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Newsline 8 March 2013

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The Catholic Church must change or die

The Catholic Church must change or die

Opinion | Thu, 07 Mar 2013

By Terry Sanderson

The Catholic Church is in crisis, and not a moment before time. The level of arrogant politicisation to which it aspired under the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger was appalling.

Not that such interference in secular politics has stopped. Only this week we read that the Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland are rushing to support new restrictions on abortion in the province, where the law is already severe by most European standards. And in thePhilippines a huge tarpaulin has been erected over the front of a cathedral naming politicians who didn't vote in the way the Church wanted them to, and advising worshippers in turn not to vote for them in elections.

Now Cardinal Keith O'Brien,Britain's most senior Catholic cleric and one of the most prominent opponents of same-sex marriage, has been brought low over "inappropriate behaviour". His own cruel and overblown rhetoric is now catching up with him and intensifying his humiliation. The hatred that he heaped on the gay community because it dared to aspire to equality turns out to have been just a cover for his own, unresisted, sexual impulses.

So what will the Catholic Church do now? Will the new pope see sense and accept that the world has moved on and that his Church must move on too, if it is to retain any relevance. Will he accept that many of its teachings are impractical, unheeded and despised?

Or will he be another traditionalist who insists on "eternal, unchangeable truths" that originated some time in the 13th century?

The Catholic magazine The Tablet is generally thought to be on the liberal end of the spectrum and therefore comes in for almost as much stick as the church's more forthright secular critics.

In its current edition is an editorial suggesting that it is time for the Church to end the increasingly futile war with homosexuals. "There is no more mileage in this issue for the Catholic Church, and the sensible course would be to put it on the backburner with the heat turned low – to make peace with the gay world and move on."

This sounds like good advice. The Church is on a hiding to nothing with this policy. In the United States, the president has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing that same-sex marriage is a human right that must not be denied. The Catholic bishops have lost their battle to derail this plan, but they won't shut up.

Not only will the Church not win this war, it will create the perception of a cruel, inhumane institution that will not see what most other people have seen long ago.

It might also consider toning down its other foolish teachings.

Clerical celibacy not only creates agony for the people who embrace it, it also creates problems for those who fall victim when priests are unable to damp down sexual impulses which become twisted and dangerous.

In its intractable opposition to abortion (or "massacres" on a par with the holocaust or Dunblane, as the good Cardinal would have it), the Church has created a monstrous industry that forces rape victims to bear the children of their violators and it denies abortion to women whose own lives are at risk from dangerous pregnancies. But even more than this, it ensures that women who live in unimaginable poverty must endlessly produce more children than they are capable of feeding.

In any case, women should be the arbiters of their own fertility. They should be the ones who decide whether their pregnancy should continue. Not a priest, nor a pope.

The Church opposes scientific progress in stem cell research (or "Nazi-style experiments" as Cardinal O'Brien labelled it), research that could relieve unendurable suffering and save lives. It opposes assisted suicide, even though society has long since realised that prolonging the incurable suffering of loved ones for no good reason is cruel and pointless. Sex education for children is regarded as "state-sponsored sex abuse".

If the Catholic Church stopped its agitation on these social issues (which should be settled by democratic means, anyway, and not by holy writ) it could divert its considerable energies and resources into the real social problems that dog society.

The treatment of the elderly, the relief of poverty, the eradication of disease.

The Catholic Church would argue that it is already prominent in all these areas, which is true. There are Catholic relief agencies around the world doing excellent work, but sometimes they are hamstrung by the Vatican's obdurate restrictions on condoms or abortion.

And sometimes, when there is no restraint, the Catholic approach to "welfare" becomes brutish and cruel as with the Magdalene Laundries and numerous children's homes now being exposed as dens of abuse.

The good work that the Church does fades in the public mind as it sees the attempts to avoid compensating victims of abusive priests, and still covering up vile crimes despite promises to be "transparent".

It seems almost every day a new scandal arises somewhere in the world in which the institution of the Church has been caught trying to conceal misdemeanours – some of which beggar the imagination in their depravity.

Regrettably, we don't hold out much hope for change in the short term. But the continuing decline of support in the pews may bring the Church to its senses.

It is a pragmatic institution that does what it needs to do to survive, as we have seen over the past two thousand years. And if it sees a threat to its power or its finances, it will take whatever action is necessary to preserve them.

Children in Scotland awaiting adoption - who puts their best interests first?

Children in Scotland awaiting adoption - who puts their best interests first?

Opinion | Thu, 28 Feb 2013

Imagine for a moment a secular public service, let's say an adoption charity, refusing to consider applications from prospective adopters who are Catholic purely on the grounds of their religion (equality law notwithstanding) and deliberately restricting the pool of prospective parents by excluding Catholics, (the public benefit charity test notwithstanding). What do you think the reaction of the Scottish Government would be?

