Dear Mr Murphy O’Connor,
Courage in “Defence of the Faith” is, I suppose, a requirement of your office. Even so, I find it hard not to admire your courage — or bare-faced cheek — in attempting to “lay down the law” to the British government and the people it governs on what legal rights gay people in the UK should have and what legal rights granted to others should be denied to them.
You are joined in this by your “brothers in Christ” Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, Archbishops of Canterbury and York respectively.
You want the state to back you in forcing those who reject your religion, including gay Catholics who reject your teaching on this point, to live by your religious rules. You claim it as a right of conscience for Catholics to be legally empowered to act punitively against those who reject your rules.
In what way is what you demand anything other than a demand for Catholic religious tyranny over gay people, including gay Catholics?
In what way is it not a demand to be given the right to impose your views on others who reject them?
In what way is your demand anything other than an assertion that the rights of gay citizens are less important than the “conscientious” right of Catholics’ to deny them those rights?
What you and your Anglican brethren demand here is that in the way it treats gay people, Britain should be ruled by the laws and prejudices of your churches and by men like yourself, who are, to put things plainly, either lifelong celibates or thoroughgoing hypocrites.
You are demanding the right to inflict on others ethical concerns and rules of behaviour which are not theirs but yours: the rights of your religious consciences must, you insist, be elevated above other people’s civil rights.
You attempt to use blackmail, threatening to close down Catholic orphanages if you don’t get your way. That, Mr. Murphy O'Connor, shows how much you really care about the children you present yourself as being so keen to protect from the contamination of love and care by gay foster parents. Doesn't it? If you are not allowed to inflict your own narrow mindedness on others, then, as far as you are concerned, the orphan children can, so to speak, go to Hell.
It does take courage – or a well-founded brass neck – for a leader of a minority church to claim in the name of his religious conscience the right of his own co-religionists to determine how society treats others, here gay people. You want the religious tail to wag the large, de-facto secularist dog, Mr Murphy O'Connor.
Your “courage” in this, however, is not the courage I have in mind.
For a couple of decades now, your church has repeatedly been shaken by a stream of revelations that in Catholic care homes and schools all across the Western world, children have been subjected to systematic sexual abuse by clerics.
Such scandals have broken out all across the world, from the USA to our own Pope’s Green Ireland.
In Ireland, behind the façade of a bourgeois democracy, your church ruled for most of the 20th century over what was in effect a theocracy. So much so that Ireland was — as a 1950s writer could truthfully boast in the Maynooth seminary’s magazine — like one great monastery, where people’s lives were in every respect governed by religion. That is by priests and bishops.
There, Mr Murphy O’Connor, where people like you ruled over a country to a degree unequaled, probably, since the Middle Ages, you made life a hell for children in the schools which, with minimal “interference” from governments, you ran, and in the orphanages and reformatories where children were at the mercy of priests and nuns.
Former child victims of such sexual mistreatment by Catholic priests and nuns, in Ireland and in many other countries, have brought numerous court cases and won large amounts of compensation from your church for its treatment of them when they were helpless, small, defenceless children.
These victims of sexual abuse have had serious psychological damage done to them. They have gone and still go through adult life blighted by their mistreatment by your priests and, typically by way of savage violence, nuns.
By priests and nuns who themselves were victims, most of them from early childhood, of religious indoctrination, which induced them to accept a way of religious living built on the repression and condemnation of some of their own most-powerful, and most volcanic, instincts.
One does not have to think their abuse of children anything other than damnable — in your sense and mine — to feel some sympathy for such people.
The children in that vast, world-wide archipelago of Catholic orphanages and schools had their childhoods and, many of them, their entire lives, blighted by priests and nuns whose own lives were blighted by trying to live within a rule of life-long celibacy, that was both inhuman and, for large numbers of them, untenable. The children were the victims of that system.
And you Mr Murphy O’Connor, in the name of an international organisation which, in the 20th century, functioned as a sort of International Paedophiles Anonymous — in which priests sought not cure, but licence and abundant supplies of victims – you, instead of questioning in the light of such experience your own beliefs, and the fitness of your church, and of men like yourself, to lay down rules for anyone, you claim the right to penalise gay people for not accepting the rules imposed by the clergy — the rules which so many, so very many, of your clerical brethren honoured in the breach rather than in the compliance.
As Jesus said: First remove the beam from your own eye.
Mr Murphy O’Connor, you cloak your religious prejudices in hypocritical concern for the children. What exactly is it that you fear?
