27 March 2014, The Tablet

Understand a little more, condemn a little less

by Mark Hoban

Catholicism and politics

Recent criticism by Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the Government’s welfare reform heralded to many a new low in relations between the Catholic Church and the Conservative Party. Here, a Tory MP and former Minister lays out the steps Church and politicians should take to narrow the gap of understanding

It all seemed to start so well. The new Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the close of the papal visit to the UK in September 2010, spoke warmly about Pope Benedict’s message to believers and unbelievers alike. He set out areas where Church and State could work together. A very visible sign of this shared agenda came two years later, when the Government decided to match the money raised in Cafod’s Lenten Appeal. An appeal that normally raised £2 million hit £8m.

And it is not just in international development where there is a good relationship. Thanks to movement on both sides, there is now a much better dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Department for Education. Relations had become strained when Labour ’s Alan Johnson, as Secretary of State for Education, proposed that faith schools should allocate a quarter of their places on a basis other than faith, and the Church’s campaign against it led him to back down. Also under Labour, Catholic schools did not take part in the academies programme. Relations were transformed when Michael Gove reached an agreement that enabled Catholic schools to become academies – and praised Catholic schools generously for their ethos.

But this goodwill seems to have disappeared. The Tablet described Eric Pickles’ failure to attend the consistory where Archbishop Vincent Nichols became a cardinal as a new low in Tory-Catholic relations. This alleged snub came hard on the heels of Nichols’ Daily Telegraph interview, where he was critical of the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms. David Cameron, within days, said the comments were “simply not true”.

Some say the cause of a coolness between the Church and the Government is the Government’s decision to press for same-sex marriage. The problem is simpler than this and yet more fundamental. The Church just doesn’t understand today’s Conservative Party. In Europe and elsewhere, Catholics are associated with the centre-Right because of a combination of confessional politics and the greater prominence of social issues in party political debate. In England, for reasons of history – the Reformation leading to an established Anglican Church – and mission – the Catholic Church focusing on the education of the poor after its nineteenth-century revival – Catholicism has been identified with the Left. In the past, informal networks, geography and alignment of moral views papered over the gap between the Church and the Conservatives. But the gap is too wide for this now.

Politics is as much about informal contacts as it is about ideology, and this is exemplified by the links between Labour and the Catholic Church. For example, Ed Miliband’s chief of staff, Tim Livesey, used to be a policy adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor; Greg Pope, the head of parliamentary relations at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, is a former Labour MP. I have no complaints with these appointments. But Cardinal Nichols doesn’t have to be sitting in Miliband’s office to know what Labour is thinking.

Without such informal contacts with the Conservative Party, it is all the more important for the Church to have formal contact with us. It is not as if there is a shortage of Catholic Conservative parliamentarians to engage with. The best known is probably Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (DWP). While Iain has met the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to discuss welfare reform, there has been no attempt by Catholic bishops to meet him. Such a failure undermines the credibility of their critical interventions. 

Geography plays its role too. In the past, there was a noticeable overlap between Conservative constituencies and Catholic parishes. In 1951, we held half the seats in the north-west of England, a bastion of Catholicism. Today, we hold three in 10 – and that is after a good result in 2010. Our retreat to the suburbs, the south and the east has reduced the opportunity for us to know each other.

But it is not just geography; it is also about ideology. Those Catholics who thought the Conservative Party was a stronghold of social conservatism had a rude awakening during the same-sex marriage debate. How was it that the organisation that in 1998 introduced Clause 28 and opposed its repeal as recently as 2003, now proposed same-sex marriage? As society has become more liberal, so has the Conservative Party. Drill down further and even among Catholic Conservative MPs, support for the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriages is neither automatic nor universal. While in the past, the Church might have expected Conservative MPs to be broadly sympathetic to its teaching on sexual morality, today it cannot be taken for granted.

With 14 months to go until the end of this Parliament, is it worth trying to rebuild the relationship between the Church and the party? The answer must be an emphatic “yes”. If, like me, you believe that the Church should be part of the political debate, then it needs to have a voice that will command attention.

What should the Church do? First, it must strengthen its political engagement generally. The hierarchy must reach out to all Catholic parliamentarians, in the Commons and the Lords. There is a thriving Catholic community in both houses. Weekly Mass in the crypt provides a focus, as does the establishment of the Catholic Legislators’ Network. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor invited all Catholic MPs to Archbishop’s House to talk about political issues and Cardinal Nichols should reintroduce this practice.

There is a role for diocesan bishops, too. It is not always easy for us to reconcile our faith with our political beliefs. We are MPs who are Catholics, not Catholic MPs, a subtle but important difference. Greater engagement between bishops and MPs would create an opportunity for pastoral support and help bishops to understand how each of us strikes a balance between our beliefs, both religious and political, and our unique role as constituency MPs and legislators. Engagement is more effective in the long-term than brandishing a big stick.

Further, to navigate politics, particularly in the run-up to the general election, the cardinal should establish an informal group of senior politicians, civil servants and communications experts to understand how best to promote the Church’s views on political issues in the media, Westminster and Whitehall.

As far as the Conservative Party is concerned, the Church needs to take three steps. Firstly, it should reach out to Conservative MPs and peers, recognising that we are as diverse in belief and practice as our fellow parishioners. It is unwise for the Church to invest in good relationships with only one or two Conservative parliamentarians: a broader range of contacts will improve impact.

Secondly, to be credible the Church needs to understand how to respond to a Conservative agenda. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) isn’t the preserve of the Left and can be applied by the Right too. Iain Duncan Smith’s approach of work as a route out of poverty isn’t a million miles away from recognising the dignity of work – a key tenet of CST. A critique of welfare reform would be more powerful if it was matched by a critique of the welfare state. We should all acknowledge the tension between showing solidarity with the poor through the welfare state and creating a set of financial disincentives to work that promotes dependence and denies people the dignity of work. How we respond to that tension then becomes a matter of informed and passionate debate rather than a crisis in Church/Government relationships.

Developing a shared language between Conservatives and Catholics can help, too: one man’s “Big Society” is another’s “Catholic social action”. My first experience of the Big Society was in the 1990s when Catholics in Southampton, including my wife and me, delivered meals-on-wheels on a Sunday after Mass to fill a gap left by the local council.

Thirdly, the Church and the Government should find areas of policy where they can engage constructively. At the end of Pope Benedict’s visit, David Cameron highlighted our shared agenda around international development. Some vocal support from the Church for the Government’s pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development would offset the hostility to this policy shown by some of our more traditional supporters.

I don’t believe that the relationship should be written off. There is much that Conservatives can learn from the Church, especially from its work with the hardest to help and the marginalised in society. And by understanding how today’s Conservatives think and react, the Church can sharpen its message to maximise its influence over the Conservative agenda.

Mark Hoban, a Catholic, is Conservative MP for Fareham, a former Minister for Employment and a former Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

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