THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE
Catholicism’s reputation as a monolithic belief system is plainly no longer deserved. The latest evidence comes from what was until not long ago one of the most conservative parts of Western Catholicism, the Catholic Church in Ireland. A new survey of grass-roots opinion indicates that the typical Irish Catholic no longer accepts church teaching on a range of issues, mainly to do with sex and gender. Yet in terms of religious observance, they remain some of the most committed Catholics in Europe. But committed to what? The survey suggests that church teaching in these areas is no longer regarded as normative, and dissent from it as exceptional. The true position is almost the reverse: it is no longer seen as dissent, but as normal.
It would be strange if that snapshot of the sensus fidelium were peculiar to Ireland. All the evidence, including surveys conducted in Britain, suggests it is not. How to respond to this situation is a considerable challenge for the Church’s leadership. Its two approaches so far have been to launch an urgent programme for the re-evangelisation of Europe, and to deal with dissent among bishops and clergy by enforcing doctrinal discipline. The latter, seen for instance in the silencing of two Irish Catholic priests by their religious order, is almost guaranteed to be counter-productive. Such priests are not misleading the faithful but are responding to the state of lay opinion, which is already alienated from Church authority because of the child abuse scandals.
Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna is dealing with one of the most vocal expressions of “normative dissent” – the Austrian Priests’
Initiative – largely by appealing to its better nature. He has asked it for instance, not unreasonably, to delete the word “disobedience” from its manifesto. He has not so far used a big stick, though no doubt he is under pressure from the Vatican to do so. Pope Benedict’s stern words at his Chrism Mass before Easter did not indicate a great desire for dialogue. He called on priests to conform to Christ, who embodied “obedience and humility unto the Cross”, and to renounce “much-vaunted self-fulfilment”.
Clearly Cardinal Schönborn, who greeted this as helpful, is walking a tightrope. As in Ireland, the Austrian Priests’ Initiative is saying what many of their ordinary parishioners privately think. Tacit disobedience in practice, for instance over birth control and increasingly over the admission of divorced people to Holy Communion, is already commonplace. Disobedience, in theory, includes a rejection of the arguments against ordaining married men and, increasingly, against the ordination of women. Lay Catholic attitudes to homosexuality have changed remarkably within a generation. There is no method of re-evangelisation that will turn this tide.
So who is adrift, the leaders or the led? Indeed, which is which? If dissenting clergy are little more than proxies for dissenting laity, then the real chasm opening up is between the senior hierarchy, the Vatican especially, and the lay faithful at large. But they are out of reach, because the Church has neglected to put institutions in place through which an honest dialogue can take place. A useful move would be to remedy that deficiency. First, however, the Vatican would have to give at least the appearance of listening. And that moment is still some way off.
EXTRADITION AND INJUSTICE
British Home Secretaries have rarely been freedom’s best friend. Various measures coming forward from Theresa May, the present incumbent, are squarely within that tradition. Nothing exemplifies this authoritarian bias better than the issue of extradition. In the post-9/11 climate of panic over terrorism, Britain agreed to new extradition arrangements with the United States. The principle was right – no terrorist who had committed an outrage in one country should be allowed to hide from justice in the other. But the principle has been applied by the Home Office in ways that are manifestly unjust, including in some cases that have no relevance to terrorism – such as financial fraud, and even, in one case, an allegedly illegal export deal.
ent governments – to defer to US extradition requests even when British courts have the necessary jurisdiction. At present, those courts are not even allowed to consider the issue. This point was raised when the present extradition regime was being put in place under the last Labour Government. Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported an amendment that would have required British courts to address the issue of where a case should be tried, the so-called “forum amendment”. But to bring it into effect requires an affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition surely has a moral obligation to stand by its parties’ earlier position, and see that the forum amendment passes into law.
However, the five men whose appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was turned down this week are indeed wanted in America for terrorist-related offences. They include the notorious Abu Hamza, who is already serving a sentence in Britain. Few will lament his departure to answer for offences allegedly committed on US soil. Much more worrying is the case of Babar Ahmad, who has spent eight years in custody without trial. He is alleged to have organised a website which encouraged jihadism, but he did so in Britain. The only American connection with the case appears to be that the site was hosted by an internet server in the US. No clear reason has been given why he should not stand trial in this country. Mr Ahmad joins a small but important group of people resident in Britain who have faced extradition to America for offences largely, if not wholly, committed in Britain. It seems to be consistent Home Office policy – under past and pres-
The European Court of Human Rights endorsed what has been standard British government policy – that the US criminal-justice system meets the human-rights requirements for a fair trial. Hence, provided capital punishment does not apply, there is no injustice involved in handing over British citizens to its not-so-tender mercies. But, where most of the evidence the defence would need to call is on this side of the Atlantic, it is only fair that this is where the trial should take place. Nor is that the only issue. British Governments have been reluctant to admit that the American system is, in some respects, deficient compared to the British one, and that it allows things to happen – such as the pernicious practices of plea bargaining and trial by media – that would be condemned by British judges as unfair. Wherever possible, people under British protection ought to be tried by British laws in British courts, by British standards.
2 | THE TABLET | 14 April 2012