James Bogle, the new chairman of the Catholic Union, calls on the laity to pull their weight Surely I was not the only person to view a recording of the Intelligence Squared debate last October about the value of the Catholic Church with a degree of surprise. I was surprised at the weakness of the arguments raised against the Church and by the enthusiastic reception which such poor arguments received from certain parts of the audience. I suspect, however, that various recent unsavoury revelations in the Church may partly explain the negative response.
I was in Ireland in December when the Murphy Report came out. Four bishops resigned in its wake. The extent of the worldwide problem of clerical abuse emerged in 2002 when Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigned. In July 2007 Los Angeles archdiocese was obliged to pay out £410 million to abuse victims in the largest-ever such compensation deal. The US Church has, since 1992, paid out some £1.2 billion in settlements and some dioceses have been obliged to file for bankruptcy.
In May 2009 Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who retired as Archbishop of Milwaukee after allegations that he had paid £280,000 of diocesan funds to a former lover to fend off a threatened lawsuit, published a memoir revealing his sexual exploits while he had been a celibate monk and bishop of the Catholic Church. There may only be a small number of abusers but, let’s face it, one is too many.
Perhaps part of the solution is a return to a proper cooperation between lay and clerical for our mutual assistance and benefit and for the welfare of the Church and society as a whole. Vatican II signalled a renewed emphasis upon the importance of the laity in the life of the Church. That noble aim has perhaps not yet been fully realised everywhere.
The clerical role in the Church is irreplaceable. Equally, so is the lay role, and it is vital that laity assume roles that are essentially lay – such as political lobbying – so that the Church can access the wealth of professional talent that exists within the laity.
We share with other fellow citizens of faith a novel challenge in which the mere right to hold and teach any faith is challenged, not only by self-publicists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but even by some public officials. Some in Government have sought to restrict the right of Catholic children to gain entry into Catholic schools. There have been challenges to the adoption policies of Catholic children’s societies so that most of them are to close.
Where were the legal challenges to this infringement of religious antidiscrimination laws under the Equality Act 2006? The eminent discrimination barrister, Neil Addison, also Director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, cogently advised various agencies how to defend themselves, but few have taken up his advice. Clearly the problem was not lack of funds. Millions of pounds of sacrificially donated Catholic money will be lost without contest.
Harriet Harman launched further challenges to the churches. On the other hand, John Denham, the Communities Secretary, taking a more moderate approach, has, not unreasonably, told faith groups that they need to be lobbying if they wish to have an impact. In short, if we don’t argue our corner we really can’t complain.
Even a cursory glance at the achievements of the Catholic Church over the centuries confirms that it has been one of the most beneficial contributors to society. Virtually every human activity has been enriched by it. Even today, for example, the Catholic Church is still the largest private provider of healthcare worldwide.
It makes sense for bishops and laity to collaborate to promote the benefits of the faith that we share. Not surprisingly, Vatican II’s Decree on the Laity says so, too: “Bishops, pastors of parishes, and other priests... should... work fraternally with the laity in and for the Church... in these apostolic works.” In October 2003, I appeared and gave evidence alongside Archbishop Peter Smith at the time of the joint parliamentary committee on what later became the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Doctors and lawyers in the Catholic Union predicted that the Act might mean doctors felt compelled to neglect a suicidal young person who had pre-prepared a document seeming to stipulate no treatment. In September a coroner concluded likewise in the Kerrie Wooltorton case (in which a woman who swallowed antifreeze died after apparently refusing treatment) – just as we had predicted. Some claimed that the code attached to the Act was clear enough to obviate any problem. Two expert solicitors were quoted as disagreeing, a view largely shared by Professor John Keown, the eminent British legal academic.
Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, called for amendments to the Act, following the Wooltorton tragedy. Curiously, few Catholic lobbyists openly supported this sensible suggestion from the lead Minister in the Government that had actually given us the Act. It was a missed opportunity. We need to improve collaboration within all parts of the Church. Now is the time for concerted action and joint effort. Priests and people must work together to promote the benefits of our faith and the common good. And we must do so in a politically non-partisan way, ready to work with whomever is in government.
These are matters which are firmly within the province of the lay Catholic professional. The Catholic Union exists to put the lay Catholic voice in public affairs, both to Government and to our hierarchy. It has within its ranks numerous eminent professional men and women whose expertise forms a most useful resource.
We are very fortunate to have such members as Lord Brennan, our president, Lord Alton, our vice-president, and Edward Leigh MP, also a vice-president. These are Catholic parliamentarians whose contribution to public life has been eminent and unstinting.
Within both clergy and laity we have a wealth of talent. Now is the time for it to be used in the service of the faith and the common good. I am reminded of Mgr George Talbot, who advised Cardinal Manning about Cardinal Newman. Talbot asked rhetorically: “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain. These matters they understand.” And he called Newman “the most dangerous man in England” for promoting the lay apostolate. Newman’s response was to say of the laity: “The Church would look foolish without them”.
And it is Cardinal Newman who will be beatified this year and not Mgr Talbot.
James Bogle is the newly elected chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain (www.catholicunion.org) and a barrister in private practice