The revitalised Catholic Union is ready to take on the forces of secularism, says Damian Arnold Acampaign of aggressive secularism is being waged by determined an d well-funded organisations who want to inhibit you from exhibiting any sign of religiosity.
With recent attacks on “divisive” Catholic schools, signs on buses telling people that God probably does not exist, and Catholic members of political parties admitting that they no longer feel welcome, there was never a better time to turn up the voice of the Catholic laity at the Palace of Westminster and remind our politicians that this is a group of some 4.2 million people they cannot ignore.
The Catholic Union is positioning itself to do just that. It recently launched a £100,000 development plan aimed at activating and empowering the Catholic laity to find its voice.
“We live in a fragmented society with no common philosophy or framework of common values to bind us together strongly. In such a society the voice of the Catholic laity must be heard.” Those are the words of Lord Brennan, the Labour peer who just over a year ago fell ill during a debate in the House of Lords on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and was given heart massage in the chamber.
Fit and well one year on and recently appointed as Catholic Union President, Lord Brennan is now playing a leading role in reviving a 137-year-old organisation that represents the Catholic laity and the defence of the common good in Parliament and public life.
The Catholic Union lobbies the Government and individual MPs on issues such as freedom of speech for Catholics; the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and proposed legislation such as the Assisted Dying Bill. It also carries out parliamentary monitoring as well as commissioning research and it gives a lay Catholic view to the media and academics.
Through doing this it hopes to counter the increasingly aggressive secularism of organisations such as the National Secular Society. But the Union has been operating on about one tenth of the income of the NSS.
The Union has a distinguished history to reflect on as it launches these ambitious plans. Its lobbying helped to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act (1926) which gave Catholic charities the same access to state benefits as other Christian charities. During the Second World War it successfully lobbied Winston Churchill not to bomb Nazi-occupied Rome. Post-war it lobbied for the upgrading of the United Kingdom’s legation in the Vatican to full embassy status with the reciprocal establishment of a Papal Nuncio. This was finally agreed in 1982.
But in recent years the Union has been less effective. Originally formed in 1871 by the Duke of Norfolk and the Marquis of Ripon, it traditionally had a strong influence in the House of Lords. But legislation in 1999, removing the right of hereditary peerage and cutting membership of the Upper House by almost half, has seen many Catholic peers, who were Union members, removed from the Lords.
Union membership has dropped to less than 2,000 and though it remains an invaluable resource for MPs who have staunchly defended the Catholic interest, such as Labour’s Jim Dobbin and the Conservative’s Edward Leigh, it has been criticised for being a “talking shop” that has lost touch with the laity.
Part of the problem, says Lord Brennan, is that many stalwart Union members have died and not been replaced.
“The future of Catholic thinking lies with younger members of the Church. The Union must attract them and interest them,” he explains.
There is already a tangible sense of youthful dynamism coursing through the organisation, especially since it appointed Emilia Klepacka as its full-time development manager earlier this year.
Klepacka, a trained lawyer, played a key role in building up the Brussels-based World Youth Alliance into a vibrant global collective of young people to promote the dignity of the human person.
And judging by the many young people sipping champagne at a recent Catholic Union reception hosted by the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle, the message is getting through.
It is hoped that more young people will be attracted via the CU’s newly revamped website which is the visible sign of its regeneration.
Armed with a growing band of young recruits, the CU has taken big strides in the last year.
An education working group has been formed to uphold the freedom of faith schools. The group is also launching programmes in schools and colleges to encourage young Catholics to develop and communicate their opinions.
An International Justice and Development Working Group will soon be launched to enter the debate on how to eradicate global poverty and best protect persecuted Catholics in places like the Indian sub-continent and Iraq.
Diocesan representatives are being appointed to give talks in parishes and encourage the laity to join the union. Recent presentations in two churches on the south coast saw 150 application forms requested by parishioners.
The body has also increased its links with the Bishops’ Conference and meetings have been held with Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor and Cardinal Keith O’Brien. “It is encouraging to see the Catholic Union looking to strengthen its membership and activities,” says a spokesman from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. “In today’s challenging climate it is all the more important that Catholics play a full part in public life.” As Catholic Union vicepresident Lord Alton puts it, everyone in the Church needs to be encouraged to fight the creeping force of aggressive secularism: “The life of every saint reminds us that we must never underestimate what a difference each one of us can make as an individual. Each of us has unique gifts to offer and we must all become fully engaged – active and contemplative – as conscientious Christian citizens.” Find out more at www.catholicunion.org