THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
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IN DEFENCE OF CONSCIENCE
President Obama has made a serious mistake. He is demanding that Catholic hospitals must make contraceptives available to their staff as part of their health-care packages. The new rules are part of the health-service reforms, which are the greatest achievement of his presidency so far. He appears to have been taken in by the fact that most American Catholics do not have personal moral objections to contraception. He has failed to understand that what they mean by this is that contraception should be a matter for individual consciences. That is not compatible with imposing access to contraception by government regulation. As a result, he has alienated the Catholic Health Association, the body that represents Catholic health-care providers and whose support was crucial as his health-care reforms went through Congress in the teeth of opposition from Catholic bishops. He has placed all that progress at risk. Now he risks alienating millions of Catholic voters, moderate as well as hard-line. Why do secular politicians so often fail to understand the position taken by individuals or bodies motivated by religious faith? It happened when the Labour Government enforced on British adoption agencies the requirement to treat homosexual couples exactly as they would heterosexual couples. It made the simplistic assumption that opposition must be because of homophobia, and hence could be discounted. The secular agenda seems to have no room for conscience, nor for the right of agencies in civil society to determine their own ethos. The same may be about to happen regarding the English law of marriage, with the easy assumption that those who oppose extending marriage to homosexual couples are unacceptably prejudiced, so their views can be ignored.
The point secular opinion fails to grasp is that there are some things that should – must – be beyond the reach of state power, such as the freedom to make available contraception to employees of Catholic hospitals or not, or the freedom of Catholic childcare agencies to decide whether to accept gay couples as possible parents in adoption cases. Similarly, marriage, which stands at the core of civil society, is not something the state is free to tinker with. The fact that Britain’s Churches emphatically think that does not ipso facto make them homophobic.
The former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke, in his introduction to a series of debates on the role of religion in society (see page 6), puts his finger on the issue. “I don’t think that Government has yet been able to find a good and constructive way to debate these difficult issues with the main religions in this country,” he says. “Some of these debates are reasonably objective and factual in nature. More often, sadly, they revolve around polemic, distortion or loose generalisations, which disguise or mislead. Sometimes debate about religion generates contempt and disdain rather than respect for faith.”
Pope Benedict recently told a group of visiting American bishops “of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience”. Those guarantees in defence of conscience set boundaries to what the state may legitimately do. In other words, once a progressive ideology is imposed by the state, regardless of conscience and of the rightful autonomy of civil institutions, it becomes secular totalitarianism, which is a danger to the freedom of everyone.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Self-determination has become a key principle of international affairs. So when the leader of the Scottish Nationalists insists on having a referendum on the breakup of the union with England established in 1707, it is taken for granted that the result would determine what actually happens. And this would be true even if the English and Welsh were not similarly consulted, though their interests would also be affected. It is this factor that brought Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, on a charm offensive to London this week to give the Hugo Young Lecture and a series of radio and television interviews. His message was that Scottish independence would be good for England.
The principle of self-determination is an aspect of subsidiarity, which was originally defined by Pope Pius XI in 1931. “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order”, he said, “to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do.” The concept of designing political structures so that decisions are made as close as possible to the people affected by them is sound, and has been adopted by the EU. Subsidiarity also implies, however, that there may be some things best done at a higher level. What can the United Kingdom do for Scotland that Scotland could not do for itself ? The traditional answer would be defence, but in the modern world, with no conceivable enemy in sight, Scotland should be safe from attack. More significant nowadays would be the protection of the national economic interest in a turbulent global economy. It is doubtful whether an independent Scotland would have had the financial muscle to bail out the Royal Bank of Scotland when it faced bankruptcy in 2008. In many areas – law, education, the media, religion and social services – Scotland has long had its own institutions. Independence would not change that, though it might diminish their influence. What an independent Scottish foreign policy would look like, nobody seems to know. Mr Salmond assured the English that Scottish independence would foster a closer friendship between the two peoples. He also argues that the Scots are more progressive and egalitarian than the English, and being governed from London stands in the way of working out what that might mean in economic and social policy. But he seems to assume that an independent Scotland would be permanently ruled by his own party. That is the same hubris that undermined the Scottish Labour Party.
Opinion polls say Mr Salmond has yet to win over anything like a majority of his own people. To many Scots, the bond with the English feels like an ancient family tie that has been good for both sides. The other major parties are all against him, in the Tory case despite the fact that the removal of Labour’s Scottish MPs from the House of Commons could give the Conservatives a guaranteed majority at Westminster. That would drive Labour and the Liberal Democrats together, changing the face of English politics too. In political affairs, there is such a thing as “the law of unintended consequences” – and in human nature, as “better the devil you know”. If and when a referendum happens, those factors will count powerfully in favour of the status quo.
2 | THE TABLET | 28 January 2012 COLUMNS
5 CL I F FORD LONGLEY
‘The only truth that really matters is the truth that is freely chosen’
1 1 CHRISTOPHER HOWSE’S
PRESSWATCH ‘When bishops hold out the hand of friendship to journalists they just get them bitten’
1 2 P E T ER STANFORD
‘There is none so blind as a parent defending their child’
2 1 PARISH PRACTICE 2 2 NOTEBOOK 2 3 L ETTERS 2 4 THE L I V I NG S P I R I T 2 5 PUZZLES
2 6 F ERGUS KERR
The Architecture of Theology: structure, system and ratio A.N. Williams
BR I AN MORTON Religion for Atheists: a non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion Alain de Botton
BRENDAN WALSH The Greatcoat Helen Dunmore
2 9 F EATURE
Laura Gascoigne David Hockney
THEATRE Mark Lawson Travelling Light
T E L EV I S I ON John Morrish Birdsong
C I NEMA Francine Stock The Descendants
2 8 JANUARY 2 0 1 2
4 For love not money Ben Andradi
Benedict XVI’s concept of ‘gift and gratuity’ in the economy has been taken up by some radical economists COVER STORY 6 Restoring religion to the public square Linda Woodhead
The head of a £12m project on religion and society, the results of which will be aired in debates and in The Tablet, describes its aims 6 ‘Faith cannot be brushed under the carpet’
Charles Clarke A former Home Secretary writes of how he has come to recognise the place of belief in our national life 8 Dark shadows of the past Mary Colwell
As the fortieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday approaches, some of those who were affected by the events look back – and forward 1 0 Abuse must have no hiding place Jonathan West
A campaigner highlights a potential weakness in child protection at independent schools 1 3 Not in its backyard Conor Gearty
A human-rights law expert reflects on the role of St Paul’s Cathedral authorities in the anticipated eviction of the Occupy protesters 14 ‘A compromise of our religious liberty’Michael Sean Winters
Obama’s refusal to allow Catholic institutions to opt out of providing contraception as part of insurance has angered bishops
■ RETREATS AND P I LGRIMAGES SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT
1 6 Takes one’s breath away Bernadette Campbell
A pilgrim to Lourdes describes her ‘forever first-time’ moment 1 8 An extraordinary gift Bridget Hewitt
Time with the brothers of Taizé alters one retreatant’s view of life 2 0 Walking the Franciscan way Anthony Weaver
The St Francis trail that stretches beyond Assisi
3 3 THE CHURCH I N THE WORLD
Religious freedom ‘under threat in US’ 3 7 L ETTER FROM ROME 3 8 NEWS FROM BRITAIN AND I RELAND
Coalition’s gay-marriage plans to be opposed
COVER ILLUSTRATION: DANI JIMENEZ
28 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 3