Secular liberals feign shock that Pope doesn’t subscribe to secular liberalism

Titus Oates of the National Secular Society is a very, very angry man. But then, isn’t he always? On the other hand, Ruthie Gledhill is over the moon, and well she should be as a religion correspondent, because it seems Pope Benedict only has to reiterate orthodox Catholic doctrine to generate a media shitstorm. Poor old Rowan Williams had to advocate the introduction of sharia law to get this kind of reaction.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen the kneejerk response from the English liberal left, who it seems only need to hear a word of Latin before the red mist descends and they go all seventeenth-century on us. There are lefty bloggers out there – naming no names – who I know to be decent, tolerant human beings as a rule, but whose line on Catholicism differs not a fierce amount from this guy. And some language being thrown about that, were it applied to another minority, could not inconceivably lead to collars being felt.

Let’s take the temperature down a little. We can usefully start by looking at what Benny said, rather than the spin the London media have put on it. To begin with, it’s important to remember that this was the public address marking the end of the five-day ad limina visit of the English and Welsh bishops, where they review the work of the last five years and map the way ahead. Usually such an address is a mixture of exhortation and backslapping; this one was notably short and blunt, with a remarkable shortage of backslapping. If this is what was said in public, one can only guess at what was said in private. (And that would be nothing compared to the rocket waiting for the Irish bishops when they get to Rome.)

The second thing you have to bear in mind is that, although the Pope sometimes directs remarks to secularists (he did this in the famous Subiaco Address just before his election), his main audience is closer to home, and most of what he says ties in to his project of revitalising Catholic identity. I hate to prick secularist egos – no, actually I don’t – but the Pope does not usually make speeches with the fragile sensibilities of Terry Sanderson or Evan Harris foremost in his mind. In an address to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the primary audience will be the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, and the secondary audience the Catholic clergy, religious and laity of England and Wales.

Finally, it is the Pope’s job to enunciate the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is an organic whole and not a pick ‘n’ mix. Although he is an authoritative figure, what he can actually say and do is constrained by both canon law and pre-existing Church teaching. For this reason you can’t have a liberal Pope – if B16 woke up tomorrow morning, had a rush of blood to the head and decided he wanted to reshape Catholic doctrine into a form acceptable to the Guardian and Channel 4 News, he wouldn’t be able to do it. (Which is why neither Catholic nor Orthodox Churches will ever ordain priestesses, no matter what Harriet Harman has to say on the matter.)

Right, so what was in the address? Emphases and interpolations are mine, of course.

Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.

This, in its entirety, is the controversial passage, and I’ll get back to it shortly. But you will notice that it is phrased vaguely and deliberately so. There is no specific reference to the Labour Party, Harriet Harman or the Equalities Bill; there is no specific reference to gay adoption; there’s actually no mention whatsoever of gay people in the entire address. The bishops will have known what specifically he meant, because it would have arisen from their discussions with him; but he’s more interested here in setting out a general framework.

I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended

If the full saving message of Christ is to be presented effectively and convincingly to the world, the Catholic community in your country needs to speak with a united voice. This requires not only you, the Bishops, but also priests, teachers, catechists, writers – in short all who are engaged in the task of communicating the Gospel – to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, who guides the whole Church into the truth, gathers her into unity and inspires her with missionary zeal.

This is more important in terms of internal Catholic politics. The Pope is telling the English and Welsh hierarchy that their public interventions must be orthodox (they aren’t always), they must speak up strongly and convincingly (often they don’t) and that they must speak with a united voice (good luck with that). It backs up Vinnie Nichols’ leadership – Nichols is not part of the Eccleston Square mafia and, unusually in the English hierarchy, has taken the trouble to read and understand Ratzinger’s thought – but also sets out a benchmark for the Nichols regime. Vinnie may well be getting a red hat later in the year, so this matters for Church politics.

Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society. In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them…

This is a good summation of Benny’s view on the role of religion in the public sphere. He’s written and spoken on numerous occasions about the need to keep church and state from getting too closely entwined – to prevent either one becoming an arm of the other – but has no patience for the sort of liberal monism that seeks to exclude any religious voices from public debate.

Make it your concern, then, to draw on the considerable gifts of the lay faithful in England and Wales and see that they are equipped to hand on the faith to new generations comprehensively, accurately, and with a keen awareness that in so doing they are playing their part in the Church’s mission.

The idea of drawing on the gifts of the laity may well have sent a shiver through the bishops, some at least of whom regard the active laity with horror.

In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.