Of course, any properly run adoption or fostering agency will check out the suitability of all potential foster parents, be they hetero or homosexual. It will be on guard, watching for possibilities of abuse, for predatory paedophiles, for potential violence, and so on.
For sure, the record of non-Catholic as well as Catholic foster homes, in Britain and elsewhere, as places where vast number of children were abused in various ways over many decades, does not recommend complacency about such things.
Nor do such terrible incidents as social service workers in deference to "cultural pluralism”, allowing little Victoria Climbie to be murdered by a religious maniac Christian aunt. Decent people can not be satisfied with the state of things in these institutions.
But that is an entirely different issue to the one we are discussing: whether Catholics should be allowed to discriminate against gay would-be foster parents.
Apply your approach to adoption by gay people to other matters of conscience Mr Murphy O’Connor and you will get very strange results.
After all there are still people who think witches with Diabolical power exist, and that they work their malign practices on good Christian people. There are people who believe that Jews, or some Jews, do similar things and that they drink the blood of “Christian children”.
Isn’t it a violation of their religious rights and of their conscience to deny them the right to persecute and kill witches and Jews by burning them alive or by driving stakes into their hearts? The right to act in relation to such obnoxious and sinful people according to their own morals and consciences?
The religion-crazed Christian aunt of the little girl Victoria Climbie did just that with a child her religious beliefs and state of mind led her to brand as a witch possessed by demons. There are, apparently, many small, Africa-rooted Christian churches whose members commonly hold beliefs like this. Why don’t they have the right to act according to their consciences? Why are the consciences of such people less important than the consciences of Catholics like yourself?
Shouldn’t you campaign for Marie Therese Kouao (Victoria Climbie’s aunt) to be released from jail?
Why is it right to treat sinful gay people as you want and not right to treat witches in the good old witch-burning time-honoured way? Who decides where the line is drawn?
Vast numbers of women were burned as witches in Europe some hundreds of years ago. Witch-burning was, as I understand it, much more a phenomenon in early Reformation Protestant states than of Catholic Europe. (After all, episcopal urbanity has to be of some use!) But it did happen in Catholic countries too.
And, of course, notoriously, the Catholic Church burned heretics, whenever and wherever it was strong enough to do it. The Catholic church backed or helped initiate the systematic coercion by Louis XIV, after 1685, of French Protestants that almost wiped out Protestantism in France.
Rowan Williams’ and John Sentamu’s church inspired, backed and administered the savage coercion of Irish Catholics, under which your ancestors and mine were condemned to social and legal outlawry for over two hundred years.
For a certainty there are individual lunatics lurking in your Church and in that of Rowan Williams whose consciences would dictate to them that they should now do things like that. Quite apart from the fact that Rowan Williams and yourself would not agree on exactly who should be persecuted, you would not, would you, advocate as a matter of conscientious right, that Catholic (or Protestant) lunatics should be allowed to burn those they thought were witches, kill obnoxious Jews, persecute Protestant, Catholic or Jew or Muslim? Why not? Because you know better?
Because you live in more enlightened times — times in which the desire to continue behaving as your’s and Rowan William’s churches behaved in the past would brand such “traditionalists” as out and out lunatics?
Because you accept that the law that forbids, and would punish severely, such behaviour towards “witches”, Jews, “heretics”, Papists, etc, is a more enlightened law than the laws under which such things were done in the past?
The point, Mr Murphy O’Connor, is that so, too, is the law that now — since very recently, and very belatedly — forbids and would punish violence and discrimination again gay people.
It is a law to regulate citizens’ behaviour according to standards that are, I submit, greatly superior to your own prejudiced, Dark-Ages-rooted, mind and conscience on the rights of gay people.
Nor is your own Catholic morality immutable, as the things of the past which I have mentioned demonstrate.
Older Catholics and ex-Catholics will know very well that articles of faith in which they were educated, and trained to obey, on pain of the threat of damnation, ceased in the 60s and 70s to be Catholic law. Your attitude to gays is part of a complex of teachings on sexuality and procreation of which your attitude to contraception is also part. Such things as your church's prohibition of contraception will, almost certainly, eventually be jettisoned, like so much in the past.
There are, perhaps, signs of that already.
You make the point, Mr Murphy O’Connor, obviously with Ruth Kelly in mind:
“It would be deeply regrettable if in seeking, quite properly, better to defend the rights of a particular group not to be discriminated against, a climate were to be created in which, for example, some feel free that members of the government are not free to hold public office on the grounds of their faith affiliation.”
