A Catholic official in Scotland last week publicly raised the prospect that the faithful might soon be breaking the law if they profess Church teaching on marriage and sexuality.
Anthony Horan, director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office, warned politicians that a new hate crimes law might entrap ordinary Catholics who dared to share Church teaching on, say, same-sex marriage or transsexuality.
“In a climate of heightened sensitivity there is a very real danger that expressing or even holding individual or collective opinions or beliefs will become a hate crime,” he said in reference to a consultation ahead of a Scottish Hate Crimes Bill.
“We must guard against this and ensure freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion are protected.
“Some people might suggest that expressing the Catholic Church’s position on marriage or human sexuality could be an attempt to stir up hatred,” he continued. “This would obviously be wrong, but without room for robust debate and exchange of views we risk becoming an intolerant, illiberal society.”
Although Scottish Catholics were the victims of 57 per cent of all religiously aggravated offences reported in 2018, the Church is not asking for new laws to tackle sectarian crime because existing legislation is inadequate. “Our problem is not so much sectarianism but anti-Catholicism,” said Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow (pictured).
The danger of a law passed ostensibly to protect Catholics from “hate” is that, in an anti-Catholic climate, it could end up being used against them.
Horan said that there was now “a culture of fear that runs right through society and which makes people feel at best uncomfortable and at worst totally frightened to be open about their faith”.
Such anxieties about religious freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are also being felt south of the River Tweed.
At a time when there is a growing sense that the police are not protecting the public as well as they should, seen most starkly in the knife crime epidemic, there is an acute awareness that an opinion considered offensive can trigger instant intervention.
“When the complaint involves the word ‘transgender’, police leap into action,” said Caroline Farrow, a Catholic journalist and mother of five who became the focus of a six-month Surrey police investigation after a dispute with the head of a transgender charity.
Meanwhile, primary schools are becoming ideological battlefields.
Catholic barrister Neil Addison has pointed out that in the UK people are bound to obey the laws but not necessarily to assent to them.
Similarly, the Marriage Foundation has noted that “two men or two women can marry, but there’s no law saying you must agree with it”. This interpretation was supported by the Supreme Court which ruled last year that the law cannot compel people to endorse same-sex marriage.
Yet a school in Croydon, south London, reportedly tried to ensure that all pupils took part in a Pride march, which led to 110 children being removed by their parents, while hundreds of Muslim parents have expressed opposition to No Outsiders, an LGBT teaching programme, at Parkfield School, a primary in Birmingham.
Parents of pupils at seven schools in Manchester have made similar complaints, but the schools inspector Ofsted has dismissed them.
Nor is there much sympathy for such parents among MPs, who broke away from arguing about Brexit last week to vote 538-21 in favour of regulations that will compel primary schools to teach children about a vast array of adult relationships, and which undermined the right of parents to withdraw secondary school pupils from such lessons.
What seems to be missing is any sense of balance between competing rights, proportionality or common sense in addressing grievances, or any reference to such fundamental principles as the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit.
The UK is not uniquely affected, and the general deterioration of authentic human rights in the West seems to worry Pope Francis. During an in-flight press conference on return from Morocco, the Holy Father suggested that as such rights were advancing in some Muslim countries they were regressing in many post-Christian nations.
“Today we Christians face the danger that some governments will take away our freedom of conscience, which is the first step toward freedom of worship,” he said. “Think of the Christian doctors and hospital institutions that do not have the right of conscientious objection, for example, for euthanasia. How? The Church has moved on and you Christian countries go backwards?
“Freedom of conscience and religious freedom – which is not limited to freedom of worship alone, but allows all to live in accordance with their religious convictions – are inseparably linked to human dignity,” he added.
Certainly, such rights are universal and are recognised in the great post-War declarations. The Church is right to worry that they are again under threat.
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