Indeed not. It’s easy to mock the “Stand Up For Vatican II” crowd, but there is a difference between the Magisterium of the Church on the one hand, and what some trendy liberal says is his personal interpretation of Catholicism on the other. The ideas of the trendy liberal may be more personally congenial to you or me, but that’s why old Joe is the Pope and we aren’t.

There’s some stuff in there about the example of Newman – B16 is a big Newman fan and a beatification is expected in September – before we get to this zinger:

I would ask you to be generous in implementing the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, so as to assist those groups of Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. I am convinced that, if given a warm and open-hearted welcome, such groups will be a blessing for the entire Church.

Benny needs to say this, because he knows there are some in the English hierarchy who regard Anglicanorum Coetibus as a big giant pain in the hole, and would not be inclined to be generous in its implementation. Bluntly, there are two ecumenical projects going on. The English hierarchy are committed to the ARCIC process of having pleasant cups of tea with Anglican bishops and pretending they don’t have serious disagreements; the Pope has a project of bringing traditionally-minded Christians into full communion with Rome where they aren’t already. B16 is supportive of the English hierarchy’s work; the converse is not necessarily true.

That’s an overview. Now, what of the three sentences that have got everyone so het up?

There is the reference to natural law, but the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of lex naturalis, which is barely understood outside of Catholic circles these days (and not very well in them), is a very wide-ranging area indeed, encompassing the broad sweep of Catholic moral and ethical thought. This needs explaining to people who see the phrase “natural law”, read it as “gays”, and then accuse the Pope of being obsessed with homosexuality (and equally to those who really do have a morbid obsession with homosexuality, and will cherrypick what seems congenial from Benny’s comments). The Church’s various peace and justice campaigns come under the natural law rubric; so does its developing teaching on the environment; and the threat of legal euthanasia is something that’s very much in the news. Sexual ethics come into this, surely, but they aren’t the sum total.

Let us now get onto the whole question of sexuality, and I want to have a little dialogue with this quite fair-minded piece from Dave Osler. I want to say at the outset that Catholic teaching on the matter is not the same as Protestant fundamentalist teaching of the Iris Robinson variety, which is based on cherrypicking quotes from Leviticus. The problem with the Catholic natural law approach is not that it’s irrational – if anything it’s too rational, in that it doesn’t lend itself easily to making exceptions for sexual minorities. And, even though things have moved forward in recent decades – see the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar or Angelo Scola on gender – Church teaching does remain within the same basic framework.

That said, I think Dave may be under a slight misapprehension, perhaps referring back to the sin of Onan, as to just how restrictive Catholic sexual ethics actually are. He may be surprised to learn, for instance, that oral or anal penetration are not proscribed as foreplay, just as long as they don’t substitute for the main event. And sex is not merely about procreation but is also about the oneness of the couple – this is why Ratzinger’s critique of libertinism is based on the idea that sex outside a loving relationship, purely for the purposes of physical gratification, is ultimately empty and not truly erotic. Having said that, openness to the possibility of procreation is still regarded as vital, which is why homosexual acts – which deny the possibility of procreation – fall foul of the lex naturalis concept.

Moving on from this, although Catholic teaching continues to described homosexual acts as “objectively disordered”, the relevant CDF documents modify this in a more tolerant direction by stating, for instance, that:

It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.

Which can lend itself to generous interpretation, such as the expansive and humane approach taken by the impeccably orthodox Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Québec in reaching out to those who have been hurt by the Church in the past. There is a further formal statement in the CDF documents condemning unjust discrimination against gay people, which is obviously open to interpretation. The possibility is allowed that discrimination in certain narrow areas – such as military recruitment, adoption services or the legal recognition of marriage – may be justified in terms of the common good, but also allows space for argument on these grounds.

Now, to the question of British politics. A lot of the problem comes down to the inherent problem in liberal rights theory that it’s never been satisfactorily worked out what you do when two sets of rights conflict. For a lot of the liberal left, this isn’t really a problem – the rights of gay people (our kind of people) should take precedence over those of Catholics (not our sort of people). This, incidentally, is not only the position of gay advocacy groups – which is entirely justified from their point of view – but was actually written into law by New Labour on the introduction of the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

Now, my view is that you have to work out a modus vivendi, and I like Dave’s quip that:

Common sense alone dictates that the League Against Cruel Sports has no duty to be an equal opportunities employer in respect of illegal cock fighting aficionados. If you apply to be a Conservative parliamentary candidate and then inform the selection meeting that you are an anarcho-syndicalist, you do not have grounds subsequently to bring a discrimination case.

Peter Tatchell – a man with whom I usually agree on much – has been widely quoted taking the Pope to task on this one. But my guess is that he wouldn’t hire an overt homophobe for an admin job at OutRage!