Would it seriously suggest this wasn't a problem because Catholics could use other adoption agencies? Remember that in 2006, Alex Salmond, now Scotland's First Minister, demanded of Tony Blair in the House of Commons the repeal of the Act of Settlement, saying: "It represents clear institutional discrimination against millions of our fellow citizens." Given how exercised he is over just one Catholic being discriminated against in acceding to the throne, would his reaction be anything other than outrage if all Catholics in Scotland were being discriminated against by secular adoption agencies?

And more importantly, what is in the best interests of children awaiting adoption? It surely can't be to deliberately reduce the pool of prospective parents looking to give children a loving home, and all in the name of preserving an unlawful prejudice?

With this in mind, please read on.

The story of the St Margaret's Family Care and Adoption Society case is contained here and here. St Margaret's has been trying to amend its constitution to allow it to continue discriminating against same-sex couples, who can now legally adopt in Scotland. Found by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, after an NSS complaint, to be breaking both equality law and charity law, St Margaret's has now asked OSCR to review that decision.

St Margaret's attitude is in direct contrast to that of Scotland's other (now former) Catholic adoption agency, St Andrew's in Edinburgh, which decided in 2008 to change its Constitution and break with the Catholic Church in order to consider and accept same-sex couples as prospective adopters. Scotland's retiring Catholic leader, Cardinal Keith O'Brien (a man noted for his outspoken hostility towards homosexual lifestyles) resigned as the Society's President in November 2008 to facilitate this. Although St Andrew's says it remains 'the agency of choice' for most Catholics wanting to adopt, it now openly welcomes same-sex couples, and indeed single gay men and women, as prospective adopters.

There was no publicity about this significant and welcome change at St Andrew's, no attempt to claim that it was being martyred on the altar of equality legislation, no attempt to exploit the drafting of the equality legislation that might permit it to continue to discriminate against same-sex people, against the spirit of the law. There was an accommodating and welcome attitude from the Catholic Church, even to the extent of it relinquishing any future claim on the Society's assets. The interests of the children came first, according to St Andrew's, and that meant widening the potential pool of adoptive parents to include same-sex couples, as required by law.

Perhaps the difference in approach between the two societies has something to do with the Scottish Government.

In July 2007, Scottish Government Minister Fiona Hyslop met with Cardinal O'Brien and other senior representatives of the Scottish Catholic Church. It was a very cosy affair, as this e-mail exchange within the Scottish Government reveals. In addition to promised efforts to let Catholic adoption agencies carry on discriminating, the Scottish Government was also intent, appallingly, on doing more to 'celebrate' Scotland's sectarian education system.

Another meeting took place in October 2008, as the Scottish Government continued to look for ways within the sexual orientation regulations to let St Margaret's continue to carry out discriminatory church teaching, rather than comply with the spirit of Westminster Government equality legislation.

There was a further meeting between Hyslop and Cardinal O'Brien in November 2008, which reinforced how complicit the Scottish Government had become in trying to enable St Margaret's to continue to discriminate against same-sex couples. This minute reveals that the St Margaret's agency was much more intent on upholding Church teaching than St Andrew's, a position that the Scottish Government also supported. It also sees a Scottish Government minister saying this:

"Cabinet Secretary Hyslop emphasised that key issue is to help and support children and is comfortable with gay couples being referred on to adoption agencies that have more experience of working with gay couples."

When the Herald newspaper asked the Archdiocese of Glasgow what would happen if a same-sex couple applied to St Margaret's, a Diocese spokesman replied: "They would be treated with respect but it would be explained to them that because of the nature of St Margaret's, they would be referred to the council adoption agency."

Consider for a moment if that attitude had prevailed in Alabama in 1955 and the days of Rosa Parks. Both the Catholic Church and the Scottish Government are effectively arguing that she would not have suffered racial discrimination (that co-incidentally kick-started the civil rights movement) if she had been redirected to another bus that allowed black people to sit where they wanted. That way, she would not have been breaking the Alabama racial segregation law by sitting in a seat reserved for white folks.

It's hard enough to imagine that this 'solution' could be advocated more than 50 years after Rosa Parks to justify withholding a publicly-funded service from gay people in Scotland. It is even harder to imagine that it could be actively supported by a senior Minister in the Scottish Government, who appeared 'comfortable' with allowing such discrimination, even where the law clearly provided for gay people not to be discriminated against. Such an attitude implies that providing some B&B guest houses accept gay couples, it's not a problem if others refuse them accommodation, or that signs saying 'no blacks' or 'no asians' or 'no Irish' are perfectly acceptable as long as there are other establishments that do welcome them. But as the NSS argued in its recent intervention at the ECHR, the harm done by invidious and unfair discrimination goes far beyond the deprivation of a service. An individual's dignity, sense of worth and full membership of the community is significantly affected by acts of discrimination even if he or she can obtain access the relevant service elsewhere.

