On being an English Catholic:

from minority to mainstream – and back again?

English Catholicism 1951 – 2008

Paul Vallely

London Newman Lecture 2008

3 April 2008

In preparation for tonight I was looking through a history of my old school. In it I came across a classic schoolboy howler. A master wrote: “Boys are constantly urged to read the examination questions carefully and come to the point quickly. Hence this result:

Question:        Write a brief, but concise, account of the Princes in the Tower.

Answer:           Two. Smothered.

I shall endeavour to be as brief as I can tonight, but with the understanding that concise means “brief but comprehensive”.

What I want to do is chart a trajectory through the life of the Catholic Church in England over the past half century, beginning with the church I grew up in as a boy in northern England where I was part of a community that still defined itself – though I didn’t appreciate it at the time – very much in terms of its Irish immigrant roots.

Then I want to look at how, as a young man I felt my co-religionists blossom into a new sense of being part of the mainstream, developing a comfortable identity as English Catholics rather than Roman ones. I’ll look at how that was partly a legacy of Vatican II, and partly do with a sociological process of assimilation.

And finally I’ll look at what I detect as an unwelcome retreat into a new defensiveness – evidenced in the attitude of the Catholic bishops to gay adoption and bioethics and more – and trace its roots in the newly fashionable language of human rights and the rise of a more aggressive secularism in the wake of 9/11. On the way I’ll indicate a few signposts to parallels and contrasts with the experience of the Muslim community.

Irish in all but name

So this is the story of a generation, but it is also my story – so I want to begin in a unapologetically autobiographical tone.

My first conscious memories of the community in which I grew up where of family gatherings in my home-town of Middlesbrough, only half-remembered from the haze of early boyhood: funerals, birthdays, parties at which the grown-ups would place dining chairs around the edge of the room and sit in a big circle, drinking bottled beer and port-and-lemons, and singing. Everyone was expected to take a turn. My Gran, I remember, always sang If I were a blackbird. My Mum, an Englishwoman, always did I is for the Irish. It wasn’t religious – though I seem to remember someone once singing Faith of our Fathers – “in spite of dungeon, fire and sword – but our faith was woven into the weft of our quotidian identity. We took it for granted that all this was normal; it was only later in life, when I became The Times correspondent in Belfast and Dublin, that I discovered how culturally Irish was my upbringing.

I remember my first day at school. The stiff flannel of my new grey school trousers. The brown blazer with a blue badge. Grey, brown and blue – hardly colour-coordinated but then the blue was Our Lady’s blue and therefore non-negotiable. I walked to school alone, against the skyline of ICI chimneys smoking reds, oranges, green and flaming purples and the stacks of the steelworks which had been what had attracted large numbers of our great-grandfathers from Ireland around the turn of the 19th and 20th century. On the way we had to pass Whinney Banks state school whose pupils would greet us with chants of “Catholic bulldogs never get a wash, when they do they think they’re posh”. And we would reciprocate calling them “Proddy dogs”. Occasionally you would get chased down Weatherhead Avenue, and if you got caught you might get punched.

Once safe inside school our identities were shaped by the finer points of Catholic dogma – the Penny Catechism on baptism by blood, baptism by sand and all the rest –and, as we came to make our First Communion, by instructions not to chew the host or use your finger to free it if it clove to the roof of your mouth. Schoolboy folklore had it that the host would burn your tongue if you had committed a sin since you had been to Confession.

It wasn’t a private faith, but a public one. Each year came the Corpus Christi procession when all the Catholic schools of the town paraded through the streets in First Communion finery, singing Soul of My Saviour and Immaculate Mary our hearts are on fire. Our relatives lined the town centre’s main highways to watch, and slip you a florin afterwards. The Evening Gazette published a special supplement, because the town’s Catholic minority was sizeable, making up between a quarter and a third of the local population.

What was most striking was the provenance of the town’s priests. Three-quarters of them, maybe more, were Irish – a fact which has interesting parallels with Britain’s Muslim community today which, two or three generations on, still imports a significant percentage of its imams from the old country. The town had a special relationship with a seminary in Thurles. It closed through lack of vocations five years ago but in those days so many were ordained specifically for the Diocese of Middlesbrough in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Terliz – as they pronounced it – that when one day a new priest arrived as the new curate at the next door parish, St Patrick’s in Thornaby, one female parishioner complained, in all apparent seriousness: “I think they’ve sent us an Anglican vicar by mistake.” The new curate was Catholic. The trouble was he was English.