By the same token, if you want to work for the Catholic Church, your potential bosses might reasonably expect you to uphold the teachings of Catholicism.

I largely agree with this, but then I’m a pluralist rather than a liberal. There’s a sort of illiberal liberalism in Anglophone political culture that I really don’t like – the sort of liberal monism that the late Francis Canavan criticised, with its view that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the job lot of liberal nostrums should have to shut up, in the name of liberalism. I think a lot of it goes back to Locke, whose appeal for religious toleration was specifically on behalf of the nonconforming Protestant sects, and who opposed toleration for Catholicism on the grounds that you couldn’t tolerate the intolerant. (If you think you hear echoes of Geert Wilders, you are not far wrong. British politics was dominated for over 300 years by the Catholic Problem, and the present-day Muslim Problem is old wine in new bottles.)

You start out with basic liberal good intentions, but if liberals don’t get a grip on their busybody instincts, you end up with a situation like you had in Holland back in 2005 when the Dutch courts tried to ban state funding to the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, a small Calvinist political party, on the grounds that it refused to allow women to become members of the party, and indeed had done since it was founded in 1918. (The court case eventually failed, but the SGP was cajoled into changing its membership rules.) The liberal who states that “there is no right to be reactionary” is a liberal with no sense of irony. The well-intentioned busybodying of New Labour around moral issues is not distinguished by much irony.

Whatever misgivings the Catholic bishops may have on the matter, the gay adoption battle has been fought and lost. But it was a battle that never needed to be fought in the first place. Removing the legal bar on gay adoption was the right thing to do, but the actual number of gay adoptions is so small that, taken in conjunction with the Catholic adoption agencies only catering for a smallish minority of children, the religious opt-out could easily have been left in place without infringing in the slightest on the access of gay couples to the many other agencies in the field. (And, whisper it, it wasn’t entirely unknown for the Catholic agencies to place children with a gay person who would adopt as the sole parent, leaving the partner out of the formal process – the sticking point was the insistence that they formally place children with gay couples.) Now, the Catholic adoption agencies have either ceased to offer adoption services, or have adopted a New Labour-approved gay-friendly policy and pretend to have nothing to do with Catholicism.

You’ve got a similar thing with the Equalities Bill – a blockbuster piece of legislation aiming to solve everything from homophobic hate crimes to equal pay to boys’ educational underachievement – although the usually lackadaisical C of E are doing the heavy lifting on that one. The substance of the argument is a bit abstruse, with Lady Harman insisting that the status quo will remain (much to the chagrin of the militant secularists of the NSS variety, who have a disturbing relish for the state bossing religious people about), while Church lawyers are warning that some loose wording could bog them down in litigation for years to come. But that is by the by.

Is it the case that, for instance, the ranks of teachers at Catholic schools contain remarried divorcees, people cohabiting with unmarried partners and (yes) active homosexuals? Yes, much as it may shock some of the crustier Catholic Herald readers, there are loads of them. Effectively, this is dealt with by a policy which Bill Clinton might dub “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the gay teacher can hold down a job at the Catholic primary, but she may be best advised not to go dancing on a float at Pride. Sure, there’s hypocrisy built in, but it’s a system that works reasonably well. It might be a reasonable expectation of someone working in a faith-based organisation that they not go around publicly flouting the ethos of that faith.

The thing that most bothers your Catholic in the street, as opposed to the bureaucrat in the CES, is the perception of an aggressive anti-religious bent in New Labour, and this is something that goes way beyond whether gay adoption could have been handled better. You have, for example, Mary Honeyball MEP declaiming on how the Labour Party shouldn’t allow Catholics to hold ministerial office if they actually believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church. You had Alan Johnson’s abortive plan to force faith schools to take a quota of pupils from non-religious families. You’ve had Barry Sheerman MP saying that faith schools are tolerable as long as they don’t take the faith bit very seriously. Now we have one Stephen Hughes, an MEP for the North East I’m told, who is making a bid for the Nancy Pelosi/Patrick Kennedy “I’m a Catholic, and as such I disagree with everything the Church says” franchise.

You know, it is open to Gordon Brown, or Jack Straw, or Dougie Alexander at any time to state that these are not the views of the Labour Party. But they’ve been reluctant to do so for some unaccountable reason. The majority of Catholics in Britain are Labour voters, and this doesn’t go unnoticed. If a message is going out that the Labour Party doesn’t want your support – well, it’s just as well nobody on the Tory or Lib Dem benches (the SNP is another matter) can make a convincing pitch, or you may well be tempted to take your custom elsewhere.


