There are approximately a million practising Catholics in England and Wales, many of whom are among the older generation. As a demographic group, this is one which might be characterised by its conscientiousness: practising Catholics are more serious about their religion than non-practising Catholics, and older voters are much more likely to cast their ballots in an election than younger voters. Political parties should be falling over themselves to attract the Catholic vote. But arguably the reverse is the case: two of the mainstream parties seem to be doing as much as they can to alienate Catholics.
They do this by taking sides against Catholics in the now decades-old war between Christianity and libertinism.
A glance at the manifestos makes clear what I mean. Take abortion. Abortions are easily and often freely obtained anywhere in the Western world and prosecutions for illegal abortions are as rare as hen’s teeth. But both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are promising to decriminalise abortion.
The Lib Dems are also promising to enforce what they call “safe zones” around abortion clinics and provide free abortions to service users irrespective of nationality or residency, thereby privileging abortion above other medical procedures, which will not be provided free for non-Britons.
Not to be outdone, the Green Party says it will “extend the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights to give women in all EU countries access to legal, safe and affordable abortion services”. In other words, left of centre parties seem to be in a bidding war for what might be called the pro-abortion fanatic vote. Given the ease with which abortions are obtained not just in the UK but also elsewhere in the West and the small number of fervent abortion supporters in the general population, this is worthy of comment.
Other ideological currents which may be problematic for Christians are also given the stamp of approval by the Lib Dems, who say they will require schools to introduce gender-neutral uniform policies. While the Greens, who see hatred of women where others may see political dissent or mere eccentricity, want to introduce a new press regulatory regime which will allow women to make formal complaints about media coverage that might “encourage misogyny against women” (presumably as opposed to that which encourages misogyny against men). They also want to splurge more money on sex education and force all schoolchildren to attend sex ed sessions.
Against this ever more prescriptive background, it is not surprising that an informal glass ceiling exists against faithful Catholics and other committed Christians in the parties of the centre left, as the recent de-selection of Rob Flello by the Lib Dems in Stoke South demonstrates beyond doubt.
The Labour Party’s attitude to religion could be described as mixed. The party has counted Mary Honeyball as one of its MEPs. She questioned whether devout Catholics should be “allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the Government’s” and deplored “the vice-like grip of Catholicism” in continental Europe. But today’s Labour Party has gone to the effort of producing a “race and faith manifesto”. Tellingly, however, this insubstantial document mentions the word “Christians” just the once and Catholics not at all.
Given that its rivals are ignoring the concerns of many Catholic voters, the Conservatives don’t have to do much to court the faithful. Accordingly, they restrict themselves to pledging to protect those persecuted for their faith and implementing the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s recent review into anti-Christian persecution.
Against this backdrop, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have produced their own election wish list in which they reasonably demand the politically impossible: some paternalistic kindness to workers and minorities along with human rights for everyone from womb to tomb. But the reality is that contemporary British politics has turned into a squalid trade-off between social democracy with all-out libertinism or culturally sensitive turbo-capitalism, with Catholics and other orthodox Christians forced into a defensive position.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1906, when Catholics were regarded with suspicion in a Britain still marked by the confessional divide, the Liberal Party adopted the writer Hilaire Belloc as candidate in deeply Nonconformist Manchester.
Belloc had been advised to keep quiet about his religion, but that wasn’t his style. At his first campaign rally he told his audience: “I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day.” Then extracting a rosary from his pocket, he declared: “This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”
His audience broke into warm applause, despite – or perhaps because of – his unabashed Catholicism, Belloc went on to be elected as the member for Salford. There is perhaps a lesson for us all in this.
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