The point here, though, is that no one has the right to be a minister, and impose their own faith-derived beliefs on those who reject them.
Let us, indeed, take the case of Ruth Kelly.
One could make a strong case in favour of Ruth Kelly. In contrast to most of the Blair Government’s ministers, Kelly, Minister for Women and Equality, and former Education Secretary, comes across as a proper and possibly likeable human being, a bright young woman who has managed to combine having a sizeable brood of kids, still young, with a high flying political career.
On one level, even Kelly’s Catholicism might be taken to recommend her. In contrast with most ministers and most MPs, her affiliations suggest that she believes in something other than her career and getting on in the world. She is a fervent, old-fashioned, practicising Catholic.
Though she approaches things differently, she probably believes, more than most Labour ministers, in some of the values socialists believe in. Catholic Popes have sometimes criticised capitalism for its predatory, cancerous cultural commercialism and its idolatry of the market.
Here too Ruth Kelly stands in favourable contrast with most of her government colleagues and New Labour MPs, whose capacity for belief and care is exhausted by their over-fervent belief in and care for their own careers.
But Ruth Kelly is a member of the militant Catholic cult, Opus Dei (the Work of God) — or as near to membership as a miserable, weak, sinful, inferior woman can get with this organisation. A member of an ultra-Catholic, semi-secret cult that originated in fascist Spain (and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco was very much a Catholic dictatorship, just as the civil war through which that dictatorship was established, was on that side very much a Catholic crusade).
Therefore, despite all the things one might say for Ruth Kelly, it is nothing less than an outrage that Kelly should have been Minister for Education, and is now, Minister for Women and Equality, in charge of deciding how the rights accorded to gay people by the British Parliament will be implemented in particular cases, such as adoption policy.
Her support for the proposal that Catholic orphanages arranging adoptions and fosterings should be exempt from the legal obligation to treat gay the same as heterosexual couples, is evidence that Kelly is unfitted by her faith to hold such positions.
And of course it isn’t just a question of Kelly’s views. The Prime Minister is a crypto-Catholic, who, like Charles the Second, will formally convert to Catholicism at the end of his career. He, most likely, shares Kelly’s doctrinal guidelines on matters like this. He, after all, appointed her.
Kelly’s successor as Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson, is not a member of Opus Dei or even a Catholic. Yet Johnson bowed to Catholic objections to imposing on Catholic and other religious schools an obligation to take in a percentage of non-believers as pupils.
Under pressure, Johnson buckled and settled for vague assurances from yourself, Mr Murphy O’Connor, and others who run the big network of Catholic schools in England.
Believing Muslims do not, as far as I know, dominate the present British government. Yet this wretched government has legislated to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred" — the freedom to criticise, denounce and mock religion — in a desire to placate Muslim leaders, for whom any sharp criticism of Islam is an insult and an outrage. (You, of course, also wanted such legislation.)
Blair and his colleagues thereby showed themselves to be as far from serious liberal thought in their approach to these matters as you yourself are.
Ruth Kelly is important not only because she is a member of Opus Dei in charge of ministries in which her own strong religious beliefs come into conflict with the liberal norms of the society presided over by the New Labour government, but because she dramatises the conflict between liberal social arrangements and serious, believing, Christians, Muslims and others.
She demonstrates how preposterous it is to have Ruth Kelly, or Tony Blair the crypto-Catholic, in government positions where conflict arises between the personal beliefs of the minister and the norms and expectations (and, here, laws) of an advanced liberal bourgeois democracy such as that in which you and I, Mr Murphy O’Connor, live.
Yet the root problem is not the religious beliefs of individual ministers, or even the Prime Minister. The root problem is the framework of institutions, laws, norms and expectations within which British governments work.
You, Mr Murphy O’Connor, and Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair, can only play the role you are playing in this discussion because British institutions so far lag behind those of France and, even, the USA, in putting organised religion in its proper, subordinate, place — in constitutionally ruling out attempts by the religious to decree how non-believers will live in a common society with them.
Both France and the USA have experienced radical bourgeois-democratic revolutions. Britain, whose bourgeois revolution was made much earlier, in the 17th century, when social and class interests were cloaked in religious garb and expressed in terms of religious dogmas and disputations, is here, simply backward.