  1. Reuben said,

    February 3, 2010 at 3:14 am

    A fantastic article. Thank you.

  2. Chris H said,

    February 3, 2010 at 8:47 am

    A well written and though out post there I have to say.

    The church, and especially the Catholic church do seem to slip between the lines of ‘tolerance’ that many on the liberal side espouse, and I think it would do many on the left no harm to actually look at how the big players in the Christian world, the Catholic and Orthodox churches operate. They aren’t democracies and an understanding of how they have evolved and developed their theological worldview wouldn’t go amiss.

    I would love to be a fly on the wall at the meeting with the English and Welsh bishops. I don’t believe they are welcoming of such a high profile visit.

  3. skidmarx said,

    February 3, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Well your views on this don’t seem subject to much change.

    But they’ve been reluctant to do so for some unaccountable reason. The majority of Catholics in Britain are Labour voters, and this doesn’t go unnoticed.
    Because reasonable points are being made, and it is the strength of the Church and the lead it gives to Catholic voters that such things have not been pushed further earlier.

    It might be a reasonable expectation of someone working in a faith-based organisation that they not go around publicly flouting the ethos of that faith.
    Ot that someone living in the twenty-first century should not risk losing their job because of a lifestyle that harms noone, especially if the institution they work for is state-funded.
    it’s a system that works reasonably well.
    For employers who can choose to threaten their employees at their own convenience.
    Which is why neither Catholic nor Orthodox Churches will ever ordain priestesses
    the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, a small Calvinist political party,was cajoled into changing its membership rules.

    Are Calvinists that much more subject to change?

    Odd to suggest that the Pope’s objection to equalities legislaton isn’t at all abot gays when that keeps being the issue in practice. And shold we accept the argument that it’s wrong to object to the BNP’s whites-only policies if we wouldn’t accept Nick Griffin as an Equality Tsar?

    • Gregor said,

      February 4, 2010 at 3:58 pm

      ‘Are Calvinists that much more subject to change?’

      Yes. They have female ministers. And their different sects have been expanding and dividing for several centuries.

  4. Harrods said,

    February 3, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Splinty, surely the immediate issue is not gay adoption but whether Christian employers have the right to exclude openly gay people from lay posts in Christian organisations?

    This was the subject of litigation previously in 2004: The reason that unions took the issue to judicial review in 2004 was that we were concerned that a very large number of employers have a partly Christian ethos (eg some new universities that originated as Christian teaching colleges in the ninteteenth century, but are now to all intents and purposes almost entirely secular). Essentially, the unions won round one.

    The odd thing is that the churches are using the Equality Bill as an attempt to reopen a question which had been settled in 2004. One reason may be that statute can distinguish easily between people like priests, for whom a religious body should indeed be able to appoint whoever it likes and non-priests. But it can only distinguish very hazily between people like administrators at Wherever College (over whom the churches should in reality have no say at all) and administrators in a church diocese (where the arguments are more finely balanced).

    Of course whatever Parliament comes up with, the laws are European in origin, and it might not be that difficult to unpick whatever compromise we get – see the remarks here, which I think are just about right:

    And on Osler’s Tatchell point: if a Christian who believed in Leviticus did apply for a job at Outrage as an administrator and would have been appointed but for their homophobia, that’s a cast iron case of direct discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, which the administrator would win (there is never a justification defence to direct discrimination claims). Her compensation however would just about pay for a few postage stamps…

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      February 3, 2010 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks for this on the legal aspect. I’ve had some experience from the union perspective of the tribunal system, but as ever the IANAL disclaimer comes in. All I can say about the current Bill is that the government says it won’t expose the churches to further litigation, but the C of E’s lawyers say otherwise. It will all depend on case law I suppose.

    • andy newman said,

      February 4, 2010 at 7:52 pm

      surely the immediate issue is not gay adoption but whether Christian employers have the right to exclude openly gay people from lay posts in Christian organisations?

      would Peter tatchell’s Outrage group employ an open homphobe in a admin position?

  5. Liam said,

    February 3, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Today’s Guardian is full of this knee jerk liberal intolerance. It becomes grating very quickly and as you say they would be a lot less willing to be quite so abusive towards other religions.

  6. Chris Williams said,

    February 3, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    “(If you think you hear echoes of Geert Wilders, you are not far wrong. British politics was dominated for over 300 years by the Catholic Problem, and the present-day Muslim Problem is old wine in new bottles.)”

    Aslo, substitute ‘Dutch’ for ‘British’ above and discuss.

