British Catholics battle aggressive secularism

In Britain it feels as if a new era is opening up. It's not just that market worship has come to a brutal end in the collapse of banks and the darkness of recession. It is also a time when an increasingly aggressive secularism in British state and society is encountering a new kind of response from the Church, one that dispenses with the yearning for respectability by British Catholics of the post-Vatican II generation.

This new response means preferring prophecy to politeness, courage to consensus. It means preferring passionate and courageous public statements to the safe, bureaucratic language of bishops' conferences. It means the attempt to recover a vigorous sense of Catholic identity in the face of increasing attempts by the British state to exclude the Church from the public square.

The manifesto of this new, "integral" Catholicism -- one that is as strong on welcoming asylum-seekers as it is opposed to abortion and contraception -- is, surprisingly, the outcome of a 14-month diocesan review in a small diocese in the north of England. "Fit for Mission?" has won high praise from Rome and set the cat among the pigeons in the bishops' conference of England and Wales. It was published this month by a bishop who has increasingly emerged as the focus of the secular-Catholic clash.

"I am convinced that if we are to wake from the weariness that is taking hold of the Church in this country," says Lancaster Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue, "we must return to the sources of our Catholic identity and mission."

Unlikely leader

At first glance, Bishop O'Donoghue is an unlikely poster boy for this vigorous new response to mounting secular hostility. Short, unassuming, the head of a diocese few had heard of until he began speaking out, slated for retirement when he reaches 75 next year, and with a radio manner that is hesitant and confused, the bishop at first seems to have no obvious qualities to commend him for the role.

Yet his courage, conviction, energy and knack for the right public gesture at the right time have been highly effective. He has a long track record in courageously speaking out -- especially for asylum-seekers and the homeless when he was administrator of Westminster Cathedral under the late Cardinal Basil Hume. After his appointment to Lancaster in 2001, he made news when he sold his $2 million, 16-room bishop's mansion, choosing to go on the road with his priests. A year later, he candidly admitted that the diocese was more than $18 million in debt because it had accumulated excessive bureaucracy.

Earlier this year, he made news when he blamed high levels of abortion for the culture of violent crime: "For 14 years we've lived in a state-sponsored culture of death that has killed 5 million children, and we're now surprised that some of the surviving children have turned out violent with no regard for the sanctity of life?" he asked.

Bishop O'Donoghue's attempt to reinvigorate Catholic life has been helped by his performance in Parliament, where in March this year he was called to account for a document on Catholic education he had issued late last year. "Fit for Mission? Schools" -- which has since been in demand in many countries, including the United States, after a ringing endorsement from Rome -- said state-funded Catholic schools should not raise money for organizations with anti-life policies, should remove anti-religious polemics from school libraries, and not present as neutral the secular view on sex outside marriage, contraception, and HIV/AIDS. The document prompted a House of Commons select committee enquiry into what was being taught in state-funded Catholic schools. It was chaired by a Labor member of Parliament who detected a "new fundamentalism" -- evident, he said, in the teaching of homosexuality as sinful. The politician revealingly told the committee that "faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked."

Democracy damaged

Bishop O'Donoghue told that committee that "every school has a philosophy, and a philosophy which puts God at the center and morality as objective is no less powerful than that which says God is irrelevant and morality is up to the individual choice."

He made, in other words, an appeal to the pluralism that should underpin democracy: a variety of views are permitted in the public square where they are allowed to compete on an equal footing. "The impression that is coming across from Parliament and the media is that the only true democratic stance is that God is irrelevant and that morality is up to the individual," Bishop O'Donoghue said.

Unlike European democracies which emerged from the French Revolution, the British state is officially Christian, and has traditionally allowed for both religious and nonreligious expressions in the public sphere. Catholic schools, for example, are mostly state-funded, as are Catholic adoption agencies.

Church-state breach

But that is changing. As the state has become more hostile to Catholic views, the tensions over public funding have begun to show. A clumsy attempt by the Labor government in 2006 to force Catholic schools to introduce quotas for non-Catholics failed; but a year later, in June 2007, the outgoing prime minister, Tony Blair, was unable to persuade his fellow Cabinet members to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from new anti-discrimination legislation. The Equality Act, which comes into force in January, makes it illegal for the 11 Catholic adoption agencies to refuse a same-sex couple the chance to adopt.

It is hard not to agree with Bishop O'Donoghue's assessment in "Fit for Mission?" that "any hint of evangelization or catechesis, even within our Catholic schools, is increasingly viewed as intolerable indoctrination and proselytism" while "a breach seems to be growing between the state and the church," which makes a public expression of Catholic faith ever more controversial. The answer, for Bishop O'Donoghue, is not to appease that hostility by watering down Catholic doctrine but rather "an evangelization of state power." Catholics, he says, are called now to be not just "gathered" but "sent" -- and in "Fit for Mission?" he has provided the manifesto for their new mandate.

Conundrum for Catholic lawmaker

Another Rubicon was crossed recently with the resignation from the Labor government of one of its longest-serving ministers, Ruth Kelly. An Opus Dei supernumerary who has never made any secret of her Catholic convictions, Kelly stood down after 10 years saying she needed to spend more time with her four children. That was the truth, but it emerged that she first told the prime minister of her intentions back in May, when the Human Fertilization and Embryology (HFE) Bill came before Parliament. The HFE bill legalizes the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, "savior siblings" and other forms of human commodification deplored by the Catholic Church.

What appalled Kelly was that Prime Minister Gordon Brown wanted to "whip" the vote -- forcing all Labor MPs to vote with the government -- rather than allow a free (conscience) vote, as did the Conservatives when they introduced the original HFE Act in 1990. Kelly rebelled, and Brown reluctantly agreed to allow a free vote on the more contentious issues in the bill -- but only on its first two readings. By resigning now, Kelly is ensuring that she does not have to be part of the government when the final reading of the bill comes before Parliament next month.

Austen Ivereigh writes from England. "Fit for Mission Church" can be downloaded in PDF from