Maurice Noël Léon Couve de Murville

It seemed that wherever he went, he would have been more at ease somewhere else. Even the tranquility of his childhood, passed in an idyllic part of Surrey, was a channel away from the grave of his mother who died during his infancy in Saint-Germain-en-Leye. His father had brought the seven-year-old Maurice Noël Léon Couve de Murville (1929-2007) to England to begin a new life, but the old life was always backstage; after the youth left school at Downside and graduated from Cambridge University, he returned to his homeland and studied for the priesthood at Saint-Sulpice and the Institut Catholique.  
In Paris began a friendship with Jean-Marie Lustiger, whom he outlived by just three months. The Parisian intellectual climate in the 1950s had not yet become soporific, and Couve — as he was universally known — brought back the enthusiasm of the worker-priest movement and neo-Thomism when he returned to Surrey for ordination in 1957.

His independent spirit was not happy being a curate in his first assignment, nor was his pastor happy having one. Three years later he was moved to Brighton, where eventually he combined parish work with a chaplaincy at the new University of Sussex. Ever the historian, he took an advanced degree in Assyro-Babylonian studies, and had finished translating a history of the Church in China just before he died. For five years, starting in 1977, he thrived as Catholic chaplain at Cambridge. This was his métier, and the cheerful affability with which he made solid doctrine a benevolent contagion converted and re-converted many, as in the golden years of Ronald Knox at "the other place."

The accessibility and wit that undergraduates liked in him contrasted with the intimidating grandeur imputed to him by many fellow priests. Gallican noblesse was not entirely an illusion. This scion of an old French Mauritian family was named for his cousin, who was foreign minister and prime minister under Charles de Gaulle. He could be oblivious to the impression he made when using phrases like "in school, chaps of my class only played cricket." Other clerics may have detected more in his demeanor than was there, but the perception of aloofness hardened when Couve became archbishop of Birmingham in 1982.

His visits to Oxford, which was in his archdiocese, would cause a flurry as he arranged every detail for receptions. Once he decreed that we would have Pimm’s Cup, assigning me to slice the lemons as he humbly mixed the drinks in the kitchen, while wearing zucchetto and feriola. What friends would have called panache, critics called hauteur, and Couve was not without critics for a noble reason: He was rare among the English bishops in his example of confident evangelical orthodoxy in the mold of John Paul II.


Convert Anglican clergymen and their families found in him an expansive welcome uncommon among many Catholic prelates who were bewildered by so many who wanted to board their ship, for some of these bishops gave the impression of confusing the Barque of Peter with an unfortunate White Star liner. Meetings of the bishops’ conference were not his Nirvana. To the bemusement of men who had made peace with a cynical secularism, he was proud of the Faith as only a really humble man dares be. It was Couve’s paradox that he was looked down upon by those who thought him condescending.

Lush acres of his boyhood were not the best training ground for the perfect cultural storm that struck him as archbishop. But the contrast enabled him to see its brutality more clearly than progressivists who treated the Devil like a naughty child. The confluent winds in the storm were secularization supported by the state, theological chaos, and demoralization of the clergy made worse by sexual scandals. The latter was so beyond his comprehension that he admitted to making a muddle of discipline. A bout of cancer let him retire five years before the canonical age of 75, and he lived a dozen more years. Lasting legacies were his promotion of family life, which was "being battered . . . and aren’t we seeing the results of it!" and the creation of the Maryvale Institute as a college for training the laity to be orthodox catechists.

Charles de Gaulle said that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. Like Grand Charles, Grand Maurice knew that he was not indispensable, but as a Christian he knew he was unique.

Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviourin New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available through Crossroads Publishing.

Image: Eleanor Bentall

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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