The ambivalent generation

But if there was a security of Irish identity for that older generation there was an ambivalence in us youngsters. We spoke of Bonfire Night not Guy Fawkes Night. (We had a bonfire and fireworks but my father – whose father had been English, but whose granddad was Irish – refused always to let us have a guy, until the first of his daughters was old enough to nag him into it). And the boys at my grammar school may have been called Sullivan, O’Brien, Flynn, Murray, Duffy or Murphy. But the next-door neighbours with whom I played had stout English Protestant names: Simmons, Hardisty and Fitzgerald whose name was Anglo-Norman. Although our lives were largely circumscribed by the Catholic community the presence of these “different” neighbours alerted us to a sense of being a minority in a majority culture. This created among us an interplay of feelings of simultaneous inferiority and superiority. Our strength was that we felt a self-contained, self-sufficient community. But we were curious about The Other. I remember sneaking alone on more than one occasion into darkened Protestant churches to see what they were like, and whether the Devil might be found inside. Ecumenism had not been invented. These were the times when the monk who was later to become Cardinal Basil Hume was forbidden from joining in with the Lord’s Prayer at the funeral of his own father, because his father was a Scottish Protestant and it was what in those days we called a “non-Catholic” service – everything else being defined only in terms of its reference to what was normative for us.

We felt different. We felt people looked at us oddly, though not threateningly, but as though we were mildly second-class. And yet we came to suspect that some of our neighbours disliked in us what they perceived as a sense that we thought we were better than everyone else. Class was part of it; though we had moved into nice leafy suburbs we were still of working class immigrant stock in a middle class environment. But there was more to it than that. Looking at the British Muslim community today, with its predominant origins in the Punjab, it is not hard to detect something very similar going on among the second and third generations.

For us it was compounded by the history of this island, the Reformation, and all that followed. We sang:

“Mary’s prayers shall win our country back to Thee;
And through the truth that comes from God,
England shall then indeed be free.”

When we visited ancient churches, like York Minster, my Dad would tell us: “this is one of ours” – a church that had been Catholic before the Anglicans pinched it from us. All around were the ruins of those institutions which had refused the Protestant yoke – Mount Grace Priory, Rievaulx Abbey, Fountains Abbey and all the rest. There was an unspoken element of pilgrimage in our trips to picnic there. And there was the romance of recusancy: the hidden Catholics of Danby and Egton Bridge whose families could trace their religious lineage back way beyond the Reformation; the martyrs of Yorkshire, the Blessed Margaret Clitherow crushed beneath a door; the priest of the moors Fr Nicholas Postgate who journeyed around North Yorkshire for nearly fifty years, disguised as a tinker or travelling salesman, bringing Mass and the Sacraments to those who never ceased to be Catholics scattered round the farms and villages. At the 1300th anniversary of the Synod of Whitby in 1964 I stood, aged 13, shivering in my Scout shorts, knees blue in the salty clifftop wind, reclaiming my link with an era when the only divisions were between Christians from Rome and Christians from Iona over the shape of the tonsure and the date of Easter. This was our connection not just with the past but with universality – the communion of saints, the Catholic ummah to borrow a term from the Muslim community.

There are interesting parallels between the culture of Muslims in Britain today and Catholics in these Irish enclaves in the 1950s and early 60s. Catholic culture was largely synonymous with Irish culture, as Muslim culture here now overlaps with the culture of the Indian sub-continent. A number of things distinguished us from our neighbours: Catholics demanded denominational schools; we had a different attitude to women and family life (far fewer Catholic mothers went out to work); we had that sense of communal self-sufficiency and we were seen as loyal to a foreign religion that seemed to aim at a global theocracy – all things which the white community today sees in the Asian communities with which I later came into contact in Bradford, Oldham and the other northern mill towns: awkward minorities, wanting neither complete integration nor complete separation, and drawn into politics largely through the Labour Party.