Ignorant, bigoted, backwards religion — which is often very anti-Catholic, to be sure — is a great force in the USA. It has given to the world the Magi gift of President George W Bush. They are busily attacking the secularist political traditions of US public life. Even so, the separation of church and state, established in America at the end of the 18th century, remains a great force for public good, despite such antics as Donald Rumsfeld, when he was secretary for defence, holding daily prayer meetings in his office.
By contrast, Britain has a State Church, the Anglican Church, whose titular head is the monarch, the British head of state.
Arguably the worst thing which the Blair government has done in its decade in office has been to encourage the growth of “faith schools”. A later generation, and maybe the present one, will be faced with the consequences of the religious segregation of children — religious segregation which in some cases coincides heavily with ethnic segregation. A terrible price may have to be paid for that.
Even so, put the case against Blair at its strongest, and it is still true that Blair has only built on and expanded existing traditions. Blair has sowed his poisoning crop in a garden that was laid out long before his time.
It is now almost forgotten — you won’t have forgotten it! — what an uproar greeted the proposal at the beginning of the 20th century for the British state to endow Catholic schools. Catholic schools which mainly catered for the children of immigrant (Irish) workers, much as Muslim schools do now.
Paradoxically, then as now, the argument for faith schools -- for an intrinsically-divisive, religious-run system of education, for extending support to Catholic, as now to Muslim, schools -- rested on the high ground of egalitarianism: the right of Catholics, as now of Muslims, to equal treatment.
Anglican schools were then already endowed, as now, when we discuss Muslim faith schools, thousands of Anglican, Catholic and Jewish state-funded schools already exist. For you, Mr Murphy O’Connor, that is how it should be.
It is a terrible judgement on the backwardness of Britain in such matters – a backwardness which your own involvement in this discussion loudly proclaims – that the separation of church and state was realised in the USA over two hundred years ago and is still unrealised in the UK!
For those of us who reject the idea that the obscurantist doctrines of archaic religions should have any influence in shaping the social laws through which we regulate our lives, a different conclusion follows.
The whole framework needs to be changed!
• The very possibility of any sort of privileging of the viewpoint or the representatives of any religion, the privilege you are now demanding for Catholics when you demand that they should have the right to discriminate against gay people — that possibility should, as far as possible, be eliminated.
• Religion must be made into a private matter in relation to society.
• Religious men and women like yourself must be, in your capacity of religious leaders, excluded from any role in the state system of education greater than that to which you are entitled as an individual citizen having a citizen’s rights.
• Catholic and other religious-run orphanages must become the property of society, rather than what they are now, receptacles in which young and vulnerable children are held at the mercy of religious indoctrinators.
• In every area of society, I repeat, the church should be separated from the state.
• The Anglican church should be disestablished, and disendowed. Its property must be made public property.
• As part of the separation of church and state, all faith schools should be taken over and turned into secular state schools — schools in which no religion is taught and religion is studied only as comparative religion.
Paradoxically, this would have as one of its effects the strengthening of freedom of religion, which is and must be an inalienable right of the citizen.
Right now, the sniping and speculation about Ruth Kelly’s religion and its possible relationship to her judgments as a minister, is inevitably intrusive. It probes and prods at her and her religion. That is because, under the existing system, her private believes are a legitimate concern of people who know that Kelly’s religion – and yours, and Tony Blair’s — will play a part in the resolution of the current crisis.
Kelly does not have to have a placard around her neck proclaiming that homosexuals are evil and deservedly damned, etc, for people to know very plainly that she has such views and that her views cannot but influence her attitudes.
There will always be some areas in which the practices associated with or forbidden by some religion will, in the interests of others, place some limitations on the practitioner’s role in society.
The idea that a woman with her face veiled should teach was absurd, and the woman concerned was rightly sacked. Even though she had the right as a citizen to wear the veil, she had no right to teach while veiled.
You too, Mr Murphy O’Connor. You have and should retain the right to believe any absurdity you like. And the right to lay down any absurd rules you like for people who voluntarily accept what you, or your Pope, decree, as rules for themselves. You have no right to inflict your own opinions, to cramp and curtail the lives of others by the bigoted imposition on them of rules of living which they reject.
A compulsorily celibate man, part of a large world wide caste of compulsorily celibate men and women, championing the “traditional family”, and demanding sanctions against those who take a different view, is a vicious, absurdity!
So too is the whole British system of relationships between the state and the churches.
To adapt a slogan from the women’s movement:
Keep your hands off our bodies, Mr Murphy O’Connor! And our minds!
John O’Mahony (Sean Matgamna)