Social isolation, disengagement and separation are very real problems in today’s Britain. Whereas once we had much more of a common culture – even if divided within it by class, politics and tribe – today’s materialistic culture seems to feed into individualism and the accentuation of differences. The internet gives us the advantage of finding people with common interests with greater ease, but on the other hand Britons grow less and less likely to know their neighbours, especially those on the more elderly end of the spectrum.
The influx of immigrants into Great Britain over the past few decades has only added further layers of complications to these already existing problems, and part of the Government’s response has been to appoint an “integration tsar” to oversee efforts to prevent the ghetto-isation of newcomers to the UK.
This state-led integration effort, however, runs the risk of trying to “integrate” newcomers to a vision of the country and of the world that many long-standing Britons either have strong reservations about or indeed reject completely.
As a long-standing and formerly persecuted minority, Catholics should take note of the integration tsar’s recent appearance before the communities and local government select committee in the House of Commons.
For example, Dame Louise states that it is obvious that people must be able to choose “to live the lives that they want to live” but added the important proviso that “they cannot condemn others for living differently”. The example she gives is that Catholic schools must not be allowed to be homophobic or “anti-gay marriage”.
To start with, linking opposition to same-sex civil marriage to homophobia is profoundly philosophically ignorant. The sexual attractions or orientations of potential spouses are not of primary concern when it comes to the Catholic view of marriage, but rather the biological reality of the difference between male and female sexes. As such, we don’t “oppose” gay marriage, but view it as an impossibility.
Catholic schools should certainly oppose homophobic bullying with vigour – as they should oppose all bullying – yet Dame Louise produced no evidence whatsoever that homophobia is more prevalent in Catholic schools than in other schools or than in society at large. She seems to imply that a matter of legitimate civil and political dispute – deepening the legal constructs regarding same-sex relationships – is no longer an item for debate.
More telling, however, was Dame Louise’s revelation that she has “a problem with the expression of religious conservatism” which she thinks can often be “anti-equalities”.
Aside from the fact that many Catholics (and indeed those of other religious traditions) might take issue with faithfulness to one’s creed being reduced to mere “religious conservatism”, the woman in charge of teaching us to be tolerant has revealed on the record that she is intolerant of Catholics and “religious conservatives”. Dame Louise claims that people in Britain today have no freedom to “condemn others for living differently” in the same breath as she condemns Catholics for living differently.
Rather than an open and tolerant vision of people with different views overcoming differences and warmly interacting as friends, neighbours and colleagues on a daily basis, Dame Louise’s vision brands certain people as outsiders unworthy of full participation in society. In the integration tsar’s vision of society, Catholics, our other fellow Christians, members of different faiths, and indeed those of no faith at all who happen to agree on certain social issues, would all be relegated to the status of second-class citizens.
Catholics are not contrived contrarians trying to be different for difference’s sake. We uphold a profound truth and strive, not without difficulty, to order and construct our lives around the beauty of that truth. It is a daily challenge.
I try to get to Mass every day, and often do so at Westminster Cathedral just down the road from the Houses of Parliament. Those who visit the newly completed mosaics in the St George’s Chapel there can look up and see, picked out in thousands of tesserae, the names of the English martyrs who died for the Catholic faith. “Integration” is precisely what many of our forefathers died to prevent, and what we seek to avoid today. The very purpose of the Church and of our lay role as everyday evangelists, is to reach out to society – not to be conquered and enslaved by it.
Centuries ago, the martyrs recalled in that mosaic refused to conform to the state’s attempts to impose its vision of society. They maintained the faith of their ancestors as well as of their fellow countrymen. Today we tend to live in little bubbles, isolated from many of our fellow Britons and others who call this island home, and it’s no surprise if more recent immigrants here set up their own bubbles as well.
But the problems of social isolation, communalism and stratification in Britain today are not solved by intimidating minorities into conforming to metropolitan liberalism – which is merely one bubble among many. Catholics must be on full alert to see how the Government’s integration plans will work out.
Sir Edward Leigh is the Conservative MP for Gainsborough