There was one other significant factor. Immigrant culture is characterised by romance, nostalgia and conservatism, as any study of Irish Americans will readily reveal. Yet what developed in the UK was not a conservative Catholicism but a liberal one. There are several factors for this. But not least among them was the fact that Catholic schools like the Marist College I attended placed no religious restraints on intellectual inquiry. Despite the school motto Sub Mariae Nomine there were no “no-go” areas on religious grounds or out of a false reverence for faith. Enlightenment values of freedom of thought and speech, human rights, and even genuflections towards gender equality, were communicated with liberal Christian sympathies. Our Marist priests taught us to value systematic thought and be wary of emotional subjectivism (which is why the Catholic Charismatic movement never had much attraction for most of us). We were schooled to feel at ease with the symbolic and the sacramental but the language was overwhelmingly rationalist.

It provided the mental tools which led most of us into atheism – and then many of us out of it again as adolescent questioning gave way to an adult hankering after the shimmer of transcendence and a learning to live with the mystery of life. God wasn’t an invisible being who commands, rewards or punishes like the caricature which atheists like Richard Dawkins insist upon. God was, to us, not a particular “being” at all, but rather the power of Being itself. Nor was faith something fixed. It was something which moved like a tide, lapping upon the shores of stories, structure and institutions, of questions and searchings for consistency and identity, and mystical reachings after what cannot be put into words.

It heralded the day when, after a particularly shocking atrocity in Northern Ireland by Loyalist paramilitaries against ordinary Catholics in a bar, my Auntie Maureen said with quiet grim satisfaction: “The IRA will sort that lot out”. And I thought, perhaps for the first time, that perhaps adults could sometimes get things very wrong indeed.

From Roman Catholics to English Catholics

The big change, of course, was the Second Vatican Council, a change so monumental that I won’t try even to sketch out its impact here, except in the restricted sociological area which is my concern tonight. Because it did not just, for me, replace arid formularies with a living faith, or emphasise the importance of conscience (in a way which does not need underscoring to the Newman Society, of all groups) or make us feel – as Adrian Hastings once quipped – that “we’re all Protestants now”. It was used by the emerging English Catholic middle class to, as it were, de-Irishise a church caught up in its dedication to May processions, The Rosary, Benediction, Novenas, First Fridays and all the other devotions so beloved of the Irish clerics of my youth.

We had ceased to be Roman Catholics and become English Catholics. That transition was nowhere better embodied than in Cardinal Hume. There was much else: priests in civvy dress, collars and ties or casual sweaters; the rise of ecumenism, ARCIC; Catholics in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, Chris Patten, John Gummer, John Patten. The Pope’s visit, paradoxically perhaps, made Catholicism more mainstream in Britain. Catholics felt more at ease after the respectful welcome the nation accorded the pontiff. The visit reached its high point, in terms of the British Establishment, when the Queen greeted John Paul II at Buckingham Palace in 1982. A decade on, in 1994, even a member of the royal family, the Duchess of Kent, felt able to become a Catholic despite the fact that her husband is the queen’s cousin and 18th in line to the throne. There was no pressure for him to renounce his right of succession, as Prince Michael of Kent had been required to do when he married a Catholic 15 years earlier. In part that was because of a technicality: the 1701 Act of Settlement was not violated because the duchess was an Anglican at the time of her marriage. But there could have been a groundswell of popular anti-Catholic opinion. And there was not, which was revealing in itself.

But it was the person of Basil Hume which best exemplified the acceptance of Catholics into the mainstream. He was accorded a respect by the general public which went well beyond the Catholic community. A thoroughly English figure he gave out no flicker of inappropriate divided allegiance, whether to Rome or to Ireland, and was routinely named Britain’s most popular religious figure in opinion polls. His time in office saw Catholicism become better accepted in British society than it had been for 400 years. So much so that, in 1995, the Queen became the first monarch since the 17th century to participate in a Catholic service when she attended vespers at Westminster Cathedral. A great admirer of Basil Hume, to whom she once famously referred as “my cardinal”, following his death she travelled to his home town, Newcastle upon Tyne, to unveil a statue of the Catholic primate. We might call all these changes, for shorthand, the Hume Dispensation.

It was more than a sociological acceptance, Catholicism rediscovered an Englishness which became slightly suspicious of Rome rather than unquestioningly loyal to it. It meant that the Gospel rather than the Vatican was re-established as our prime focus. We saw that the Church was not the clerical authorities but the People of God. And it increased our love for that Church even as it deepened our faith. All of which was good for both Catholics and for Christianity in general in its ecumenical struggle against a secular culture increasingly dominated by a consumerist materialism. For it allowed Catholic values to exert an influence upon the thinking of mainstream society.

