How suspicious should Catholics be? If we’re always suspicious, seeing heresy around every corner, we’ll exhaust ourselves and probably fail in charity too. But we have to be suspicious sometimes – because there’s a duty to defend the faith, and some attacks on the faith are devious and subtle.
That dilemma was at the heart of three controversies this week: a tweet, an administrative error, and an appointment.
The tweet was sent by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales – or rather, by whichever member of the communications staff was running the bishops’ Twitter account that day. “Today is Transgender Remembrance Day,” the tweet read, “and we pray for all people who are ill at ease with their gender, seek to change it, suffer for it and have been persecuted, and also killed. All people are loved by God and valued in their inherent God-given dignity. #TDOR”. The response from Catholics – “Cringing prostration to the dictats of social justice commissars is embarrassing and doesn’t win friends” was one typical reply on Twitter – might have been predicted.
It’s true that people suffering from gender dysphoria experience immense challenges; that the statistics for violence against them, and the suicide rate, are appalling; and that Catholics are absolutely obliged to pray for and help the vulnerable. But context is everything. If a bishop strolled into Mass wearing a red baseball cap reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”, he could hardly claim that this was merely a gesture of solidarity with our friends across the Atlantic. The slogan is not neutral: it is closely associated with Donald Trump, and therefore with things a bishop might wish to distance himself from.
Likewise, Transgender Day of Remembrance has a political context. Its founder, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, has criticised the US bishops for their “outdated and false attitudes” towards gender. That is fairly representative of the tension between the trans rights movement and the Church.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking common ground, as long as you keep your wits about you. Which brings us to the second event: an administrative error in Brentwood diocese. The website for Caritas Brentwood lists various affiliated charities – including, hearteningly, 40 different branches of the St Vincent de Paul Society. But it also includes the organisation Quest, which offers “pastoral support for LGBTI Catholics”.
In 1999, Cardinal Basil Hume said Quest could not be listed in the Catholic Directory, because the group saw same-sex sexual activity as morally justifiable. The Church could not “lend legitimacy to that view by endorsing an organisation which appears to hold it,” the cardinal remarked.
Although Quest has not changed its position, bishops have become friendlier to it, and the organisation now has a page on the Caritas Brentwood website. For a brief period last week, that page carried an article by a Quest member, a young woman who wrote: “I believe that having a loving, committed same-sex relationship, which includes sexual intimacy as an expression of that love, is in complete concordance with being Catholic.” When Brentwood discovered this had been written, they sensibly removed the article. But this underlines the difficulty. To promote the group, while not promoting its actual view, is a difficult path to tread.
Yet Catholic organisations often struggle to find a clear policy on controversial issues. Take Cafod, the bishops’ official aid agency, which last week appointed Christine Allen as its new director. Allen’s CV is certainly impressive: she has worked for Liverpool Archdiocese and the Catholic Housing Aid Society, as well as holding major roles at international charities.
But a closer look raises questions about Allen’s record. In 2002, Progressio, the charity she led, endorsed the use of condoms in HIV prevention. Four years later, in an article for Chartist magazine, Allen criticised Catholic teaching on contraception, which she said “simply doesn’t stack up when it comes to HIV”. She also made a strikingly bold statement about the importance of the debate: “The battle between these factions is about the very nature of church.” Allen has also “liked” tweets which seem to oppose Catholic doctrine on sexuality: one described the Episcopalian Church’s acceptance of same-sex marriage as “Progress”.
I asked Allen whether such views were compatible with leading a Catholic agency, and whether she thought abortion was always wrong. She replied: “I understand the expectations on me in this role, and my commitment to Catholic teaching is undimmed.” Cafod were also confident that Allen would “uphold Catholic teaching and values”. And the chair of the trustees, Bishop John Arnold, said he was “delighted” by the appointment.
For decades, Catholicism has been in an awkward relationship with British society, especially over questions of sex, marriage and the defence of unborn life. In such circumstances, some ambiguity and confusion are inevitable.
But in recent years, ambiguity has hardened into conflict. Catholic adoption agencies were abruptly shut down by the government because they wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples. Midwives have been sacked for refusing to oversee abortions. Catholic institutions will continue to face similar challenges – moments when “dialogue” gives way to what is indeed a battle about the very nature of the Church.