WHY is it that our allegedly secular society wants to know the Catholic Church's views on every legal and political development? In 1988, for example, there has been intense public interest on such diverse matters as terrorism, extradition, the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the government's moves to modify the right to silence and to restrict the televising of terrorists, the creation of a Broadcasting Standards Council, the propriety of using fetal tissue in brain transplants to help sufferers from Parkinson's Disease, or using pigs as donors in transplants, the attempt to lower the time limit for abortions, the continuing failure of the government to honour its pledge to introduce Warnock legislation, the continuing task of the government in coping with the Aids problem as in the question of testing for HIV without the patient's consent, the ButlerSloss report on the sexual abuse of children, the sentencing of those convicted of rape, government policy on social security, the National Health Service, the inner cities, unemployment and education,
particularly the possibility of Catholic schools "opting-out".
In all these cases, one factor in the national debate has been the Catholic viewpoint. Why?
One answer could be that this is nut, in reality, a secular age. Another could be that it is largely faithless but still maintains a historical respect for religious views. Another could be that the Church has muscled into these controversies and sees commenting on these matters as part of its mission. Another could be that there is little effective party political opposition to the government so that the media turn to nonelected leaders to voice the opinions of the otherwise voiceless. Another could be that the media think there is a good chance of trapping a bishop into pontificating on a subject about which he knows absolutely nothing. The last hope, if it exists, has not been fulfilled, thank goodness, partly because church leaders, unlike politicians, seem alive to the possibility that there are matters of technical, legal or financial detail beyond their competence.
Whatever the reasons, 1988 leaves me, at least, with the impression that the Catholic Church is an increasingly important part of national debate on a wide range of matters. Even more encouragingly, it seems that the bishops and their advisers are setting their own agenda rather than reacting to the vociferous but unrepresentative lobbying of some pressure groups or individual campaigners. But there are one or two causes for concern. First, the time has come to acknowledge this part of the Church's mission by devoting
greater resources to the Bishops Conference Secretariat, which does a marvellous job in briefing the Church on such matters but which could surely benefit from more researchers as the Church's role in the community seems to expand. Second, the network of committees which advise the bishops and which surface from time to time with reports (eg the valuable publications by the Joint Bioethics Committee before and after the Warnock Report) ought to he updated.
A related, perhaps deeper question was raised in the Catholic Herald this year by Archbishop Worlock's call for the laity to adopt a greater role in the world of political action. have mixed feelings over this. On the one hand, 1 agree that political campaigning is more the sphere of the laity. On the other hand, there is always a danger in idiosyncratic individuals claiming to be speaking for the Catholic Church. And, with the greatest of respect to Archbishop Worlock, there is not much more space for the laity on the national stage when some bishops perform as the arch
manipulators of the media. But again a more structured approach to the committee network might yield more lay people actively and identifiably involved in the Church's mission to the world and then having some basis from which to speak. At the local level, of course, the Archbishop's point was a promotion of active citizenship, standing for local office and so on. Again, one has reservations (how often does active citizenship and churchmanship and churchwomanship lead the activists to have insufficient time with their own families?) but the basic idea is sound.
One ought to think laterally, not only focussing on elections to the local council but also considering a broader range of public service. For example, the community needs good magistrates and school governors and increasingly we will need willing and able people to serve on the proliferating local medical
In all these matters, of course, a big question is: should we be responding as the Catholic Church at all? Would it not be more in keeping with the ecumenical spirit of the times to follow the Liverpool example and see joint Church initiatives? The Cardinal and the Archbishop of Canterbury have also acted in concert on some matters. But again this needs to be systematised. One imagines that joint statements with the Jewish community would be possible on a variety of matters such as abortion and embryo experimentation.
The challenge for 1989, therefore, is to see whether the herculean effort to support such 1988 measures as David Alton's Abortion Bill can be mobilised even more effectively across a wider range of political and legal matters. We can at least conclude that 1988 has been a good, if unspectacular, year for the influence of the Catholic Church in helping to shape the moral values of the United Kingdom.
Simon Lee is Professor of Jurisprudence at the Queen's University, Belfast. Frank Field is unwell and will return in two weeks