Scottish Catholic Church hits Labour where it hurts on abortion

Update. Gordon Brown brushed aside the question: “Is the Catholic church trying to hijack the Glasgow East by-election”? “This is a repetition of the debate previously.. The House of Commons ( and later the Lords) made its position completely clear on a free vote and a decision (presumably keeping the abortion limit to 24 weeks), was reached. We’ve got a very good candidate and I’m not going to comment further” Plus some more background on Bishop Devine.

Bishop Joseph Devine’s latest letter to Labour MPs for a “monstrous attack on human rights” in the make-or-break Glasgow East by-election represents a Church’s most damaging intervention in politics that I can remember. Already, it has paid dividends, as the SNP candidate has even declared against embryo stem cell research, the main theme of the Bill, as well as against lowering the abortion limit. A weakened government, fearing the Catholic onslaught, has already put off a crucial vote in the Human embryology Bill from today to the autumn. Some MPs want to lower the limit from 24 to 20 weeks while the Government wish the present limit to remain. Labour clearly feared this intervention from Devine’s previous record. Last year, he wrote both to Gordon Brown and Labour MPs to condemn their abortion stance. But this latest intervention from Scotland’s rottweiler second highest cleric couldn’t have come at a more sensitive time. In a roller-coaster campaign, it casts a deep shadow on the good news for Labour of a 13 point lead over the SNP. The inevitable conclusion I draw from the bishop’s letter is that the Catholic Church in Scotland is virtually instructing its faithful not to vote Labour in a poll which could settle the fate of the British Prime Minister.

This crosses a line between Church and State and constitutes an even bigger encroachment on the sphere of democracy than occurred in the Mother and Child crisis in the Ireland of the early 1950s.

Bishop Devine has previous form. He foreshadowed this week’s historic breach with Labour over gay rights last year, supporting a Christian Alliance in Holyrood by-elections. Then, ironically, he was faced down by the then Labour minister Margaret Curran, now Labour candidate in Glasgow East. Devine’s tactics as the local bishop, apparently endorsed by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, currently on a Lourdes pilgrimage, differs radically from the English approach.

Notice the basic difference of tactics between the Scottish and English hierarchies. In his letter the Scottish bishop plunges in where other bishops fear to tread:

Labour has lost its ethical credibility in the nation at large. Christian people have not changed. It is Labour that has broken its pack with Christian voters.
What are we to do when our religion is attacked and our conscience outraged? When one considers the self-inflicted injuries this Labour Government has visited upon itself, one could be forgiven for thinking it had some kind of death wish.”

Contrast this with what the head of the English bishops Cardinal Murphy O’Connor wrote about the same issue in May:

The Church puts forward its teaching, but does not seek to impose its views nor indeed to tell any individual how to vote. What matters is the appeal to reason and intellectual argument, and the coherence of the vision of human life that we present. Reason and faith go hand in hand, and, for me, faith brings an insight into the truth which helps reason. (full article here)

Incidentally, at the same moment, as US Anglican bishop Gene Robinson challenges the Anglican establishment over gay rights, the gap between the Catholic and Anglican establishments has never been wider in modern times. Thankfully, the same isn’t generally true for the rank and file.

  • I think the “line between Church and State” is one set by the state, not the Church. AFAIK the ‘line’ is one that the state sets itself, to avoid acting as a branch of the church (ironic in the UK, where that line has never truly existed). The churches, for their part, have never said that they would never get involved in political matters as and when it suits them.

  • jer

    “This crosses a line between Church and State and constitutes an even bigger encroachment on the sphere of democracy than occurred in the Mother and Child crisis in the Ireland of the early 1950s.”

    I wonder how significant the line between Church and State is in the UK when the head of the state is the head of a church. The line would be quite smudged already or is it that one religion can cross the line and all others cannot. My view is that religion and politics should not mix, one corrupts the other. The anglican church should be disestablished and the roman catholic church should keep its nose out of politics. God knows the RC church did enough damage to frustrate Irish political hopes over the last 150 years.

  • Leo

    From the letter excerpt above, all Bishop Devine has pointed out is that Labour’s pro-abortion policy does not match with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

    I can’t see any exhortation to vote for a particular candidate. The letter is addressed to MPs, not to voters.

  • Garibaldy

    Brian, have you a link to the letter itself? I think it’s a bit melodramatic to compare this to the Mother and Child debacle, especially two days after the twelfth when our own link between religion and politics is there for all to see.