All this was a slow process, a fact underscored if we look for the same kinds of signposts within the Muslim community today. Muslims today are back where we were four decades earlier. Their elders, steeped in the traditions of the Indian sub-continent, root their urban British lives still in the divisions and alliances of their old rural biradari clan system. British-born and trained imams, fluent in English and conversant with the native culture, are still outnumbered by clergymen imported from abroad. Cultural practices like arranged marriages, or even forced marriages and honour killings, persist. Many of the younger generation are drifting into a secularised British lifestyle, as many young Catholics did before them. But others are searching for a “purer” Islam, stripped of its Kashmiri cultural trappings, as many in the Catholic middle class did in England – or indeed as the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI, like others of the ressourcement tradition, did at Vatican II. The parallels are not exact, but they are revealing.

The changing social context

If Catholics were changing, mainstream society was not static, undergoing shifts for both the good and bad. Let’s pause briefly here to consider the social context. Over the same period wider society in the UK rapidly embraced a consumption-driven vision of what we mean by “the good life”. It has had a profound impact upon the consensus of what constitutes human flourishing – as we see from some of our daytime television shows which, aping American tv programmes like Jerry Springer, hold up a brutally frank mirror to the values of demotic society. For the high-minded among you, who have never turned such programmes on, they parade troubled and dysfunctional families consumed with topics like – I’ve taken this from Wikipedia rather than my own first hand viewing – adultery, bestiality, divorce, homophobia, homosexuality, incest, infidelity, paedophilia, pornography, racism and transvestism (I think that’s in alphabetical order). If it seems odd to single out one tv programme – though we’ll be mentioning Jerry Springer in a different symbolic context in a moment – it is because it has been for years the top-rated daytime show in the United States, a country from which we increasingly derive so many of our cultural values.

All this is what an organisation like the Catholic church stands in contradiction to. Catholicism offers reminders of absolute values which – even to those who do not accept all it teaches – give pause for thought in a world dominated by utilitarianism, materialism and hedonism. But I also highlight these debased values because they are, paradoxically, the breeding ground for fundamentalism. How so? Because the human need to impose order on a chaotic and dangerous universe becomes more extreme when people feel threatened by an overpowering alien culture all round them. Religious fundamentalism in contemporary society, whether Christian or Islamic, grows from this impulse. Those who feel most threatened become more and more extreme in the solutions they embrace. They shore up their group identity by defining what they believe, and do, in ever starker contradiction to the society which beleaguers them.

There is one other secular trend which it is worth pointing up here. It is contemporary society’s philosophical shift away from perceptions of common good and common weal and towards a focus on individuals and their freedom. It is the discourse of human rights. It was as recently as December 2000 that the European Charter of Fundamental Rights was proclaimed by the European Union. The recognition of human rights is an undoubted good, but the emphasis placed upon them has come at the expense of concerns about common and social values. Our rights rather than our responsibilities have become the centre of so much social discourse – on race, gender, sexuality, animals and more. I highlight this here because what has progressed from that is a temptation for religious believers to go down the same path, embracing a rights discourse as a tool for talking about religions as persecuted minorities whose rights must be protected. This is an unhelpful development.

The “war on terror” changes everything

But then came an event – the suicide bombers who crashed planes into the Twin Towers in New York – which changed everything. Of course the faultlines were already established. As we have said fundamentalism builds itself as a defence mechanism to a society from which it feels alienated or excluded. In Britain the Asian community felt this way as it laboured under a burden of unemployment, poor housing, social disadvantage and racism. And the second generation, educated in the UK and inculcated with British expectations and aspirations, resented that in a way that their parents, grateful to be received into the UK, didn’t. But it was the attacks on the world Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001 that turned British Asians, as one of them put it to me, “from Pakis into Muslims”. Just as fundamentalism had grown among Christians in opposition to what I have dubbed the Jerry Springer culture, so around the world fundamentalism grew among Muslims who felt increasingly estranged from a global culture much as British Asians did here.

