Bishops in Labo(u)r

As John Major’s government staggered this autumn from one self-imposed disaster to another, with opinion polls suggesting a severe Conservative defeat at the next general election, a variety of interest groups have been subtly positioning themselves for life under a Labour government. A number of leading businessmen, who earned or increased their fortunes under pro-enterprise Tory policies, have cynically shifted their financial support to Tony Blair’s “New Labour” Party.

There also have been a suspicious number of politically motivated leaks of important documents— including an unprecedented leak of most of the chancellor of the exchequer’s budget—by the civil service, whose senior members are increasingly convinced that in just a few months they will be answering to Labour ministers. But perhaps the most unlikely repositioning is that of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, whose recent public statement entitled “The Common Good” was almost universally seen as an unsubtle exhortation to Catholics to vote Labour.

This is the first foray of the English Catholic hierarchy into territory already well-trodden by their American equivalents. The document disingenuously disclaims political partisanship. But its first paragraph, caricaturing Conservatism and capitalism—and quoting without attribution a much-distorted remark of Margaret Thatcher’s—gives the game away:

Can managers treat employees any way they like? Is the law of the jungle the right one for human beings? Is there really “no such thing as society”? Does the secret of success in life have to be “each for himself and the devil take the hindmost”? Such questions worry almost everybody.

The worried bishops then proceed to denounce the free-market policies that have provided Britain with the lowest unemployment in Europe and to advocate—sometimes explicitly, sometimes in a code that even the most dimwit-ted journalist could grasp—more trade unionism, more controls on industry, more European integration, more redistribution of wealth, and more overseas aid. And just to ensure that Catholic voters were not put off voting Labour by a given candidate’s stand on abortion, the bishops explicitly discouraged “the making of a choice” of which candidate to support “solely on the basis of one policy alone.” The Catholic bishops in this way, and in one sentence, undermined all those courageous pro-life activists who have insisted that candidates take a public stand on abortion and face the full electoral consequences of doing so.

Not surprisingly, outside the ranks of the Labour Party and the Anglican church, the latter of which has consistently preached collectivism to the near exclusion of Christianity for the last twenty years, “The Common Good” was engulfed by a wave of criticism. And significantly the harshest of this came from Britain’s most distinguished Catholic journalists. The Daily Telegraph, edited by recent Catholic convert Charles Moore, strongly attacked both the document’s timing and content. Lord Rees-Mogg in The Times condemned the bishops’ muddling of matters of political opinion with absolute moral principle, concluding that “the Common Good is a serious error of episcopal judgment.” Paul Johnson in the Daily Mail attacked the “hypocrisy” of producing a “crypto-election manifesto [under the guise of] an exposition of Catholic social teaching.”

George Cardinal Hume, archbishop of Westminster, probably imagined that the storm among conservative- minded Catholics was dying down when his colleague, Thomas Cardinal Winning, the pastoral leader of Scotland’s Catholics, undiplomatically threw a different light on the relationship between Catholic doctrine and the political process. In a television interview Cardinal Winning witheringly denounced Labour leader Tony Blair’s attitude and voting record on abortion. He noted that Labour had been officially pro-abortion since 1985 and that pro-life activists had been prevented from having a stand at Labour’s Scottish Conference. He also described Blair’s Commons voting record on abortion as “very poor.” He had good reason to do so. The Labour leader, who claims to base his political philosophy on his Christian beliefs, describes himself as personally opposed to abortion, yet in Parliament he has supported pro-abortion measures on thirteen occasions and abstained fifteen times.

Blair’s aides, at a loss to know how to respond, suggested that the real aim of the cardinal’s remarks was to curry favor in Rome so as to enhance his chances of becoming pope. Blair himself sought shelter behind the statement that “he doesn’t think that as a legislator he should use the criminal law to outlaw decisions of agonizing complexity for women”—which drew even more ridicule.

The political effect of these controversies is unlikely to be great. For better or worse, Catholic voters will probably vote according to their economic interests, whatever these two cardinals say. The effects upon the Catholic Church, though, are likely to be more significant.

The first effect will be on the relationship between the bishops and the press. Hitherto the Catholic bishops have prudently steered clear of the political controversies that their Anglican brethren have relished. They have, as a result, generally escaped exposure to close media scrutiny. But the intrusion of the bishops of England and Wales into party politics—alongside recent sexual scandals—has let this genie irrevocably out of the bottle. They will regret that.

The second effect will be on the relationship between the bishops and the faithful. Lay Catholics will now have to engage in open debate with their own pastors, because those pastors have forsaken the reserve of their predecessors. Disloyal and dissenting Catholics have always, of course, been vocal, but orthodox Catholics in Britain soon will become so. This may prove particularly irritating for the bishops and their advisers, since, by contrast with the ’60s, the conservatives are now generally the more clever critics.

The third—less obvious but more significant—effect will be to sharpen the as yet muted debate about how the “conversion of England” (or more accurately Britain) should proceed. Should the Catholic Church try to ape the Church of England in preaching a politically correct social Christianity, or should she embark upon the vastly more challenging task of preaching the faith as it opposes the prevailing culture of death? In other words, compromise or confront? The question is pressing. For a century, the Church of England has provided the Catholic Church in Britain with a steady stream of defecting priests and lay converts. Moreover, Anglicanism, for all its fragility and superficiality, equipped most of the population with at least a rudimentary knowledge of Christian doctrine and values. It will not be in a position to do these things in the future.

This last matter requires a fundamental reassessment. The unpleasant (and unspoken) truth is that the Catholic Church in Britain today looks so structurally sound largely because she stands in contrast to the crumbling ruins of Anglicanism. Meanwhile, British society is being de-Christianized at a frightening rate, with no sign that the English Catholic bishops have begun to understand what is happening. It may take more than even the blunt-talking Cardinal Winning to wake them up.

  • Robin Harris

    Dr. Robin Harris (born 1952) is a British author and journalist. He has written for The Daily Telegraph and Prospect. He attained his undergraduate degree and doctorate in modern history from Exeter College, Oxford University. Harris was Director of the Conservative Research Department from 1985 to 1988 and a member of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit from 1989 to 1990. He helped draft the Conservative Party manifesto for the 1987 general election.

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