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Catholics waited for strong leadership. It didn’t come

On Monday morning, the historian Tim Stanley tweeted out: “We note with regret that Jesus Christ has been nailed to a cross. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time.” If you didn’t know the context, you might imagine that Stanley – who is, of course, a Herald columnist – would find himself in hot water with orthodox Catholics. Far from it: they applauded.

The depressing context is the reaction of the Bishops of England and Wales to the order by the misnamed Court of Protection that a mentally disabled woman submit to a forced abortion. The order was made last Friday by Mrs Justice Lieven, an “activist judge” who in the past has been employed as a lawyer by the abortion industry. Now she has the power to don the metaphorical black cap – and uses it.

A few hours after Tim Stanley’s tweet, Lieven’s sinister decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal. But the situation looked incredibly bleak on Monday morning. An English court had ordered the judicial execution of a healthy 22-week unborn baby against the wishes of the mother and the Nigerian Catholic grandmother. The judge argued that the mother’s wish to have a baby was at the level of a wish for “a new doll”.

This was beyond creepy. After Natalie Lieven ordered the execution, the Catholics of England and Wales waited for their bishops to say something. There were murmurings about signing a petition but no sign of Cardinal Nichols or any other English bishop denouncing the planned atrocity. The Twitter account of the Bishops’ Conference got excited, twice, about “Windrush Day” but said nothing about forced abortion.

At this point the Catholic Herald lost patience, asking and then demanding that the bishops end their silence. But we are reluctant to take credit for the statement that Bishop John Sherrington issued on behalf of the conference on Monday. First, because he may have been planning to make it anyway – taking a long weekend to ask his brother bishops to mull it over, weigh the pros and cons – and secondly because it was so feeble.

Bishop Sherrington, a Westminster auxiliary who chairs or co-chairs or sits on some committee, began with the observation that “every abortion is a tragedy”. As soon as you hear this sort of throat-clearing truism you know something deeply forgettable will follow. So it proved.

The bishop was against the abortion, definitely: it infringed the human rights of the mother and the child. “In our society there is a delicate balance between the rights of the individual and powers of the state,” added Bishop John, though it wasn’t clear how this gem of political philosophy applied to forced abortion. (Kill the baby or let it live? That’s a delicate question.) Then he moved to his conclusion. This was a “sad and distressing situation for the whole family”.

Hence Tim Stanley’s sardonic tweet. And hence the fact that, when the Daily Telegraph ran a report on this abomination, all its readers learned was that a junior Catholic bishop found it “sad and distressing”.

Imagine if Bishop Sherrington had said, as Lord Alton does opposite, that this was a decision worthy of the People’s Republic of China. That would have got people talking. But it would also have rocked the boat, and one thing I have learned in 30 years of listening to the Bishops of England and Wales is that they take a very dim view of boat-rocking, whatever the circumstances.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald