Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Catholic bogeyman is just a shadow, but the Labour Party is still scared of him
Last week, the Government postponed the committee stage of the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill until the autumn. They did this because there was a by-election in Glasgow East, a constituency regarded as “Catholic”.

The Catholic bishops in Scotland had been making their usual belligerent noises about what the consequences would be for politicians if they didn’t do as they were told on abortion and other topics that obsess the Vatican. Yes, that’s right – they would tell their faithful followers to vote against them!

Bishop Joseph Devine, the rackety fool whose diocese covers Glasgow East, launched what he hoped would be a devastating onslaught on Gordon Brown's government over the Bill, accusing it of “violating moral law” and “losing ethical credibility”. He said Labour had lost the electorate’s trust and could no longer take Catholic support for granted. He claimed the party had “repudiated and abandoned Christian truths and values and sought to expel any notion of God from public debate and legislation”.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien – the man who stupidly described embryo research as of “Frankenstein proportions” – and who is Scotland's senior Catholic churchman, continued his attack on MPs who won’t follow his dictatorial demands. He said the HFE bill was a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life".

He added: “I now call on all of our MPs to search their hearts and their consciences in this extra time in which they have been given and to decide whether or not the value of human life really matters or whether or not it is simply one more commodity to be cast aside in our throwaway society."

Like the opportunists that they are, the Scottish Catholic hierarchy thinks it has the whip hand here and can direct voters at the polling booths with their hysterical ranting. But can they?

In an article in the Scotsman, Hamish MacDonnell reasoned: “About a third of the voters in Glasgow East declared themselves Catholic at the last census. With an electorate of 62,621, of whom – at most – half will vote, this means that there will probably be about 10,500 Catholics voting in this month’s by-election. The next, and most important, question is: how many of these will be influenced by the warnings of Bishop Devine? That is impossible to say, but the number is unlikely to be very high. There are many reasons why people vote the way they do and a very strong combination in Glasgow East is past practice, family and values. If a family has always voted Labour, it takes a lot to get them to switch.”

But that is not the only reason. Many Catholics simply do not agree with their Church’s teachings on abortion, stem cell research, contraception, homosexuality and marriage. In a poll conducted for Catholics for Choice in November last year, only 27% of Catholics support the bishops/Vatican line on abortion law and that nearly two thirds of the population think the bishops are too involved with abortion issues.

So, using Hamish MacDonnell’s reasoning, the bishops can only count on about 3,000 people voting with them in this by-election. And even they are not guaranteed, because there might be other factors that drive them to vote a particular way, such as party loyalties.

Of course, 3,000 votes can swing some elections, but it is unlikely to be the decider here, where the polls predict that Labour will keep its seat, albeit with a much reduced majority. Labour won Glasgow East in 2005 with a 13,500 majority. At the last Scottish parliamentary election a majority of Catholics in the Motherwell Diocese, where bishop Devine rants, backed Labour despite the Devine’s hostility to the party.

And so Mr Brown, with his fear of “the Catholic vote” has put off some very important (or “flagship” in his own words) legislation on the say-so of a couple of shrieking clerics who take their orders from Rome.

All this sits very uneasily with another very unpleasant incident. One of our honorary associates, Mary Honeyball, an MEP for London, found herself on the receiving end of the Catholic enforcement machine after she said that she suspected that many Catholic MPs owe their first allegiance to Rome rather than the electorate. She said that she thought the Catholic Church wielded far too much influence in the Labour Party.

The Catholics in parliament and the media immediately started a campaign to silence her. Former Defence Minister Peter Kilfoyle and Labour peer Lord Brennan condemned her remarks. Paul Donovan in the New Statesman launched a fusillade against her (to which I replied in the following week’s letters).

Mary Honeyball has now become involved in a war of words with Conor McGinn, the former chairman of Young Labour who resigned his post following her attack on the position taken by Catholic MPs who opposed the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

In a letter in the current issue of the Labour supporting magazine Tribune, Ms Honeyball accuses Mr McGinn of waging “a sustained and personal media attack” on her for “opening up a debate on the political methods used by the Roman Catholic Church to influence the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill”.

In an earlier article on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, she questioned the right of practising Catholic MPs to sit in the Cabinet and claimed that Catholicism exercised a “vice-like grip” on the countries of continental Europe.

Mr Kilfoyle said Ms Honeyball, who is Labour’s spokeswoman on women’s rights in the European Parliament, said her views should not be seen as indicative of those of the Labour Party, adding: “She shows a sublime ignorance as to the attitudes taken by Catholic MPs towards some of the pronouncements from the hierarchy of the Church. These views dispel any idea of Vatican-in the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first century.”

Lord Brennan, who is president of the Christian lobbying group, the Catholic Union of Great Britain, said that it is “anti-democratic” for anyone to disregard a view put forward by an individual simply because it accords with the position of the Catholic Church.

He emphasised the need for a reasoned debate. “There is a secular view that anyone with a religious argument is devoid of reasoned thought,” said Lord Brennan, who pointed out that Catholicism is based on faith and reason.

Labour MP Stephen Pound warned that Ms Honeyball “is alienating far more people than she influences by the violence of her attack. She still seems to find it impossible to accept that Roman Catholics can play a responsible part in democratic life – indeed that is our duty – without raising absurd and outdated images of loyalty to Rome and a perceived intolerance.”

Ms Honeyball said: “I agree with Lord Brennan that there needs to be a reasoned debate on these issues. I would like to stress that I am not against any religion; I believe that everyone should be free to follow their own beliefs as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others.”
See also: British don’t support Vatican view on abortion
Mary Honeyball’s articles on religion in politics
Cardinal's sins

18 July 2008