On April 1, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had commended the Roman Catholic Church as “the conscience of the nation.” Given the record of the Brown government, informed readers might well have dismissed the story as an April Fools Day prank.
Yet the report was accurate. With a general election impending on May 6, Brown told the British magazine Faith Today that “the Catholic communion in particular is to be congratulated for so often being the conscience of our country, for helping ‘the least of these’ even when bearing witness to the truth is hard or unpopular.” Brown has good reason to curry the Christian vote. In the last British general election, Labour gained support from 31 per cent of actively religious voters, nine percentage points more than the Conservatives. In a public lecture to Labour Party strategists on Feb. 23, Jim Murphy, a Roman Catholic MP who serves as Secretary of State for Scotland, warned: “This lead needs to be replicated in the coming election – and it will be if we reflect and respect their values and aspirations.”
Like Brown, Murphy went on in his speech to suggest that the Labour Party deserves the support of Christians. He said: “When people of faith press us on good and just causes, such as climate change, rights of asylum seekers and the need to tackle poverty at home and abroad, we listen.”
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, was not impressed. In direct response to Murphy, he allowed that “any recognition of the role played by faith and religion in society is to be welcomed,” but pointedly added: “However, a tangible example by the government over the last decade that it acknowledged or endorsed religious values would also have been welcomed. Instead we have witnessed this government undertake a systematic and unrelenting attack on family values.”
In particular, O’Brien rebuked the government for introducing legislation compelling all adoption agencies, Christian and non-Christian, to facilitate adoptions by same-sex couples. He charged that in advancing such measures: “This government has taken no note whatsoever of the concerns of people of faith.” O’Brien also denounced the government for “refusing to tackle the soaring toll of abortions” and observed that: “When introducing legislation to permit experimentation on and destruction of human embryos, the objections of the Church and other faiths were ignored.”
Note that O’Brien made no comment on government policy in relation to climate change, asylum seekers or poverty at home and abroad. That was appropriate. Church leaders should refrain from intervening in political disputes on which people of good will might reasonably disagree. Yet, more often than not, it is precisely on such debatable matters of public policy that clerics, both Catholic and Protestant, speak out.
O’Brien has done so himself. For example, in an article last year in The Times of London, he criticized both the Brown government and the Conservative opposition for proposing that Britain retain a small fleet of nuclear-armed submarines as a contribution to deterring nuclear war. O’Brien is not an expert on nuclear deterrence. He should have nothing to say in public on this subject. In an ill-advised statement on April 7, the Archbishop’s Council of the Church of England criticized the Brown government for reaffirming in a policy paper that the United States is Britain’s most important ally. Bishops of the Church of England have no more authority or competence than their Roman Catholic counterparts to advise the government on defence and foreign policy.
The late Fr Richard John Neuhaus counselled: “When it is not necessary for the Church to speak, it is necessary for the Church not to speak.” Church leaders who promiscuously engage in political debate squander the moral authority which they should reserve for vital issues on which it is necessary for the church to speak.”
Certainly, faithful church leaders should boldly comment in public on political issues. But, like O’Brien in his splendid response to Murphy, they should only address overriding matters of vital importance such as abortion, euthanasia, marriage and the rights of conscience that directly relate to fundamental principles of Christian morality as revealed in Sacred Scripture and affirmed by the Church.