, and urged reexamination of the teaching on artificial contraception, since he was convinced that the absolute ban on all contraception imposed heavy burdens on many Catholic families. The last issue brought him into conflict with members of the English hierarchy, in particular, Cardinal John Heenan, in 1964. Abp. Roberts had admitted publicly that he simply could not understand the rational arguments for the prohibition of all artificial contraception, Cardinal Heenan defended the traditional ban and lamented the fact that the faithful were being misled by some of their shepherds. The establishment of a special commission by Pope Paul VI to study the question was seen by some as a vindication of the questions raised by Roberts. The encyclical humanae vitae, issued in 1968, however, reiterated the traditional teaching.

Although considered by some to be a "maverick bishop," Abp. Roberts was a man with a rare sense of the ridiculous and the absurd, and his sense of humor appealed even to those who disagreed with him. He was also a pastor of extraordinary warmth and sensitivity to human suffering, and many who came in contact with him through retreats in England and the United States, and also through personal counseling at the Jesuit residence in Farm Street in London, found him a great source of faith. In addition to Black Popes, he wrote a foreword to Nuclear Weapons and Christian Conscience (1961) and contributions to Problems of Authority (1962), Objections to Roman Catholicism (1963) and Contraception and Holiness (1963). His last book was The Diary of Bathsheba (1970).

Bibliography: d. a. hurn, Archbishop Roberts, SJHis Life and Writings (London 1966).

[j. a. o'hare]

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