Michael Gove raised a few eyebrows when he described Theresa May as “Britain’s first Catholic Prime Minister” two years ago. He pointed out that the Tory leader was a committed Anglo-Catholic like her father, a vicar; practised abstinence during Lent; and was influenced by Catholic social thought.
Much within May’s voting record suggests she was indeed politically informed by her faith. She made a marvellous contribution to tackling the scourge of human trafficking, for instance.
But like her predecessor David Cameron, she embraced the secular consensus on subjects such as marriage and the persecution of Christians enough to justify suspicions in the pews that the country still awaits its “first Catholic Prime Minister”.
So do any of the 13 (at the time of writing) Conservative MPs in the race to succeed May fit the bill? According to the 2019 Catholic Directory of England and Wales, only one of them, Mark Harper, a former Chief Whip under May, is a Catholic.
Strangely, Esther McVey is not listed although her “Irish Catholic descent” is cited often in the media. A reason for the Catholic label sticking to McVey, perhaps, was her robust opposition to the redefinition of marriage under Cameron.
The media have not forgotten that, and Sky News knew precisely which buttons to press when it challenged her last week over the teaching of gender ideology in primary schools. “I believe parents know best for their children,” said McVey candidly. “If parents want to take their young children – primary school children – out of certain forms of sex education, relationship education, then that is down to them.”
The backlash was predictably hysterical and hyperbolic, and no doubt there will be more to come if McVey’s leadership bid makes any progress.
The interview appeared to be an attempt to “test” her to see if she harboured any ideas heretical to the new ideologies. To fail the test, irrespective of how fair and reasonable a candidate’s views may be, would be to incur a black mark against any future political ambitions. This happens frequently. Think of the attack by Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC political editor, on the appointment of Maria Caulfield, a Catholic, as the Conservative Party’s vice chair for women in 2017. The promotion was a “reshuffle glitch”, said Kuenssberg, because Miss Caulfield “opposed decriminalising abortion”. Certainly, the sanctity and inviolability of human life is one of those subjects upon which any Catholic politician will be tested.
Yet the voting records of all 13 leadership hopefuls show that Jeremy Hunt, who is not a Catholic, is the most pro-life of them all. Research by Right to Life reveals that he has voted in a more pro-life direction on seven out of 12 occasions, including halving the upper time limit from 24 to 12 weeks, while abstaining on the rest.
The Catholic Harper has also voted with the pro-life lobby on seven occasions but voted against moves to give women independent abortion counselling.
McVey, in contrast, has never voted with the pro-life lobby. On three of four occasions she could have used her vote, she abstained, while on the fourth she opposed the proposals for abortion counselling.
Kit Malthouse, meanwhile, has voted for an amendment seeking the extension of abortion to Northern Ireland, while Rory Stewart and Matt Hancock voted against a ban on sex-selective abortions.
Of the favourites, Boris Johnson has abstained on all 12 votes, and Gove on 11, voting only in support of counselling and a cooling off period of seven days when a mother first asks for an abortion.
Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab, James Cleverley and Sajid Javid have all either abstained or voted with the pro-life lobby.
The right to life is, of course, fundamental to Catholics but not a singular matter of concern, as the bishops have consistently taught.
It may be also significant, for instance, that Home Secretary Javid, a Muslim, wished to grant sanctuary in Britain to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Catholic who spent nearly a decade on death row after she was accused of blasphemy
Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, was similarly minded and he has since initiated, of his own volition, the process of purging the Foreign Office of ideologies obstructing UK assistance to persecuted Christians.
The emergence of such destructive ideologies is, after all, among the defining characteristics of the early 21st century. Just last Sunday Pope Francis urged Catholics to oppose them because they uproot “our peoples from their richest cultural and religious traditions”.
“Forms of ideological colonisation that devalue the person, life, marriage and the family, and above all, with alienating proposals as atheistic as those of the past, harm our young people and children, leaving them without roots from which they can grow,” he said during his visit to Romania.
The Holy Father is, if anything, understating the threat. It is against the new ideologies that the views of anyone in public life are being screened, and little wonder since Britain has seen a succession of prime ministers who have done little to protect the country’s Christian patrimony in the face of this new phenomenon.