One might have expected the Catholic Church in Great Britain to enter a cosy relationship with the new Labour Government of Tony Blair elected in 1997. During that year's general election, the bishops of England and Wales had issued a document entitled The Common Good, which sought to apply the principles of Catholic social teaching to the issues of the day. Although the document did not advise voters for which party they should vote, it was clear that the sympathies of the bishops lay more with Labour than with the outgoing Conservatives. The bishops were particularly critical of the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher and what has come to be called neo-liberalism, which seemed to stress individualism and the market and to undermine social solidarity.
Furthermore, several members of the new Cabinet were self-confessed Christians, including the new prime minister, Tony Blair, who, although not a Catholic, attended Mass with his Catholic wife and family. The Blairs also incurred the wrath of traditional leftists by sending their children to a leading Catholic school, the Oratory, instead of the local state-funded school. At one point, several of the leading positions of British politics were held by Catholics: the secretaries of state of Scotland and Northern Ireland, the speakers of the House of Commons, and so on. Two of the party leaders were even Catholics: Ian Duncan Smith of the Conservatives and Charles Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats.
Despite all of this seemingly overwhelming Catholic presence at the heart of British politics, relations between the Church and the political establishment have been fraught with tension over a range of issues connected with bioethics and sexual morality. Two of the principal bones of contention have been the existence of "faith schools" and whether Catholic adoption agencies should be obliged by law to accept homosexual couples as adopters.
Before looking at these issues, it should be borne in mind that the United Kingdom, particularly since the devolution program that set up a Scottish Parliament, a National Assembly for Wales, and a Northern Ireland Assembly, is composed of the three nations of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland. Each of these parts of the U.K. has a distinctive religious, political, educational, and cultural setup, and these have led to significant variations in their public policy stances.
A distinctive feature of the British and Northern Irish educational systems, in contrast to the situation in the United States, is a large, publicly funded religious-schools sectornow lumped under the name "faith schools." Most of these schools are Anglican and Catholic, but there are smaller numbers of Jewish and Muslim schools. There are also several Muslim schools, with apparently a strict Muslim ethos, that are not publicly funded, though they wish to be. The publicly funded faith schools may also develop a school ethos based on the principles and beliefs of their faith, although they must also follow a national curriculum.
What is striking about these schools is how successful they are on a whole range of indicators of academic and personal growth and in their relationship with the wider community. Ofsted, the government agency responsible for inspecting and evaluating publicly funded schools, has consistently praised them. In fact, they are so good that there are long waiting lists that include pupils from non-faith backgrounds. Many Muslims seek to send their children, particularly their daughters, to Catholic schools because they teach a version of sexual morality that is close to their own.
Despite these undoubted successes, there is a great deal of opposition from an increasingly vocal secularist lobby both inside and outside Parliament. These secularists are mainly found in the Labour party and among Liberal Democrats, but there are also a few, such as Lord Kenneth Baker, who had been Mrs. Thatcher's education minister, within the Conservative party. The secularists oppose religious schools for a variety of reasons. Some, such as the notorious Richard Dawkins, simply believe they are evil and harm children by indoctrinating them with religious beliefs. Others condemn Catholic schools in particular for teaching that sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful and accuse them of discrimination against homosexual teachers.
A more recent accusation, made on a number of occasions by Lord Baker, is that faith schools are "socially divisive." Baker points to Northern Ireland as an example of this. In reality, this argument is quite spurious because the situation in England and Wales is quite different from that in Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, Catholic schools have been instruments of social integration rather than division and were largely responsible for the assimilation of poor Irish Catholics into British society. Furthermore, they have an explicit policy of social mixing and have many pupils from deprived backgrounds. At the same time, they are concerned to preserve their Catholic ethos and limit the numbers of non-Catholics (and, yes, they discriminate in this sense). But even in Northern Ireland, segregated education is a consequence, rather than the cause, of the deep societal conflict, and undoubtedly the "Troubles" would have been much worse without the continual presence of faith schools and Christian teaching.
In order to prevent the alleged threat to social cohesion, the Labour education secretary, Alan Johnson, attempted, in an education bill passing through Parliament in 2007, to impose a quota system, which would oblige faith schools to accept a minimum of 25 percent of pupils from a background that was not that of the predominant faith of the school. This was supposed to allow the school to become more "cohesive." While the Church of England went along with the proposal, it was vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church. In the end, the government backed down, probably realizing that the measure might cost them seats in constituencies with large Catholic populations, such as in Scotland and the northwest of England. Lord Baker tried to reintroduce this clause when the bill was passing through the House of Lords, but it too was defeated.
This was clearly deeply humiliating for the secularists, in particular for Alan Johnson. In what appears to be an attempt to bloody the Church's nose, he returned to the attack, this time on whether Catholic adoption agencies should be forced to place adoptive children with homosexual couples. The Equality Act 2007 includes the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which prohibit "discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation . . . in the provision of goods, facilities and services, education, the use and disposal of premises and the exercise of public functions." The regulations do not cover employment practices, where discrimination is tackled under different legislation. The Church would be in breach of the legislation if, for example, it refused to hire its halls or clubs to homosexual groups. But the issue that caught the headlines was whether the Church would be obliged to hand over children for adoption by homosexual couples. The Church argued that it accepted the principle that it was unjust to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of sexual orientation and that homosexuals should be treated with respect. But it also argued that it was impossible for its adoption agencies to allow homosexual couples to adopt, because this was out of line with Catholic teaching on marriage understood as a public commitment between a man and a woman. Homosexual couples could not be regarded as the equivalent of marriage.
