Friday, 6 June 2008

Bishops, laity and politics

The following is from a recent ZENIT news report:

After being criticized by the secular media for being reticent on moral issues, the archbishop of Quebec acknowledged that the country's bishops really should speak out more.

Peter Kavanaugh of CBC radio admitted last week at the International Catholic Media Convention in Toronto of being envious of the United Kingdom, where the bishops there are willing "to actually engage in public, in the fiercest of terms, an issue that they saw as being vital to the future of the nation and the future of humanity," reported

I have found it quite interesting to reflect on the role taken by the Catholic Bishops of the United Kingdom during the recent debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Over quite a long period of time, briefing material was produced on their behalf and circulated and posted on their website. Speeches were made by a number of Bishop and press statements released by them; lay Catholics were encouraged to lobby their Members of Parliament. The Bishops deep seated opposition to key points of the Bill was made clear by those four or five bishops who acted as spokesmen for the others.

Thought 1: it is quite right that the Bishops should "teach" and "give a lead" on these issues.

Thought 2: the fields of politics, and of science and technology, and of medicine could rightly be seen as areas of lay engagement, where lay Catholics take their (secular) professional expertise into action in the light of faith, so it is really up to lay people to take the lead on these sorts of issues.

There is clearly a balance to be achieved between these two thoughts, and also a reflection to be made on whether that balance was correctly and effectively achieved during the recent events surrounding the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

I think the balance of the two thoughts could be reflected in two role models. My role model for the "Thought 1" approach would be Archbishop Oscar Romero. His pastoral letters are profoundly rooted in the Magisterium of the Church, and then apply that Magisterium to the situation in El Salvador at his time. His Sunday homilies, broadcast to the nation by radio, spoke out the truth about violence and injustice that otherwise would not have been admitted or generally known. However, he incessantly called for an end to violence and for an end to injustice; and while these calls may have most often been addressed to those in Government, they were in principle equally applicable to opposition groups as well. So, I think the Bishop's role is to teach the truth of the Catholic faith, applied to the current local situation, and be willing to express judgements as to whether or not particular actions or proposed policies are in accordance with truth and justice as taught by Catholic faith.

My role model for the "Thought 2" approach is Rocco Buttiglione. He was proposed by Italy as a commisioner for the European Union in 2004 (I think!). At a pre-appointment hearing, he was put on the spot about the Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality, since he had been nominated for the Commission portfolio that would have included equalities issues. As result of making a very cautious and carefully expressed statement of that teaching and refusing to deny that it was what he believed (but at the same time clearly defending the principle of non-discrimination in public life, which is what mattered to his holding public office), Rocco Buttiglione became the subject of considerable public criticism. Eventually, the withdrawal of his nomination as a European commisioner was forced on Italy. What is of interest here (and, I suspect, in other areas of Rocco Buttiglione's political and academic career too) is that, as a lay person, in the area of his own professional expertise and experience, he made a stand for a point of Catholic teaching that cost him a prestigious politcal appointment. For me, Rocco Buttiglione is the outstanding contemporary lay witness to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. So, I think the lay person's role is to use their professional expertise to judge when and how to act in witness to the content of Catholic teaching, and to do this on their own initiative and not just at the direction of the Bishops.

To evaluate the recent approach by the Catholic Church towards the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, we can perhaps ask some questions.

Question 1: Did the Bishops do more than teach the content of faith and apply it in making known their judgements as to whether the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill were compatible with truth and justice as expressed in Catholic teaching? Did the Bishops engage in a politcal campaign that might have more appropriately been led by lay people?

Question 2: Did Catholic politicians, particularly Cabinet members, really
act in witness to the judgements expressed by the Bishops and rooted in Catholic teaching? Or did they fudge it? Did other lay Catholics really run with political and media campaign that was properly theirs, rather than relying on the public stance of the Bishops?

On a more personal note that reflect this discussion, I was a Parliamentary candidate for the ProLife Alliance during the 1997 General Election (a fascinating experience which taught me a lot about the electoral process). At the time, my parish priest received some criticism from others for not coming out in support of my candidature. But it had never occurred to me that he should (or could) endorse the particular approach to pro-life politics represented at that election by the ProLife Alliance. I considered it to be up to me a as a lay person to make the decision about what I was doing and how I was going to translate pro-life principles into political action. If I recall correctly, not everyone who was pro-life thought that the ProLife Alliance activity at that election was appropriate, and it clearly had great potential for mishap.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Today, 7th June, Zenit is carrying a report of remarks made by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, of the Scottish diocese of St Andrew's. Cardinal O'Brien was speaking at a Mass in the Crypt of the House of Commons.

Cardinal O'Brien observed that society is currently living a "time of confusion over the most basic questions about our society and the values we hold dear."

But, in the context of this post, his later remark about the dulling of conscience among lay people is most interesting. This is quoted from the ZENIT report:

"We cannot but help notice that consciences among even some who ostensibly see themselves as loyal Catholics or champions of life have been dulled even so far as to acquiesce with what is euphemistically called a right to choose."

"God's gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love, and self-control. So you are never to be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord," Cardinal O'Brien said, quoting St. Paul.

He added, "That is precisely what all involved in political life are called upon to do at this present time."