By JOHN CYKEEFFE
IN the halcyon days before Vatican II you could divide practising Catholics into two categories, Mass goers and "triarse" goers. The second group were much smaller than the first, but generally contained the more influential Catholics, including the handful of noble families who had clung to the Faith through centuries of persecution.
Because of this persecution and because the bulk of Catholics in the last century consisted of uneducated working class Irish stock there is still a persistent, unwritten tradition of Catholics remaining aloof from public life. Such engagement as there was came about with the advent of mass compulsory education and the determined struggle by British Catholics for the right to send their children to Catholic schools.
Even so, the robust type of No-Popery that flourished in Victorian times had caused a number of influential Catholics to band together in 1872 to form the Catholic Union to protect the interests of an cm•
battled and generally misunderstood minority.
Of all the myriad organisations clustering around the Catholic banner the Catholic Union is the most anonymous and exclusive, as unknown inside the Church as out.
Yet the Catholic Union is one of the eight national consultative bodies listed in the Catholic Directory. Its entry reads: "A non-political association of members of the Catholic laity to watch over Catholic interests, especially in matters arising from government action, proposed legislation or activities of local authorities and other public bodies."
Its name never appears in the Press and the heaviest publicity it has ever received was in George Scott's sympathetic outsider's view of the Church, in his book "The R.C.s". Generally among those he spoke to, only those who were actively connected with the Catholic Union were prepared to say a good word for it.
My own researches, both among Catholics in public life and those 'involved in the lay apostolate reflect the same pattern. Attitudes of critics ranged from the scathing to the tolerantly amused. "Halfbaked," said one M.P. "I don't know what they do. They've never contacted me in 20 years in Parliament," said another.
'The Government Chief Whip, Mr. Bob Mellish, who as a back-bencher has done his share of defending Catholic educational interests, told me: "I don't know what they do. Throughout my political life they've had no influence on me in any way."
Another M.P. said: "The whole thing should be wound up, apart from the Parliamentary sub-committee."
Even so the Catholic Union, rusty as its image may be. has been entrusted by the English, Welsh and Scottish bishops with defending Catholic interests. with the exception of education which due to its specialised nature is looked after by the Catholic Education Council.
A statement by Cardinal Griffin in 1948 urging any Catholic organisation which considered its interests a.ffected by proposed legislation or Government action to communicate with the Union has been confirmed by Cardinal Heenan.
Membership is by election, and is normally confined to the laity who carry some weight in the community. It includes members of both houses of Parliament and local government boclies, diplomats, civil servants. representatives of trade unions and professional organisations. businessmen and members of medical. legal, educational and other professions.
Candidates for membership are either proposed and seconded bY existing Union members or accept an invita•• lion from the membership cornmince to apply for membership. There is an annual subscription of two pounds or a life one of £20.
The Council of the Union meets when necessary to discuss policy and initiate action It appoints a standing corn• mitte of 12 to carry mit routine business or matters referred to it. A Scottish Committee deals with matters peculiar to Scotland. Individual cases of difficulty or hardship are nisi normally dealt with.
The real hub of the Union activities centres on the Parliamentary sub-committee, a group of M.P.s and lawyers, plus a member of the Catholic doctors group. the Guild of St. Luke, Cosmas and Damian, which scrutinises all pending legislation for anything which intentionally or unintentionally militates against Catholn. .principles or interests.
Although the Union has the advantage of having as President the Duke of Norfolk, who has more .pre-eminence in the British community at large than inside the Catholic community. effective power is shared between a wealthy old 'Etonian convert who takes the Con servative whip in the House of Lords and an Irish cockney
grass-roots politician who is active in the Labour cause, Lord Craigmyle, unpaid secretary of the Catholic Union since 1966. spends two thirds of his working time running its affairs from his Kensington home. Most of the standing committees are chaired by
Councillor John Branagan, a
local government officer who is also a member of the GLC.
Other active members cover a wide political 'spectrum. Tory M.P.s, such as Mr. Hugh Fkraser and Mr. Hugh Rossi, .&k their political differences in the Union context by working with Labour M.P.s such as Mr. William Wells, Q.C. and Mr. James Dunn. All members receive a copy of the annual report of the Union which must
not be passed to the Press.
Many Catholic Union affairs are carried out behind the scenes. The approach is deliberately low-key and confidential simply because this is the way the world is run. Among matters in which the Union has taken an interest are the question of whether a Catholic could legally become Lord Chancellor and the desirability of regularising diplomatic relations between Britain and the Vatican.
Another battle, lost as it happened, concerned the charitable status of contemplative orders. As it would have involved altering a fundamental concept of English law the position still
remains that these orders cannot take advantage of tax concessions from seven-year covenant schemes.
The three main causes in recent years which the Catholic Union has fought were the Abortion Law Reform Act, the Divorce Reform Act, and the attempts to legalise euthanasia. Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas, who led the opposition to abortion legislation, had paid warm tribute to Lord Craigmyle's hard work on this issue. Lord Longford also praised Lord Craigmyle's part in the euthanasia debate.
Mr. William Wells. Q.C., said of the Union, "It certainly does some very useful work. It could do more if it were widely supported." He considers that lack of support derives from its stuffy, exclusive image and by Its London-based bias.
Both of these drawbacks have received attention, even .if not enough of it, in recent years. it was in an attempt to make the Union more broaderbased that Councillor Branagan. a former student of the Citholic Workers' ,College at Oxford, with a vast experience of committee work, was invited to become vice-president.
Largely under the impetus of Mr, James Dunn, Labour M.P. for Kirkdale, Liverpool ("Em Left of Michael Foot on a number of issues"), the Union is decentralising. There are already regional committees in I.ancashire. Yorkshire and the West country which are getting off the ground. They remain responsible to the Union Council. This trend will continue as many of the decisions under delegated legislation arc taken at local level.
One such topic could be the birth control issue, although Union members .do not think alike on this one. Councillor Branagan supports the traditional teaching whereas James Dunn thinks that as a community Catholics will come to accept contraception.
A glance at the list of council members still shows a heavy Preponderance of establishment figures which may put off some Catholics who forget that such people as diplomats, peers and civil servants have a vital knowhow when it comes to finding one's way through the corridors
of power. • Trade unionists who have inherited the tradition of considering their members first and the community second are generally chary of coming forward. Before Lord Craigmyle became secretary a predecessor circulated bishops asking them for a list of suitable candidates. Several bestirred themselves and replied.
The one bright sign for the Catholic Union is that membership has recently climbed to nearly 1,200. Lord Craigmyle atributes this to the growing realisation of how much basicChristian tenets are under determined attack.
Such evidence as is available indicates that the Catholic Union is performing a vital, if delicate function, of looking after the interests of a minority in a oluralistic society. Some Catholics in public life might take insniration from the old adage, "Don't shoot the pianist, he's doing-his best."
Journalists are trained to blanch at cliches, particularly when they can spot them coming at the end of their copy. But it has to he said that the Union's weakness is its image about which it appears to be doing not nearly enough. More needs to be done among Catholics than non-Catholics.
Not all of its business has to be confidential and among some members it is hard at times to escape the impression of pussy-footing for its own sake. A few Press releases of suitable material would not come amiss. To return to the musical metaphor fewer people might shoot or ignore the pianist if he would go easier on the soft pedal.