Catholics should realise that really tough times are ahead. The secularists are on the march and intend to push Christianity to the sidelines. They’ll use all sorts of diversions; playing on people’s concerns about Muslim extremists in order to attack the principle of faith schools; suggesting that it is education that perpetuates the division in the North of Ireland; and using the creationist beliefs of extreme Protestants to ridicule all Christian education. They will use anything to eradicate Christian influence in mainstream society. What they want is a state that treats faith as an eccentric hobby – akin to motor sport or stamp collecting and about as relevant to real life.
Part of that equation is to insist that all religions are on a par. It is seen as unacceptable to distinguish between the manifestly crooked or historically nonsensical and that which has serious academic validation. So the views of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Scientologists are to be treated as if as worthy of serious consideration as the doctrines of the Catholic Church. It is a short step from that to dismissing all religion as equally worthless.
The new secularists use the language of Christian liberalism to promote a hard-line and exclusive view of the world. Their tactics over the Equality Bill are typical. By bandying words like “equality”, “fairness” and “respect” they seek to portray themselves as open-minded and evenhanded. In fact they have an extremist moral agenda and they want to impose their new morality on us all.
Henry VIII would have understood perfectly. His new-found church did exactly the same. It legitimised the immorality of divorce and the immorality of theft. Using the language of the old morality it imposed the convenient concepts of the new. The king could dispose of his wife and marry another. He could steal the property and goods of the religious houses and he could alienate the parish churches belonging to the Catholic faith. Like the current state secularists, he used a cover. For him, the rise of Protestantism provided the excuse. For Harriet Harman, it is the growth of secularism. He said that his version of Protestantism had every right to define the new morality and to assert its ascendancy over the old. She says that her version of secularism can assert the morality of killing babies and pressurising old people to ask to be killed. By careful use of propaganda and the levers of power, Henry was able to give the appearance of the continuity of morality. Only St John Fisher, of all the bishops, stood out against him. The others sanctified theft and legitimised adultery.
Harriet Harman’s problem is that, today, the Catholic Church has learned the lesson of history. Catholic bishops will not bow to the secularists. Of course, she will not threaten them with execution. But they will be branded as unpatriotic. Already, that “liberal” organ, the Guardian, has played the patriotic Protestant card. “Just as Roman Catholics were being treated as normal Englishmen, the Pope has intervened,” it wrote. That, being translated, means “just as we thought that we’d tamed Roman Catholics to bow down to Caesar like everyone else, they’ve come up with the peculiar view that their faith has practical moral consequences”. They seem to be taking Christianity seriously which is extremely inconvenient for the rest of us.” To be inconvenient challenges the morality of convenience that the secularists dress up as a philosophy. It is Henry VIII all over again. The Church therefore asks the same question: “By what authority?” Again it discerns the answer: “For my own convenience.” It recognises, too, that the state religion has produced its own commandments. The first of which is: “Thou shalt not behave as if your religious teaching is true, nor carry its precepts into your daily life, unless those precepts accord with the teachings of the state – in which case it is compulsory to uphold them.” The second is: “Thou shalt remove any inconvenience to the individual comfort of others, unless they themselves are inconveniently conceived, ill or old.” The third is: “Thou shalt not discriminate, except against Christians in general and Catholics in particular.” All three commandments reintroduce into Britain the illiberal Victorian attitudes that most thought we had left behind. Our complaint is not that particular tenets of the secularist religion are wrong in every respect. It is rather that the state feels it necessary to enforce these tenets, right or wrong, even upon those who disagree. It is the free society, not the truth of particular beliefs, that this intolerance threatens.
The debate about gay rights is a case in point. There are many Catholics who, recognising the difference between activity and orientation, think that homosexual disposition should not be a bar to ecclesiastical employment and, distinguishing between fidelity and promiscuity, would prefer to encourage long-term same-sex partnerships through some legal formula that gives to such relationships appropriate rights and obligations. They would also accept that same-sex adoption can be preferable to childhood in an institution. Nonetheless, we who think like this should be the first to defend the freedom to think otherwise.
After all, the closure of the Catholic adoption agencies has not produced a single additional same-sex adoption. But that’s not surprising because it was not the issue. What campaigners wanted was to enforce a single view about homosexuality. Again, in the current Equality Bill, the Government could not bear to put beyond doubt the right of churches to exclude from their employment those with a lifestyle contrary to their teaching.
The position of Ministers is simply potty. Is an environmental consultancy now to be forced to employ climate sceptics and must UKIP field Europhile candidates? For the Strict Baptists to employ an openly gay youth worker would be just as far-fetched. I strongly oppose the evangelical Protestant view of homosexuality and I deplore UKIP’s narrow-minded, mean and xenophobic views. But both are entitled to their beliefs and to the freedom to live according to them. That entitlement is central to a free society and it is in the defence of that entitlement that British men and women have died.
We who are the heirs of martyrs have a duty to uphold the right to untrammelled conscience in this increasingly illiberal country.
John Gummer is the MP for Suffolk Coastal and a Board member of The Catholic Herald