Fiona Hyslop is no longer the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, however. That role is now filled by Mike Russell, who lost no time in expressing his disappointment with the Regulator's decision and in promising to do everything he could to ensure St Margaret's could continue with its vital work. At our recent meeting with the Minister, we were disappointed that he would not be drawn on whether that required them to be open to same-sex couples, despite the wealth of case law concluding it does. We pointed to Scottish Adoption, and the Christian-founded Barnardo's and Coram Foundation adoption agencies all advocating opening their doors to same-sex couples as being in the best interests of children. Yet Mr Russell declined to express a view on this.

So what exactly is the agenda behind the Scottish Government approach to St Margaret's, when it is abundantly clear that the answer for the agency is to follow the example set by St Andrew's and obey the law? Why does the Scottish Government continue to express solidarity with St Margaret's, rather than simply suggest that the agency looks east to Edinburgh and the exemplary case of St Andrew's? Why is the Scottish Government, which likes to style itself as having a record on equality and diversity that is second to none, willing to support the blatant discrimination at work in St Margaret's? If the same-sex marriage Bill eventually becomes law, what will the Scottish Government do then about adoption agencies which continue to turn away married same-sex couples?

And who really has the interests of children awaiting adoption at heart – St Andrew's, St Margaret's, or the Scottish Government?

On this evidence, only the first.

It’s OK to criticize religious practices

It’s OK to criticize religious practices

Opinion | Wed, 06 Mar 2013

By Brian D. Earp

In 2012, a German court ruled that religious circumcision of male minors constitutes criminal bodily assault. Muslim and Jewish groups responded with outrage, with some commentators pegging the ruling to Islamophobic and anti-Semitic motivations.

In doing so, these commentators failed to engage with any of the legal and ethical arguments actually given by the court in its landmark decision.

In a new academic paper to be published shortly in The Philosopher's Magazine, I argue that a firm distinction must be drawn between criticisms of religious practices that stem from irrational prejudice and bigoted attitudes and those that are grounded in sound moral reasoning.

Given that ritual circumcision is a pre-Enlightenment custom that elevates the inclinations of the community over the rights of the individual, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of post-Enlightenment philosophers and legal scholars are taking an ethical stand against it. As the "circumcision debate" continues, parties on all sides of the issue must remember to reason through the relevant considerations with care and respect.

Brian D. Earp is a Research Associate in the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. His paper, It's OK to criticize religious practices, can be read in full at his academic website.

Sheffield Council to reconsider plan to scrap free bus travel to religious schools

Sheffield Council to reconsider plan to scrap free bus travel to religious schools

News | Mon, 04 Mar 2013

Sheffield City Council is to postpone scrapping free bus travel for pupils attending religious schools after parents threatened legal action over what they consider the inadequacy of the initial consultation.

Win £250 – just write an uplifting Secular Thought for the Day

Win £250 – just write an uplifting Secular Thought for the Day

News | Thu, 21 Feb 2013

The ongoing irritation at the BBC's exclusion of secular voices from The Thought for the Day slot has spurred one the NSS's previous presidents, David Tribe, to sponsor a prize of £250 for the best secular Thought for the Day.

To win the prize, we are looking for a short essay in a similar format to the BBC's religious slot.

Thought for the Day is supposed to be an 'uplifting' reflection on a topical issue from a religious point of view.

To be in with a chance, your secular Thought should be between 450 - 650 words and be positive in approach and ideally related to a topical matter. We are not looking for a humanist Thought or an atheist Thought, but specifically for a secular Thought. We suggest you look at the NSS's Secular Charter for some ideas.

So, let's have some great (secular) Thoughts for the Day and good luck!

Send your Secular Thought for the Day to or by post to NSS, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Entries that require a great deal of correction or editing are unlikely to win the prize, so please let us have copy that is clean and finalised to your satisfaction. Please submit entries by Monday 18 March.

NSS Speaks Out

Alistair McBay was quoted by the BBC, STV, Glasgow Evening Times, Paisley Daily Express, Pink News and Gay Star News on the charity regulator's decision to uphold its ruling against St Margaret's Catholic adoption agency.

Keith Porteous Wood discussed the Girl Guides' review of their "promise" on BBC local radio stations around the country. He was also on the popular Call Kaye programme on BBC Radio Scotland, debating the Cardinal Keith O'Brien scandal. Terry Sanderson was on LBC radio on the same topic.

Stephen Evans discussed the need to reform Religious Education on BBC Radio Kent

The NSS was quoted in this story in the Guardian about the Supreme Court decision that establishes that the Catholic Church has vicarious liability for the abuse carried out by its priests. We were also quoted in the Guardian on the prospect of caste discrimination being outlawed.

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