    Sometimes, Splinty, I see you and me as mirror images of one another on this issue: there’s you, with your intimate knowledge of what Catholicism is, setting it up against what Secularism seems to be to you. So here’s me, with an intimate knowledge of what Secularism is, setting it up against what Catholicism seems to be to me.

    First, an aside. In any battle of actual knowledge vs press release, press release is always likely to come off worse. Worse yet, if one half of the argument merely consistst of the soundbite of the press release that the press choose to reprint. Rowan Williams is perhaps the only person in the public eye who can persuade the media to pay attention to a statement entitled ‘It’s a lot more complicated than that’ – and half the outlets are likely to interpret this “Archbish is confused”.

    Preamble over. From my point of view (BHA member, secretary of the oldest secular society on the planet) it’s a lot more complicated than that. New Labour are anything but anti-religion: they are pro-religion, embedding bishops in the Lords, rolling out increasing amounts of state funding to religious charities to do things that the state itself is reasonably good at, and above all, lowering the bar for entry to the religious school sector so low that the next step will be to hang around outside confirmation classes offering everyone who comes out £10million to run a new school.

    Established religions trade on their ‘good works’ to the community, failing to note that the vast majority of these (NHS Chaplains, anyone?) are funded by us. As the churches empty, the priests and ministers have moved into the committee-rooms and onto the payrolls.

    So from our point of view, we’re beleagured, and one of our targets is the Catholic Church, which I admit we don’t miss a chance to bash. We have rather a lot of other targets, and we have a go at all of them. Sure, NSS is rather keener to bash Islam in 14-point type than the BHA (it’s a Bradlaugh thing – you wouldn’t understand) but even the latter has pretty much the same position on separation of church and state.

    Can this square with your view of NuLab being anti religion? I think it does. What NL loves about religion is its power to institute confirmity and to deliver services cheap – its institutional stability. What it can’t cope with about religion is the fact that, tea and biscuits notwithstanding, it is not of this world, and it is not in fact entirely amenable* to a focus group and some nicely crafted political soundbites.

    It seems to me, therefore, that just as us Secularists are sometimes willing to pull the ‘amalgam technique’ tactic, and collapse NuLab and ‘religion’ into one, so are you. I think here that you need to separate out the ‘secular liberalism’ (which is neither secular nor liberal) of NuLab’s ‘modern thinking’, from the actually existing Secularist position, which is pretty consistently opposed to many key aspects of ‘modern thinking’. Then, of course, just as I need to fractionate the RCC into its components (noting that it remains a thing in itself), you too need to be aware that there’s more than one flavour of Secularism, just as there’s more than one kind of secularism.

    By the way, if anyone’s in the east midlands and wants to hear what a leftish Christian has to say on “Which way for secularism?”, we’ve got Simon Barrow of Ekklesia speaking at Leicester Secular Hall this Sunday at 6.30. We had that Michael Reiss last year, and very interesting he was too.

    *Lord Carey excepted, natch.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      February 3, 2010 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks, Chris. Actually, my family sometimes say that I should have become a priest, and while I’m temperamentally unsuited to the parish pump, maybe I missed a trick not getting into the SJ.

      Obviously I do get that there is secularism and there is secularism, and I’m always open to hear about the various flavours. What alternately annoys/amuses me about Terry is the hyper-aggressive polemical style, but I assume he doesn’t have steam coming out of his ears all the time.

      And actually what I’m interested in is not necessarily secularism per se as a general cultural thing with British liberalism. In large parts of England it’s quite possible to live your life without ever coming into contact with deeply religious people and/or moral conservatives, while in Ireland it’s nearly impossible to avoid such people. So while I’m personally not that conservative, conservative moral ideas aren’t shocking to me and I’ll defend the right to express them. It means that when I talk to people on the London left they sometimes take me for an outright reactionary, because some people in that milieu are so unused to dealing with these things that it drives them absolutely haywire. Laurie Penny’s piece being a case in point, and I know Laurie is otherwise capable of writing with intelligence and insight.

      I suppose traditional anti-Catholicism seeps into the rhetorical form. And it doesn’t help that Catholic intellectual life in these islands – compared to Canada or Poland, say – is of such a low level.

      Your point on the Janus face of NuLabour is I think correct and important, and education shows that up. Secularists are worried about the expansion of faith schools. Catholic educators are worried at Ed Balls trying to dictate what they can teach in terms of ethics and morality. Meanwhile, the government’s main concern seems to be that faith schools are very popular with middle-class agnostics who are willing to pretend to be Christians for admission purposes. It’s a basically hypocritical attitude exemplified by the Sheerman quote, and does nobody any good in the end.

