Oxford Blue, Roman Purple
Almost inevitably, a man — Rev Fr Dr William Theodore Heard MA (Oxon), PhD, DD, JCD (all the Greg, all summa cum laude) — could not for long escape the call to Rome. Although possessed of such manifest talents, for a priest happy and fulfilled in his lot, serving in a parish and among people whom he clearly loved, and happily doing the job for which he had been ordained, it was perhaps not so much a “call”, more of an unwanted summons. Either way, in Rome, on September 30, 1927, Pope Pius XI named him a domestic prelate with the title and style of the Right Reverend Monsignor and on the following day, October 1, 1927, appointed him as an uditore di Rota, an auditor, that is judge, of the Sacred Roman Rota Appeals Tribunal.
The vacancy on the Tribunal for an Enlish language auditor had come about as the result of the death in Darlington after a long illness of Mgr John Prior, the English Dean of the Sacred Roman Rota, a former vice-Rector of the Beda College, Rome (who had worked with Mgr, later Cardinal, Merry del Val on preparing the Bull Apostilicae Curae for Pope Leo XIII in which Anglican orders were decreed to be “absolutely null and utterly void”). The Church authorities in Rome, according to Cardinal Heard’s obituarist, “looked around for some distinguished jurist from the British Empire” to replace Mgr Prior. However, language alone would not have been the only consideration. And, after appointment, because of the way that judges are allotted cases there could have been no question of his being responsible solely, or even mainly, with appeals from the English-speaking world.
The Rota’s working language, of course, was Latin, but witness statements and evidence might even in those days have been given or presented originally in other languages. Mgr Heard was fluent in English, obviously, Latin, Italian and French. It was the recollection of Cardinal Winning (who inspired my essay), who knew Cardinal Heard well, that there were also another couple of languages he would have been able to get by in, but he was not sure which. Post-Vatican II, or to be more precise post-1967, dioceses were allowed to present documents to the Vatican in the vernacular. Cardinal Heard was a member of the commission of three cardinals appointed by Pope Paul VI, in response to the earnest entreaties of the Council Fathers, to investigate the workings of the curia and to propose reforms which would make the Vatican more accessible to, and more responsive to, the world-wide, universal Church. His Eminence was a party to this recommendation on the use of the vernacular. However, in 1927, when he was appointed to the Rota, although auditors and advocates conducted their business in Latin, lay witnesses were not required to be fluent in its use.
Mgr Heard was well known within the Catholic Church in England at that time for three reasons. Many younger priests knew him as a result of his having acted as Confessor to the students of the Venerabile; he would also have been known within the Diocese of Southwark and further afield through his work on the Diocesan Court; and of course he would have stood out because of his triple doctorates in canon law, divinity and philosophy. And that Rowing Blue, making it four. The Southwark Diocesan Court, with such expertise at its disposal in the body of one person, must have been the envy of every other Bishop in the country. But that notwithstanding, how did he come to the notice of the Vatican authorities? Obviously the English hierarchy would have been eager to advance the cause of one of their own (albeit he was a proud Scotsman) when Mgr Prior died and a vacancy arose in the Rota, but there was more to it than that.
The Times of Monday, November 15, 1926, in its “Telegrams in brief” column on page 13 carried a small item which was to precipitate a great storm of controversy. And the Rev Fr Dr William Theodore Heard, Officialis of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Southwark, was right in the eye of that storm. The item read:
“Reuter’s Rome correspondent says that the Sacred Roman Rota has confirmed the decree of the Diocesan Court of Southwark annulling the marriage of the Duke of Marlborough with Miss Consuela Vanderbilt.”
On the following day, Tuesday, November 16, on page 14, The Times carried a report from Reuters, New York, under the banner headline “U.S. BISHOP’S CRITICISM OF ANNULMENT” which read:
“New York, Nov.15. The report that the Sacred Roman Rota had confirmed the decree of the Diocesan Court of Southwark annulling the Duke of Marlborough’s first marriage to Miss Consuela Vanderbilt was described as ‘amazing and incredible’ by Bishop Manning in the course of a sermon yesterday.
Speaking as the Bishop of the diocese in which the marriage originally took place, Dr Manning declared that the action of the Roman Catholic Church in this case was most serious, and likely to have far-reaching consequences. The Bishop added: ‘One of the ways in which our witness for Christ is called for to-day is in regard to the sacredness and permanence of marriage.’
Dr Manning, who is Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, is one of the leading High Churchmen of the Episcopal denomination, and is well known for his leaning towards Rome. Reuter”
On Friday, November 26, The Times reported further on Bishop Manning’s fury. From Reuters’s New York bureau:
“In the course of a Thanksgiving sermon in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, Bishop Manning, Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, again criticized the Roman Catholic Church for its annulment of the Marlborough-Vanderbilt marriage as an ‘unwarranted intrusion and impertinence’.”
If the working man on the upper deck of the Clapham omnibus had little or nothing to say on the matter, the readers of The Times had plenty. Over the weeks following the announcement of the confirmation by the Sacred Roman Rota of the decree of nullity, To the Editor of The Times became an oft-used phrase as pen was put furiously to paper.
Naturally enough, while the Episcopalians were on the one hand incandescent with rage at Roman interference in an Anglican marriage, or, more correctly, an American Protestant Episcopalian one, the Catholics on the other were quite content that the Church had done no wrong. After all, firstly, it was hardly the Church’s fault that it had never been a canonically valid marriage in the first place and, secondly, the Church only became involved when one of the parties to the marriage contract wished to convert to Rome and so sought to regularise her position. It could be argued that the Church in fact paid the American Protestant Episcopalian hierarchy a compliment by treating the matter as if the original marriage ceremony had been carried out by a cleric in good standing with Rome, one whose claim to holy orders was unimpeachable. This almost certainly would not have happened had the case come before the Rota only a few years earlier.
It is clear that the Rota were suitably impressed by Fr Heard’s handling of the whole matter. Even more lustre must have been added to his reputation with both his English superiors and Rome when the following appeared on page 15 of The Times dated February 2, 1927:
The Duke of Marlborough
The Duke of Marlborough was received into the Roman Catholic Church in the chapel of Archbishop’s House Westminster by the Reverend CC Martindale SJ at noon yesterday. The Duchess of Marlborough, the Countess of Abington, Lady Gwendeline Spencer-Churchill, and Lord Lovat were present. Cardinal Bourne received the Duke and Duchess immediately afterwards and gave them his blessing.
And so it was that Mgr Heard came to take up residence once more in the Venerabile, although only temporarily until such time as he could establish his own apartment in the city. It is not known whether any students remained in the English College, in whatever capacity, who had been there when, as an ordained postgraduate student, Theodore Heard had functioned as confessor prior to his return to England in 1921. However, even if there were none, he nonetheless received a rousing welcome from both staff and students when the Rector, Mgr Arthur Hindsley, who would later become Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, officially welcomed him back to the College.