(First published in The Catholic Herald on 12 February 2010)
So for the time being crisis is averted. It would seem that the combined efforts of the Lords Spiritual, our bishops, and the big gun of the Pope himself have led to the withdrawal of the offending clauses in the Equality Bill. Religions will retain the freedom to run their operations and appoint staff in line with the criteria of their respective beliefs, with a much reduced danger of legal challenge.
But only for the time being. I repeat this because we are a lazy lot. It gives me little pleasure (well, in truth, just a touch of schadenfreude) to mention that I have pointed out in this newspaper over several years that little by little our fundamental liberties were being eroded and that one day the crunch would come. In each case the change has been small, always defended as a necessity of the time, and cumulative. Now that we have at last woken up some of us perhaps still bleary-eyed maybe we can take some action.
The first screech of the alarm clock loud enough to break the deepest slumber was the question of adoption agencies: the grotesque demand that Catholic agencies should be prepared to place the young with gay couples. I am not going to argue against the effectiveness of single-sex parents (the issue is not clear-cut) but against the fist of socialist totalitarianism thrust in the face of the Church’s deep and strongly held principles.
But some of us put the alarm clock on hold and returned to sleep this time woken by the second screech of a further attempt to manhandle (or, given the involvement of Harriet Harman, perhaps I should say womanhandle) the rights of religion. Will that get us out of bed?
The Pope, in addressing our bishops on freedom, used the unhelpful phrase “natural law”. Natural law is a technical term; what he meant was the native ability of all decent people to recognise the ways in which we should naturally live our lives in order to flourish as human beings. For all the fashionable ills of our society, decent people do recognise that they are answerable, at least to themselves, for their behaviour, that we have a duty to each other particularly the poor and the aged, that we have a right to have religious beliefs or none, that we have rights to free association, that human life has a uniquely sacred status, that the misuse of sexuality brings tragedy, that stable marriage and family are the essential units of a good society. That list is by no means exhaustive, but note that in every case I am referring to values taught by the Church often in the teeth of the ungodly.
We have carelessly allowed the Church to be associated with the negative images of prohibition. Our focus must move away from looking at all the things which we can get wrong, and be applied to the positive values. That way we speak to man’s aspirations rather than to his fears. What is historically certain is that our continued cataloguing of sin has not led to more orthodox behaviour. But it has led to our ill repute, and our rejection in the marketplace. I will settle for John XXIII’s remarks at the beginning of the Council: “Nowadays, however, the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”
Why is it that in any relevant matter I find a punchy comment from the British Humanist Association (who have brought prejudice, selective evidence and fallacious reasoning to new heights) and no equally forceful statement from us about how humans have to live in order to flourish, and what the Church is contributing to this? It may well be that the Catholic Union, so inspiringly discussed by James Bogle in the 5 February issue, will play an effective part here. But we in our daily lives and conversations have our responsibility of witness. So it may be useful to look briefly at some relevant issues.
Let’s clear out of the way one question which can be distracting. Catholic schools are, for the most part, publicly funded. No one with an eye for the evidence will deny that Catholic schools do a first-rate job educationally and in terms of social integration. But why should the taxpayer be funding religious organisations with which they may not agree? Surely, if Catholics want their own form of schooling, they should fund it for themselves.
Good thinking. I happen in my old fashioned way to object to the killing of around 200,000 babies a year. But the tax system works as a general pool from which the public costs are taken. As a result I am paying for the slaughter. We could make a bargain: I stop paying for killing babies, you stop paying for Catholic schools.
Another distraction to be exorcised is the idea that this is an issue about homosexuality, introducing a fashionable and emotional example is an old rhetorical trick. The issue is not homosexuality but whether a given lifestyle (and there are plenty of examples) is inconsistent with the strongly held principles of a religion, or, for that matter, those of any other organisation. I am not expecting an invitation to take up a post with the British Humanist Association any time soon, but I do not accuse them of unfair discrimination.
We also need to be quite clear about what we mean by a free society. The Equality Bill, despite its name, is aimed at neither equality nor freedom. It is an instrument to serve a belief shared by a section of the population who, with the highest ideals, think that they know what is good for us. Unsurprisingly it is usually to be found in the ranks of the civil authorities, for that is the best vantage point to put such an agenda into action. They are very dangerous because they are sincere. Rogues will eventually be outed; virtuous fools can hide in their whited sepulchres. Nor am I nosing out a conspiracy theory; Harriet Harman is in her own words “engaged in an opportunity not only to build a new economic order, but a new social order as well”.
We have been in the grip of virtuous fools – the totalitarian socialism to which I referred above – for many years. Regulation has been piled upon regulation for each new regulation breeds its own progeny until the body politic is white with its maggots. From wearing a small cross at work to blowing your nose while halted in a traffic jam, every item of our lives is regulated. Pygmy bureaucracy is swollen, and nonentities who could not climb a dunghill can trammel our lives. Every word that we say is weighed: every word that we write must be measured against the latest doctrinaire fad.
And is it succeeding? Our class differences are greater than ever; child poverty has increased; paper qualifications have replaced education; we have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe; the stable married family has been downgraded and disadvantaged; our jails… no, you don’t need me to answer the question.
How do you see a free society? You can take the route of the virtuous fool and attempt to engineer society through force majeure into equality. Your aim will be a society of flatline mediocrity with a universal ethos (to be updated or even reversed according to the latest fashion) by periodic referenda. Such a society has about as much chance of success as a Soviet collective farm and will cause as much distress in its attempts at formation.
Or you can have a society which rejoices in a multiplicity of opinions, rewards merit, supports real need, encourages freedom of association and promotes harmonious integration. Such a society would, of course, have its rules, and its checks and balances, but in every case there would be a heavy onus on the lawmaker to demonstrate how the laws do no more than serve the common good and ensure the maximum freedom consistent with the freedom of others. Of course that society will never come to fruition either until we have abolished Original Sin. But at least we can work towards it. And here I am with the Pope when he says that no social system can ever work unless it is founded in the heart of man.
(Some you who know my style will be surprised by the use of the word “gay” in para 3. You will know that I never use the term since it is a value judgment , just as I never used the word “queer” for the same reason. The word crept in after the ms had left my hands.)