  • Brian Walker

    Garibaldy, sorry, no sign of the full text of the bishop’s letter in the Scottish Catholic Church’s media website or any source I can find. Otherwise, I would have linked to it!

  • Garibaldy

    Cheers Brian. Couldn’t find it myself.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    >>represents a Church’s most damaging invention in politics that I can remember. Already, it has paid dividends, as the SNP candidate has even declared against embryo stem cell research< >In contrast, John Mason, the Nationalist candidate, came out firmly to lower the abortion time limit. Stressing how he was “from a faith-community background”< >A weakened government, fearing the Catholic onslaught………………..But this latest intervention from Scotland’s rottweiler second highest cleric<

  • paul kielty

    Brian, your use of language was clearly provocative.

    This is yet another example of that centuries old propaganda nonsense that give us the notorious right wing mantra that stated, ‘Home -+rule is rome rule’.

    Yip, those poor, uneducated, unwashed, west coast Scottish catholics are being manipulated by sinister forces within the evil (roman) catholic church! Please grow up.

    All the recent elections in the north of Ireland and Scotland have shown that the catholic communities,( I hate stating things in this manner, but you will probably understand it better thus) overwhelmingly vote for parties of the broad left. Meaning, they are much LESS likely to be swayed, politically by conservative voices within the church.

    Can unionism in both Ireland and Scotland say the same?

  • Brian Walker

    Prionsa Eoghan, I WAS judgmental but I believe fair: the two are not incompatible. Notice the contrasts between the Scottish and English approaches I identify. Everyone has the right to campaign on abortion, for or against. But in my view, (and I presume to believe in Cardinal Murphy O’Connor’s), the churches have an implicit concordat with the pluralist democracy to speak with restraint as well as clarity. Going for Gordon Brown in this way at this time, is bad behaviour and a violation of an understanding it took about a century to reach in GB.

    On Orangefest, the judgment was clearly suspended. I welcome the company of Chris Donnelly and others on both sides who turn up slugs under village stones and uncover telling detail others miss. That is one of the glories of Slugger, it seems to me.

  • Brian Walker

    Paul, we had an overlap in commenting so I missed yours at first. If west coast Catholics are impervious to church influence, why is the bishop bothering to weigh in with influence so directly?
    He obviously thought it worthwhile. And why is Labour so quick to back off with the HFE Bill vote?
    Catholic social values have done much to shape traditional working class Labour in Scotland, as many know far better than I and the tension with new Labour has now increased to breakdown, it seems.
    On unionist comparisons, don’t give us whataboutery, please: I don’t play the zero sum game. Unionism is of course influenced by religion but less than Catholics have been traditionally by hierarchies. The cultures, structures and roles of the two elites operate differently. And times for both are of course changing.

    ..And Eoghan too by the way.. you don’t have to be a Catholic candidate to bid for Catholic votes.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    >>If west coast Catholics are impervious to church influence, why is the bishop bothering to weigh in with influence so directly?< >and the tension with new Labour has now increased to breakdown, it seems.< >..And Eoghan too by the way.. you don’t have to be a Catholic candidate to bid for Catholic votes.<

  • paul kielty

    Brian Walker,

    Why don’t you ask the bishop himself why he sees fit to involve himself at this stage? Or is the fact that senior church figures, like himself, have been involved all along.

    All church leaders, irrespective of denomination, involve themselves with political discourse. In many ways this is one of their important functions, as they see it, to involve themselves with social decision making which impacts on their religious community.

    There is nothing remotely remarkable about this bishops comments. Unless, of course, it is the mere fact that he is a catholic bishop, that makes this non-story relevant!

    The by-election in Glasgow will be fought totally on the basis of, the economy, on health, on confidence/no confidence in new labour, and on the future of Scotland. NOT on abortion or stem cell research. That is plainly ridiculous!

    Please refrain from introducing a sectarian red herring into the democratic process, were one is not needed nor is in any way relevant.

    Please refr

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    >>Please refrain from introducing a sectarian red herring into the democratic process, were one is not needed nor is in any way relevant.<

  • dewi

    Brian – you are an unashamed Unionist and post what you think – which is of course your right.Holistically however the site is becoming less balanced and there is a real danger, despite Mick’s noble intentions, of it becoming an introspective Unionist discussion board – which would be a shame IMHO.