But the human need to become more extreme as the chaos grows around us doesn’t just apply to those of a religious disposition. It applies to secularists too. For most of the last century secularists displayed an amused tolerance to what they regarded as the irrelevance of religion, and its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” from the real world. Give it time and religion will wither away, that is the lesson of history, they assumed. But once it became clear that religion was in the 21st century making a roar of a very different kind they began to become alarmed.

A new militant secularism has arisen in reaction to this. Frightened by Islam, but wary of being accused of racism, it broadened its attack to one on religion in general – with denigration of multiculturalism, pluralism and anything else it fears makes concessions to faith. Its most prominent exponent is Richard Dawkins, but it has a powerful representation among the metropolitan chattering classes, who in my view, are widely out of step with the views of most of the population; most people today hold to what one sociologist called “vague religion”, holding views which are unfocussed and undogmatic but decidedly spiritual. This new aggressive secularism is characterised by a vituperative determination to attack, deride or belittle religion at every turn.

When Britain’s 7/7 suicide bombers struck, however, it threw up an interesting challenge to Dawkins and Co, for all four of the bombers, who were seen as religious fanatics, were the products of a non-religious secularised state school system. Both the schools attended by the bombers’ leader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, had been secular. Many of his friends were white and non-Muslim. For most of his life he wasn’t called Mohammad but Sid.

What radicalised him was a complex process of alienation but two things were particularly significant. The first was a rebellion against the culture of his Pakistani parents; he had become enough of an Englishman to not want to be bound by Pakistani traditions on arranged marriages, and the like. He used the teachings of Islam to argue against his parents cultural suppositions. The second was the frustration that built in him at the status of his own community in wider society – a frustration exacerbated by the sense of entitlement his English education had inculcated in him. The author Shiv Mailk suggests, that Mohammad, or Sid, was caught up in an identity crisis, which manifested itself in a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action – and in which he used Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert his right to choose how to live. Thus the bombers were not an outside aberration but a signpost to our society’s inner problems. Had they been exposed earlier to good religion – as Catholics of my generation were – they might have been equipped with the tools to enable them to reject bad religion when it was offered to them as the cure-all for their social and psychological disadvantage.

So the secularists, not knowing enough of religion, came to exactly the wrong conclusion. Sid Khan and his fellows hadn’t had too much religion, they hadn’t had enough of it, early in their education – as people who went to faith schools do – to be able to discriminate between good religion and the perversion of Islam they were offered by al-Qaeda.

A critique of the secularist response is not my focus tonight. What concerns me here is the way that the Church hierarchy is responding to that secularist threat. Because I fear that between them the secularists and our own bishops are threatening what I’ve called the Hume Dispensation.

In the final section of my remarks I want to look, briefly, at a few areas in which the Church has interacted with wider society, with varying results, some of which are disturbing. They are Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address and the interactions between the English bishops and the government over faith schools and gay adoption. The overall picture, I suggest, gives cause for concern.

Jerry Springer: The Opera.

But before I do that I want to intercalate a bit of key background. It is to do with the relationship between religion in general and wider society. And Jerry Springer is again the totem. Jerry Springer: The Opera was a British musical which had opened in the West End in 2003. It used Springer to satirise some of the more grotesque manifestations of Me Generation culture. It was a surreal fantasy in which an absurd Springer had – along with a troupe of tap-dancing members of the Ku Klux Klan – Jesus as one of the guests on Jerry Springer’s tv show but placed in the context of the bizarre and dysfunctional behaviour which is normative in SpringerWorld. Jesus was portrayed wearing a nappy and surrounded by uncouth language. There were complaints from Christian lobby groups.

Two years later, in 2005, the BBC televised the opera, receiving 55,000 complaints from viewers. Strongest among the protestors was an extreme organisation called Christian Voice which led street protests at nine BBC offices and published the home addresses and telephone numbers of several BBC executives on their web site, one of whom received death threats. When the show toured regional theatres in 2006 the protests continued.

Secularist commentators reacted to these shrill protests with broad-brush condemnations about “Christians trying to impose their views on the rest of us”. The key point here is this: the noisy actions of Christian fundamentalists, and the equally extreme tone of the reactions of aggressive atheists, have raised the temperature. The task of good religion, therefore, is to seek mutual understanding rather than adding to the tensions of a polarising situation.