      Cameron and Gove are likely to be even worse, of course.

  7. skidmarx said,

    February 3, 2010 at 3:51 pm
    shows a secular liberal getting hot under the collar, or pointing out that the Pope’s right to be a bigot in his own home shouldn’t extend to ours. You decide.

  8. CharlieMcMenamin said,

    February 3, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    A non theologian writes: I know this is me being a bit simple, or possibly just English, (or quite likely both), but can you just explain a bit more why ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ is a supine comprise in the US military which still leaves gay people exposed to all sorts of discriminatory workplace discipline, yet is somehow acceptable in a state funded church school?

    By extension, what would you say to the argument that if the churches decide to exercise their right to participate in the public sphere then surely they get judged by the standards of the public sphere, not their own theological standards?

    P.S. Chris Williams: I fear you may be advertising Simon Barrow to the wrong leftie audience. Back in the day, Simon used to be a Eurocommunist in my old CPGB branch. I don’t think the regulars here at SS would necessarily count him as a leftie at all. Though I still think he’s a damned decent bloke.

  9. February 3, 2010 at 6:40 pm

    Hard-core secularists do seem to agree with the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, and incidentally the SSPX and similar retro-Catholics, that “Error Has No Rights”. Belief in revealed truth and a catechism of Things Which Should Be Self-Evident and If You Don’t Believe This You Are Not Qualified To Hold An Opinion is dogmatism and brain death, whether it’s theist or atheist.

  10. shane said,

    February 3, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Excellent post, Splintered Sunrise.

  11. ejh said,

    February 3, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    Finally, it is the Pope’s job to enunciate the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is an organic whole and not a pick ‘n’ mix. Although he is an authoritative figure, what he can actually say and do is constrained by both canon law and pre-existing Church teaching

    Well, this is one of those things that is true and not true. In actual practice, the RCC has very often pick and mixed from its teachings (indeed that’s rather the rule than the exception) and it has also overturned “pre-existing Church teaching” on any number of occasions. The nature of religious teaching is that it involves the interpretation of sacred writings and the nature of interpretation is that it’s flexible – in practice, almost infinitely so.

    It’s unavoidable that the traditional interpretation which Il Papa seeks to uphold is grotesquely intolerant and illiberal, which matters less if it’s enunciated by some bloke down the pub than when it comes from an extremely powerful international organisation with hundreds of millions of followers claiming God, rather than a pint too many, for its inspiration. It matters, which is why liberals and secularists get upset about it, and if you don’t think it matters so much – why so many posts about the Church of Rome?

    See, the thing is, you can point to Catholic social teaching, that it’s a good fit with traditional Labour values, and be right. But the truth is that it’s not that which causes the Church to get het up, let alone to mobilise, nor is it its criticism of war. (Wasn’t Tony accepted into the Church at about the time it should have been proscribing him?) It’s always homosexuality and abortion, is it not? It’s what’s most important to them, and that’s surely why people are justified in thinking of the Church in terms of the reactionary rather than the Old Labour values. And its not the Old Labour values which cause this old guy to get public attention when he gets up and speaks in Rome. He may say we should love our neighbour as ourselves, but that’s not what gets him reported. It’s the fact that he’s the Pope.

  12. shane said,

    February 3, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    ejh, I have been going to Traditional-rite Masses for quite a while, and I have yet to hear a priest talking about homosexuality or abortion.

    • Northside Socialist said,

      February 3, 2010 at 10:50 pm

      Could I respectfully suggest that it might be preaching to the truly converted at traditional rite masses and there is no need to regularly mention these topics as the congregation, on the whole, are very conservative.

      • Sean F said,

        February 4, 2010 at 9:57 am

        Broadly true but far from always so. Certainly not if you go beyond the TLM-only lot to the “Reform of the Reform” or liturgical conservative lot. At least so far as homosexuality is concerned.

        (Although someone like Lawrence Hemming, author both of conservative works on the liturgy and academic articles in favour of same sex marriage in the Catholic church is probably an outlier.)

  13. Jim L. said,

    February 3, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    #9 – Completely agree Charlie.

    I’d also add that the problem many find with religious organisations getting involved in political matters, is that they want to make non-believers conform to the strictures of their private beliefs – I’m thinking about the constant blocking of legislation on assisted suicide here.

    The answer of course to the problems arising out of faith schools is to abolish them, and run all schools as community primaries or community comprehensives, without any religious affiliations.

    • February 3, 2010 at 10:12 pm

      “the problem many find with religious organisations getting involved in political matters, is that they want to make non-believers conform to the strictures of their private beliefs…”

      Is it the same thing when secularists want to, for example, ban the hijab? If not, why not? If so, the problem is clearly something other than religion.