  • kensei

    Brian

    If Trade Union had have went for the throat at a weakened Government over an issue particular dear to that movements heart, would it similarly be guilty of undermining democracy?

  • Brian Walker

    Kensei,
    “If Trade Union had have went for the throat at a weakened Government over an issue particular dear to that movements heart, would it similarly be guilty of undermining democracy”?

    Yes, of course, it would have been the corporatism that Thatcher demolished, endorsed later by new Labour, as GB made clear again today.

    Dewi, the sad old zero sum game again, the curse of the blog. What’s unionism got to do with it? No, leave it as rhetorical question this time, please.
    Paul, I don’t think the bishop would thank you for writing him off so blithely.

    I’m interested in claims that “no one votes according to religion.” Catholic MPs vote over issues of conscience; it would be strange if none of their constituents did. But let’s treat it as an open question, shall we? Let’s watch the detailed polls and an analysis of the result. Then we’ll have facts rather than aggressive opinions.
    Facts are better than fantasies or charges of bad faith. Aren’t they?

  • paul kielty

    Brian,

    I couldn’t care less if the bishop was concerned at me writing him of so blithely.

    Is it only catholic MPs who vote over issuses of conscience? Do protestant MPs not? Why single out catholics?
    The truth is that the vast majority, with a very few notable exceptions, of MPs, do NOT vote over issues of conscience. It is either, because they want to be seen to be representing all their constituents, or because the party whip, has cracked the whip!

    Surely you can see that this thread reeks of anti-catholic fantasy.

  • Garibaldy

    Brian may or may not be a unionist, but I think his approach – of a professional journalist – has broadened and added to the site considerably, in stories chosen, and the way those stories are covered. Having said that, as I said earlier, I think elements of the intro are melodramatic (which may or may not be a deliberate provocation). I disagree totally that to say a trade union representing its members at a time a government is weakened is corporatism. I think that’s nonsense. No only nonsense, but anti-democratic. Did Brian or others think that bishops voicing strong opinions in NI during the Troubles was a threat to the understanding between church and state? I’d be surprised if they did.

  • kensei

    Brian

    Yes, of course, it would have been the corporatism that Thatcher demolished, endorsed later by new Labour, as GB made clear again today.

    Does the

    So when exactly is it legitimate for organisations to influence the democratic process? Would the CBI making statements criticising current government tax policy during an election also fall until this? We should bear in mind here that members of organisations are free to ignore the advice given as they wish.

    In the US this would be an up and down First Amendment issue.

  • Harry Flashman

    [b]Shock Exclusive![/b]

    Catholic bishop restates position on abortion, apparently he doesn’t like it.

    Some voters might agree with him.

    British democracy rocked to its foundations.

    Full story at the top of the hour, sports roundup and weather to follow.

  • Cynic

    Brian

    My, you certainly stirred up a few here. Handbags at dawn!!!!!! So here is my tuppenceworth.

    The Catholic Church feeels that its duty is to preach the Gospel as it sees it. On matters of faith and coinscience that will often bring it into politics. So what. That’s life. Good luck to them and we will see who wins the argument.

    The Chuirch of England has a slightly different position as it is Established. The other 3 parts of the UK dont have Established churches. In practice there’s no real difference at all save that they may have more of a platform in the Lords – if anyone there is awake at the time.

    As for the tone of the Bishop’s alleged comments – well, if he feels strongly about this and feels that Labour has broken its word, why shouldn’t he expose this? Exposure of lies deceit and underhand doings is one of the things that keeps Governments in line.

    Will anyone listen to him? Perhaps a few hundred devout Catholics – but do you know, that is their choice and if they devoutly believe and wish to follow that is their choice too. Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing.

    And I do think you have added significantly to Slugger…. which is annoying some who dont seem to be able to cope with the analysis, debate and divergent views (sometimes opposed to their own) that make us all think. Keep up the good work.

  • Prionsa Eoghan

    Brian

    >>Bishop Joseph Devine’s latest letter to Labour MPs for a “monstrous attack on human rights” in the make-or-break Glasgow East by-election< >Then we’ll have facts rather than aggressive opinions.< >And I do think you have added significantly to Slugger…. which is annoying some who dont seem to be able to cope with the analysis, debate and divergent views (sometimes opposed to their own) that make us all think. Keep up the good work.<