The Regensburg address

So, let us turn to Pope Benedict’s 2006 address at the University of Regensburg in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said the Prophet Mohammad had brought “things only evil and inhuman”. His remarks caused anger around the whole Islamic world and led to violence in which a nun was killed in Somalia, churches were firebombed in Palestine and Christians were attacked in Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the row many commentators gave Benedict the benefit of the doubt. He was naïve, they said, in not realising – back at the university where he was once professor of theology – that you cannot say things as Pope that would have been uncontroversial as an academic. The quote was, they said, an oblique remark buried deep within a learned address. The Pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, later said that the reaction “was a great surprise” to Benedict. The vehemence of the Muslim response, he said, had been “inflamed by newspapers which plucked a quotation from The Pope’s Speech and portrayed it as if these were his own words”.

That is disingenuous. The offensive quote was very high up in Benedict’s speech, and while he did not say he agreed with it, he did not repudiate it. Indeed it suited his line of argument.

What he wanted to say was that – contrary to the arguments of modern atheists – there is nothing incompatible about faith and reason. Indeed rationality is, thanks to the influence of Greek philosophy, at the core of Christianity. In the beginning was the logos, which means not just word but also reason. The Christian God is not capable of actions which are not good: not to act in accordance with reason is therefore contrary to God’s nature. By contrast, he said, in Islam God isn’t bound up by any human categories, even that of reason. Hence the Christian concept of God can never endorse the use of violence to spread religion but, the Pope implied, the Islamic God can and does.

This was very selective stuff. There are plenty of Christians who have leaned towards the “God beyond reason” view; Tertullian or Calvin perhaps. And there are plenty of Muslims who have said God must act in accordance with reason; the Mu’tazilite school for example. The Qur’an, Muslim scholars insist, constantly appeals to reason in refuting paganism, asking “do you not understand?”

The Pope’s Regensburg remarks were far from accidental. Indeed the same private secretary who had said that the Pope was taken aback by the reaction to his remarks, said – nine months later – “I consider the Regensburg Speech as delivered to be prophetic. . . The attempted Islamicisation of The West cannot be denied. And the danger to European Identity cannot be downplayed for reasons of sensitivity. The Roman Catholic side sees the danger and states it publicly. The Regensburg Speech should serve as a warning against naivety.”.

This is a significant turn of events. It shows a Pope for whom doctrinal and theological clarity are more important than social peace. It is an emphasis, I would suggest, which has been transmitted to the Bishops of England and Wales and which, the events of the past two years suggest, they have decided, or been persuaded, to adopt.

I want to look at two examples of how the bishops have interacted with the government and wider society – one of which was well-judged and the other of which has been ill-served by this confrontational model.

Faith schools

The success was on the matter of faith schools. What raised the issue was the spectre of Muslim schools. Muslims had long argued that if Christians and Jews had state-funded schools why shouldn’t they. With the increased focus on the Asian community post 9/11 the argument was becoming hard for the government to ignore. This got the secularists into a lather, predicting that Muslim schools would produce a new generation of fanatics. But because an attack on Muslim schools alone would offend against political correctness, they widened the attack to one on faith schools in general. The government responded to this pressure with a proposal that 25 per cent of all places in new faith schools to be reserved for pupils of a different faith or none. The then Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, hinted that the quota might then be applied to existing schools too.

The church hierarchy reacted robustly. They had formidable arguments to deploy. Catholic schools like the one my eight-year-old attends, place real emphasis on social justice, a bias to the poor, solidarity among nations and respect for the integrity of creation. All this leads to the opposite of social division. The Catholic school in the parish I used to attend, in Manchester’s Moss Side, had kids from 42 different nationalities. There the creation of shared social values, rooted in a religious faith, spills over to build social cohesion in the wider community; parents of different racial backgrounds meet, interact and socialise because of their children’s school. On top of that Catholic schools have good exam results, more ethnic minorities than other schools, as many kids on free school meals and lower failure rates with disadvantaged children. Contrary to fashionable contemporary logic, in most situations religion does considerably more good than harm.

But as well as formidable arguments the Church had considerable political leverage. Behind the scenes the bishops pointed out to ministers and Labour MPs the political consequences of alienating substantial numbers of Catholic voters. Tens of thousands of ordinary Catholics wrote to their MPs – especially targeting those in vulnerable marginals – over the threat to their schools. Labour MPs told me it was a postbag of a size which couldn’t be ignored.