The scene was thus set for a fierce contest between the Church, which asked for an exemption from the regulations, and those who argued that there could be no exceptions. Furthermore, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland introduced a version of the regulations there in January 2007, even before they had passed through the Westminster Parliament. The Scottish Executive (government) for its part came to an informal agreement with the Scottish hierarchy that Catholic agencies would be exempt.
Although Catholic adoption agencies in the U.K. place only a small percentage of adopted children (in England and Wales about 6 percent of all cases), they handle about one third of all the "difficult" cases: children with disabilities and with limited life expectancy; physically and sexually abused children; siblings in large families who need to stay together. Furthermore, the Church's agencies have an excellent record in post-adoptive care, much better than that of many local authority agencies. Catholic adoption agencies, in accordance with the Church's teaching on the family, place children with suitable married couples or single people. It does not place them with cohabiting heterosexual or homosexual couples. If such couples do request adoption services from a Catholic agency, they are referred to other agencies that can cater to them.
Since male homosexuals are about 2 percent of the general population, and it seems that only about 3 percent of homosexuals consider adopting children, the chances of them approaching Catholic agencies are pretty slim in the first place. Furthermore, homosexuals are fully aware of the Church's teaching on homosexuality. In the debates on the regulations in the House of Lords, it emerged that there was, in fact, only one case of a homosexual couple approaching a Catholic agency, and they were referred to another agency. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the primate of England and Wales, stated in a letter to the government that Catholic agencies would close rather than comply with the government regulations. Whatever its ambivalences about homosexuality, the Anglican Church, in a joint letter from the archbishops of Canterbury and York, supported the Catholic Church's position.
Despite the excellent record of Catholic adoption agencies and the great pool of expertise they have accumulated in this area, Prime Minister Blair announced that there would be no exemption from the regulations for faith-based groups. Agencies that were entirely privately funded could operate according to their own principles, but those that received public funding, as was the case of the Catholic adoption agencies, would have to conform. As a "compromise," the agencies were allowed eighteen months to comply with the regulations. In effect, this meant that their "execution" was stayed for this period.
It is clear that the Cabinet was divided on the issue, with some members, including Ruth Kelly, a Catholic reputedly close to Opus Dei; the minister responsible for this issue; and the prime minister himself seeking some form of exemption for the Church. Tony Blair's position in the Cabinet was weakened, however, because he was due to step down as prime minister (now an accomplished fact) and also because of his unpopularity over the war in Iraq.
There are a number of important issues at stake here. First, there is a clearly a clash between two principles: the principle of equality as defined by human rights legislation, which includes sexual orientation, and the principle of freedom of religion and conscience in a pluralistic society. In this case, the principle of equality has trumped the right of freedom of religion and conscience.
Second, what is striking is the influence that the homosexual lobby has gained through using human rights legislation to achieve their political and ideological ends. We have passed from decriminalizing homosexual behaviour to the active promotion of homosexuality as a lifestyle the equivalent of heterosexual marriage. The next stage in this process is the silencing of any oppositionparticularly opposition from the Catholic Church.
The Anglican churches in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, like their North American counterparts, are broadly sympathetic to the homosexual cause, as are several other Protestant denominations, thus leaving it mostly to the Catholic Church to defend traditional Christian sexual morality. The success of the homosexual campaign in silencing those who dissent from the new liberal secularist orthodoxy can be seen from the behaviour of the police in recent years. When an Anglican bishop mentioned the possibility of changing sexual orientation in a parish newsletter, he received a visit and a stern warning from the local police. The police have also threatened such Christians as an elderly couple and a Catholic radio broadcaster who objected to the homosexual lifestyle.
Even more ominously, these conflicts over faith schools and Catholic adoption agencies reveal the existence of powerful secularist lobby groups that are not only anti-Christian but especially anti-Catholic. They are found in the main political parties and among public figures and seem determined to remove the Catholic Church from public life and to undermine its institutions.
British anti-Catholicism is not new and has been a feature of British life since the Reformation. The historian Linda Colley in Britons: Forging the Nation 17071837 and Liah Greenfeld in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity have both pointed to the role of Protestantism in the constitution of English nationhood, which defined itself against its Catholic enemies France and Spain. Although Scotland, when an independent kingdom, was allied with France against England, it too defined nationhood in terms of Protestant identity. In Wales, the Reformation occurred later, but Welsh national identity also has roots in Protestant nonconformity.
Catholic recusants kept their heads down and survived, but anti-Catholic feeling in Great Britain was exacerbated with the arrival of large numbers of poor Irish Catholics during and after the Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century. This caused social tensions and riots in many British cities and serious sectarian conflict in Scotland. Despite the fact that the descendants of these immigrants were largely assimilated into British society by the last quarter of the twentieth century (with the exception of Northern Ireland), the old anti-Catholic prejudices remained. Today, however, it is mostly expressed by the so-called liberal left, found in the political parties and newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent, which frequently allow their columnists to engage in deeply offensive tirades against the Church.
North American readers are well familiar with this syndrome of the illiberal liberal left. What is lacking in Britain is a robust group of Catholic intellectuals such as exists in the United States to answer these assaults on the Church. Instead, we have The Tablet, which, under the editorship of John Wilkins, gradually abandoned orthodox Catholicism and seems to have become little more than a vehicle for something resembling liberal Anglicanism, which, as has been demonstrated, is no answer at all.
John Loughlin is the European Studies Centre Visiting Fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and professor of politics at Cardiff University.