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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London