It was a manoeuvre which the bishops executed with a high degree of political sophistication. They clearly set out the key issue involved: a threat to dilute the ethos of Catholic schools. They nimbly avoided the trap of over-exact comparisons between Catholic and Muslim schools. Behind the scenes they pointedly set out the political consequences of alienating substantial numbers of Catholic voters. And when the government backed down, the bishops were publicly magnanimous, making out that the Church had compromised much more than they actually had. It was a masterclass in political operating.

Gay adoption

When it came to gay adoption, however, the bishops’ sureness of touch deserted them. Towards the end of 2007 the government announced there would be no opt-out for Catholic adoption agencies in new laws forbidding schools, businesses and other agencies from refusing services on the basis of age, disability, gender, race or religion. The Catholic hierarchy opposed the extension of the act to lesbians, gays and bisexuals arguing that “marital love involves an essential complementarity of male and female”. Secularists countered by saying that laws should apply equally to everyone. One Labour MP said. “We don’t want to live in a society where people can say ‘I don’t like blacks and so they have to travel on the back of a bus’.”

Cardinal Murphy O’Connor wrote a letter to all Cabinet ministers setting out the reasons why Catholic adoption agencies should be exempted from the new Equalities Act. He concluded by saying that if there was no exemption then Catholic adoption services would be forced to close. It was an ill-judged letter which allowed opponents to accuse the Church of moral blackmail.

The bishops misjudged things for several reasons. They failed to understand the speed at which the political power of the prime minister Tony Blair was ebbing away. (Blair had been one of the few voices backing the Church on the issue in Cabinet). But they also failed to appreciate that the tens of thousands of ordinary Catholics who wrote to their MPs over the threat to their schools would create no such postbag in support of the Church’s line on homosexuality, partly because many lay Catholics do not agree with it, but mainly because it doesn’t touch their lives directly; it is a mere point of ideology.

More than that, the Church’s argument was far weaker than it had been over faith schools. Archbishop Vincent Nichols on Newsnight was unable to offer Jeremy Paxman a plausible answer to the question: “Why will Church adoption agencies allow a single gay to adopt but not a gay couple?” Talk of “the best interests of the child” only highlighted the fact that – while the ideal for a child may be to have a married mother and father – all the behavioural indices showed that a child placed with a lesbian couple was far happier, and did far better, than a child left in care.

The Catholic hierarchy also got the tone wrong. There was talk of “new moral standards being touted by the Government” and hyperbole about the nation “descending into a spiral of immorality”. Cynics suggested that the high-octane rhetoric reflected competition among some bishops to please the Vatican just as a vacancy occurs for a new Archbishop of Westminster. Whatever the motive, all this unhelpfully linked Catholics with the obsessive row about homosexuality in the Anglican Communion and enabled outsiders to lump us in the same camp as histrionic groups like Christian Voice.

In pressing the Church’s official line on homosexuality bishops took no account of the disquiet among ordinary Catholics about the church’s attitude to the gay people that ordinary Catholics encounter in their everyday lives. The instinctive English sense of tolerance and fair play here chimes in with the wider gospel message about love and the inclusion of those who are marginalised. So the bishops didn’t get the backing of the ordinary people in the pew, as they had with faith schools – a factor which they should have foreseen.

Above all it was an unnecessary fight. Church adoption agencies, which in practice are ready to place children with single gay adopters, could have come to a behind-the-scenes pragmatic accommodation with the state system, as church agencies in the United States have. It was a needless confrontation.

Upping the ante

One of the classic laws of politics is “when in a hole stop digging”. But instead the bishops raised the stakes. When the news came that the government had not caved in to Catholic demands Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor made a series of dramatic remarks to the effect that the Catholic Church was being told it had no place in the public life of this country. In a lecture delivered in Westminster he made reference to the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 in which full civil rights were restored to Catholics. In doing so he drew the media’s attention to the fact that he was the first Catholic leader in nearly 200 years to place a question mark over the allegiance of his church to the British state – overturning the tradition of Catholic leaders making a powerful point of their loyalty to Queen and country.