      Seriously – everyone wants to make non-believers conform to the strictures of their private beliefs. I personally have a private belief that people should not rape little girls and I certainly want to shove that belief down the throats of everyone I know.

      • Jim L. said,

        February 4, 2010 at 9:35 pm

        It is the same thing when secularists want to ban the hijab, yes. I’m thoroughly opposed to such proposals.

        The whole point about opposing the raping of little girls is that act harms the little girls. Not the same as trying to force people to do (or not do) something that only affects themself.

        The other issue is that religious organisations and their representatives have representation and influence purely on that basis. There are no guaranteed places in the House of Lords for Hegelians, and no news producer thinks to invite a well known Kantian philosopher on TV when a moral issue is discussed.

  14. February 3, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    I could also add that – speaking in very broad generalised terms – at least some secular liberals seem to seriously believe that sexual freedom is the mainspring of all freedom. The right to work or the right to participate democratically is not nearly as important in mainstream liberal thought as, say, the right to have sex with the partner of your choice. A hangover from the 1960s, or simply the natural outgrowth of bourgeois liberalism – that the only real freedom is not the freedom of the public square or of the workplace but of the private, isolated home (and by extension the bedroom).

  15. Chris Williams said,

    February 3, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    Well I don’t want to ban the hijab. Or the niqab, or the burka – they seem like expressions of religious freedom to me, and if adults want to express themselves like that they are welcome to.

    Splinty:”maybe I missed a trick not getting into the SJ”. You missed the whole pack, mate. I bet that they are still kicking themselves at the idea of a lost soul outside the tent, rather than safely in harness, working for them.

    Me, I’ve got a downer on this thing about the Pope being a head of state. I object to that. Other than that, I have no problems with religious leaders coming out with all sorts of cack opinions, so long as I am also free to oppose them. I’m happier with a Catholic archbish pointing out that everyone who votes for abortion law imperils their immortal soul, than I am with a CoE bishop voting for abortion law in the Lords.

    • Northside Socialist said,

      February 3, 2010 at 10:58 pm

      I totally agree that the Pope should not be a head of state. The Vatican should not be a state at all. However, what about Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg (aka Windsor) should she be head of state and also governor of the church of England?

      “the Queen regnant of sixteen independent sovereign states known informally as the Commonwealth realms: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. She holds each crown separately and equally in a shared monarchy, as well as acting as Head of the Commonwealth, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.”

      • Mark P said,

        February 4, 2010 at 1:13 am

        NS, I think you can fairly safely assume that an activist in the BHA isn’t keen on that either.

      • Northside Socialist said,

        February 4, 2010 at 9:40 pm

        Having browsed the BHA website they do campaign for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

  16. Nathaniel said,

    February 4, 2010 at 6:30 am

    (Which is why neither Catholic nor Orthodox Churches will ever ordain priestesses, no matter what Harriet Harman has to say on the matter.)

    I know you love traditionalist Catholic blogs (I read a few myself, one of which I’ve nicknamed Fr Asshole) and adopt their lingo (suppository, etc.) (ironically?), but I’ve always hated the use of the word “priestess”, although I can understand its polemical punch. It’s entirely intended to passively aggressively connote the very dubious theological point that only paganism (or something else suitably exotic and non-Christian) could accept a woman as a priest. It’s not nearly so clearly orthodox and catholic to believe such a thing and acceptance of female priests could be done within that orthodox and catholic framework without liberalism or “rights language” or focus groups. In the end the argument comes down to the magisterium which, although it has proven itself more stable and less contradictory than the average democratic centralist sect, do not show the limits of catholic and orthodox or Marxist thought in their respective bailiwicks.

    As for the rest, I am not an anti-religious person (the conditions to remove the sigh are not there and it is pure idealism to believe otherwise), but the point of most of your very readable posts about religion could be summarized by the title you chose for this one. I think you set up a dichotomy encouraged by the traditionalist blogs, which is that those who think differently than them are not really sincere in their faith (witness on the Anglo-Catholic traditionalist side the disdain for Affirming Catholicism ). We can think of clear examples of this insincerity, including the probable atheism and membership in whatever requires less participation than Freemasonry among Anglican priests. The farcical example would be Blair bringing his concept of rebranding to the Church and getting told off, although I have no idea what Blair actually believes or his sincerity. Presumably it includes a sizable amount of Just War theory, whether it corresponds with the Church’s or not.

