Catholic Bishops in England and Wales take on secularism
The Catholic Church in England and Wales is moving into political high gear. On Wednesday last week Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor hosted a meeting of 25 Catholic MPs in preparation for the forthcoming parliamentary battle over the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill – provoking the ire of secularists. “The church is at it again,” complained one commentator, “trying to interfere in the laws and government of this secular state.”
(In fact, the British state is not secular. Unlike the US, there is no formal separation of Church and State, and Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords. Constitutionally, Britain is Christian. But leave that aside.)
The Archbishop of Westminster’s move, notes The Times, “signals a shift towards a more outspoken political role for the Church.” Journalists have spotted the difference between this and the Cardinal’s unsuccessful attempt earlier this year to win an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies from anti-discrimination legislation. He failed, on that occasion, in part because MPs and his Anglican counterpart, the Archbishop of Canterbury, were not lined up to back him. He seems to have learned the lessons. Gathering a cabal of Catholic politicians looks like good old-fashioned professional lobbying.
I can’t help recalling a previous era, with many parallels to our own – that of the late nineteenth century, when Catholic Unions were formed in parliaments across Europe to combat secularist legislation and to stand up for Catholic rights.
Then, as now, the Catholic Church was accused of “imposing” its will on Parliament, and Catholic politicians were smeared as Vatican lackeys.
But now as then, this kind of concerted Catholic action is a response to the state overreaching itself. Rather than treat the fertilisation and embryology bill as a matter of conscience, the Government is saying they will “whip” the bill – meaning that the ruling party’s MPs have to follow its line. This could have particularly dramatic consequences for Ruth Kelly, the Opus Dei supernumerary who serves in the Cabinet as Transport Secretary. According to senior ministers quoted by The Times: “This is a government bill and Ruth will have to vote for it if she wishes to stay in the Government.”
When Governments force politicians to choose between their loyalty to their party and their consciences, democracy is in trouble. Beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues – abortion, death penalty and euthanasia - have traditionally been put to free votes. The current round of legislation, which includes the right of lesbians to be registered as natural parents to their in-vitro offspring, is in the same category.
Catholics sometimes describe as “secularist” opinions they disagree with. But as a political ideology, secularism is specific. It means that the state arrogates the right to decide on matters related to family and the origins of life. These are areas which in Catholic social teaching lie beyond the reach of the state.
Britain is sliding into secularism, which is why the Church has to respond. It is not the Church which is attempting to impose its views on society; it is the state attempting to impose a new definition of the family.