He declared: “For my own part, I have no difficulty in being a proud British Catholic citizen.” But then he added a major caveat. “But now it seems to me we are being asked to accept a different version of our democracy, one in which diversity and equality are held to be at odds with religion. . . We Catholics don’t demand special privileges, but we do demand our rights.” Note the emergence of the language of rights. Catholics are being invited not to see themselves as part of a mainstream upon which they can have an influence for the better but rather as a minority whose rights must be protected. This was an unhelpful development and a poor tactic.

He went on to speak of “an essential core of our democratic freedom” being undermined and said that “the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel.” This was “a radical exclusion of religion from the public sphere. . . Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends,” he said. He invoked the judgment of “subsequent generations”. The historic dramatics of the speech was an over-reaction which was, sadly, of a piece with the whole ill-judged affair.

The hyperbolic language was contagious. Not long after, north of the border, Cardinal Keith O’Brien gave an Easter sermon marking 40 years since the Abortion Act, again lamenting the marginalisation of Christian values in public affairs – while, paradoxically, doing so in terms which seemed likely to further not counter that perceived phenomenon. Catholic politicians who defend abortion, he said, should not expect to remain full church members and should consider their stance on receiving Communion. His most inflammatory words came when he compared Scotland’s abortion rate as the equivalent of “two Dunblane massacres a day”.

This was, again, language which alienated wider society from the insights which Catholic theology has to offer. It is hard to persuade the public tat there is a moral equivalence between the morning-after pill and looking onto the eyes of a six-year-old girl and blowing her head off. Any leader who suggests there is merely makes themselves look intemperate and extremist – and deals a serious blow to the credibility of their Church. Cardinal O’Brien has used a similar tone recently in talking about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. But, again, the debate is more is more complex than a reductive “cells or souls” argument. And the “monstrous Frankenstein” vocabulary the cardinal again chose to deploy only fuels claims that Catholicism is anti-science.

Religion and Britishness

So what conclusion should we draw from all this? There is much concern in political circles these days about what it means to be British. Again the chief focus is on Muslims, but the experience of Catholics has lessons to offer. Gordon Brown has been much exercised on this subject. Britishness, he has concluded, has nothing to do with race or ethnicity – nor Norman Tebbit’s ridiculous cricket test. Nor is it to do with the strength of our national institutions. Rather, he suggests, it is something to do with values, shared values. Among these he includes the freedom of the individual under the law, the rejection of the arbitrary rule of the state, a tradition of fair play and decency and the combination of a drive for economic prosperity with traditions of social obligation and public service.

So far so good, but the prime minister’s policy proposals for addressing the problem seem pretty thin gruel – citizenship lessons in schools, a national youth community service, reclaiming the national flag from thugs and, more substantially, better education for ethnic minorities. They are all desirable enough initiatives, but not of the order which would address a problem on the scale he identifies.

What will address it is something more organic. The Catholic experience over the last half century demonstrates how. What Catholics have undergone in my lifetime is a process which exemplifies the British genius for absorption, adaptation and assimilation. It is why this nation has successfully managed change for 300 years without violent revolution. It is non-intellectual and unselfconscious – but has something to do with the philosophy of forms by which the pragmatist British may not be able to define a chair but we all know one when we see one. Catholics have gone through a process in which it is possible to hold onto a distinct religious identity, with distinctive values, and yet become completely British, and in doing so to bring our values to bear influentially on the mainstream of society. It has been, of course, a long business.

The danger I see now is that this Hume Dispensation is being jeopardised by a contemporary climate which generates more heat than light. In part that temperature is being raised by the constant aggression of the folk Tina Beattie has called the New Atheists. But in part it is the Church which is responsible for this unhappy polarisation.

The Church should not be fostering this polarisation by defining English Catholics as a persecuted minority that must defend their rights. It should not be sending out signals which encourage wider society to lump us in with scriptural literalists or homophobic bigots. And it should not be paranoid and defensive but expansive and generous.

Our present course will ultimately rebound on us, both institutionally – some Labour constituencies have already began to voice the question: “should we select a Catholic as a prospective candidate if he or she will have to follow the bishops’ whip rather than the views of our constituents?” – and also religiously because the bishops’ present tactics could well hamper our mission to spread the gospel values effectively through our pluralist society.

It is time for English Catholicism to pause, and step back, and return to a positive engagement between society and other faiths, embracing what is good, and challenging what is harmful to our common life. The new model must be persuasion not confrontation. Catholicism must not become be part of the problem. It has to be part of the solution.