    I know you provide us with the vox pops and learn us that Northern Ireland contains a lot of very socially conservative people to the shock of the bruschetta munchers, but I think there’s far more to explore beyond that revelation. (I liked the post about Catholic and Calvinist penance/forgiveness as it related to Iris Robinson).

    Also, is this the first post where, at least in the comments section, Splinty (if that’s not too familiar) has basically said he’s Catholic?

    • February 4, 2010 at 11:34 am

      several of the Old Catholic Churches of the Utrecht Union do ordain women (and bless same-sex couples), the orthodox church of Greece allows since 2004 the ordination of monastic women deacons

      • Nathaniel said,

        February 4, 2010 at 9:16 pm

        True, though only the ordination of deacons by the Greeks is really indicative of changes by the RC or Orthodox churches. The Old Catholics are pretty much the continent’s Anglicans at this point, as far as I can tell.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        February 4, 2010 at 9:18 pm

        The Church of Greece, though, is well known for its modernist tendencies. At least from the perspective of Moscow and Belgrade…

  17. decent interval said,

    February 4, 2010 at 8:57 am

    I loved Stephen Hughes’s comment that the Pope was talking like “a man from the last century”. If the Church is only ten years out of date in relation to homo Islington that surely represents progress.
    On the queston of acceptance of state funding somehow placing voluntary associations like churches into the public sphere and therefore subject to state diktat, it strikes me that in France there is significant state funding both for trade unions and political parties who attract a reasonable level of electoral support, including far left groups like the LCR/NPA. Presumably (and given the possibility of state funding for parties here it is pertinent in the UK) we would all then recognise that the state has a right to interfere in the internal functioning and membership norms of such bodies, whatever the wishes of their members?

  18. Mordaunt said,

    February 4, 2010 at 10:08 am

    On the one hand we are told that the Catholic Church cannot and will not change her teaching. On the other hand we have the erstwhile head of the Inquisition telling us that religious intolerance is contrary to the natural law. Methinks I spot a contradiction.

  19. harry monro said,

    February 4, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    But theology is a wonderfully flexible thing really, and Catholics are no different than anyone else. After all the notion of Purgatory and celibate priests was cobbled together after hundreds of years of Christianity, and as far as I can see celibacy was purely a political invention at the time. Whether any particular Pope is infallible is, I understand, a complex issue, so if a modern Pope chose to turn back the clock to 800AD I’m not sure what would happen.
    Now across the pond, the Catholic hierarchy in the US oppose abortion and the death penalty, yet on one they spend a lot more time and effort than on the other, lets guess which, and why? A Catholic US politician perceived as being soft on the Right to Choose might be threatened with the denial of mass, has that ever happened to a leading Catholic who is gung ho about frying people? Yet as far as I recall ordinary Catholics are as likely to use contraception as anyone else in the US. Doctrine can be a flexible as a new labour politician.
    Whatever the reasons for the Pope thinking he needs to flex muscle in this country, he might come a cropper, in Scotland in the early 20th century the Church hierarchy frequently tried to break Catholic voters from the emerging Labour party in Glasgow over the issue of contraception (though they probably were only trying to bring Labour into line at the time), I think they lost every time according to voting figures.

  20. andy newman said,

    February 4, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    There’s some stuff in there about the example of Newman – B16 is a big Newman fan and a beatification is expected in September

    People normally need to die first, but i have been doing such good work challanging the kneejerk secularism of the left that I have been fast-tracked.

    … oh, you mean THAT newman

  21. Sean F. said,

    February 4, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Interesting in context to note that Newman’s most important contribution to theology was the argument that the doctrinal understanding of tradition can (essentially and I paraphrase) evolve in the light of experience, within limited bounds.

  22. February 5, 2010 at 12:02 am

    Yeah, that’s a very good article including the excellent “anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the job lot of liberal nostrums should have to shut up, in the name of liberalism.”

    What I, even as a near-atheist, also found tiring is the often expressed view on Left blogs that the religious are somehow stupid and that their sensibilities are thus worthless.

    As I wrote elsewhere on a ‘Left’ blog celebrating plans to throw wire coat hangers (as a pro-abortion protest) at a Catholic parade –

    ‘The Catholic Church, like just about any other religious body is a class body. There are those who do deserve protesting against – the Pope, bishops etc and those who you need to think how you can talk to and debate i.e. the vast mass of Catholics. The sheer moronic offensiveness of the protestors who target pilgrims in such a way shows their general contempt for any one not as ‘sussed’ as they think they are. The protestors views are correct but if a group of enraged Catholic housewives beat a protester to a pulp for brandishing coat hanger at them, my sympathies will be with the housewives.

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