Opinion: Cardinal error

The exquisite arrogance and ignorance of our religious leaders was once again on full display last week in the form of His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O’Brien.

In a deeply political intervention, which Lynne Featherstone described succinctly as “diabolical,” the Cardinal made an outspoken attack on what he termed the “evil trade” and “unspeakable crime” of abortion. “In Scotland we kill the equivalent of a classroom full of school children every day,” he said, later likening this to “two Dunblane massacres a day.”

The Cardinal is no stranger to political controversy incidentally. Six months prior to the Scottish parliamentary elections, he stated that he would be happy to see an independent Scotland, to the delight of the SNP. In 2005, he caused consternation by suggesting that proposed gay adoption legislation would place children “in peril,” prompting Peter Tatchell to call him “a very sad, sick man.” The previous year, he spoke out against sex education proposals for Scottish schools. Getting a little carried away, he declared that the situation would be tantamount to “state sponsored sexual abuse of minors,” apparently without so much as a trace of irony.

But on this occasion, the Cardinal went much further than simply sharing his ill-informed opinions with the rest of us. His sermon included a veiled threat of excommunication for Westminster and Holyrood elected representatives who adopt a liberal stance on abortion. The Cardinal’s sidekick, Simon Dames, spelled out the message more bluntly: “If you claim to be Catholic, when it comes to the abortion issue, do not promote it, do not support it, and if you do then we’re talking about refusing the Eucharist.” By what authority does His Eminence believe that he may subvert the democratic process in this manner?

Who elected Keith O’Brien? To the best of my knowledge, he does not represent the Scottish people in any shape or form. Doubtless he will consider himself to represent Scotland’s 750,000 Catholics in some way, though in truth I cannot recall the result of any ballot that led to his elevation. In fact so far as I can see, the good Cardinal really only represents one person (or is it three?) – God, a somewhat elusive character who rarely puts in a public appearance, and indeed whose very existence is increasingly being called into question. Why did Alex Salmond even agree to meet him last week?

Of course none of us should be complacent about abortion figures which in Scotland last year reached 13,081 – a number which does indeed sound too high for comfort. But our consequent response should be firmly grounded in reason coupled with modern scientific and ethical insights, not dubious interpretations of ancient scriptures. Rather than shed any light on the matter, the religious perspective routinely obscures the argument and compromises the debate. So in the unlikely event that the Cardinal actually had something useful to say about abortion or sexual health in general, who would listen to him anyway?

I think that Liberal Democrats are missing a trick here. Under new Labour and our deeply religious outgoing Prime Minister, we have seen faith encroach ever further into public life; while at the other end of the scale, the Church of England has not unfairly been characterised as the Conservative party at prayer. I believe that the need has never been greater for an explicitly secular political party in Britain. Secularism does not mean bashing religion (though I am not above indulging in that particular pastime), but it does entail a complete separation of church and state. We should be seeking to drive the influence of religion out of the legislature, our schools, and the public square in general.

In my view, a radical secular platform could prove highly attractive to believers and non-believers alike at the next election; and the Liberal Democrats are perfectly placed from a political, philosophical, and historical perspective, to occupy this position in the electoral landscape. The country is ready for it; the time is right. Let us seize the opportunity.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Cheltenham Robin 5th Jun '07 - 9:37pm

    On a slightly related issue, we have a local failing secondary school which is likely to be replaced with a “Faith” sponsored academy.

    The Catholic diocese get to select 40% of pupils based on their religion and have said a further 40% will be allowed from the C of E.

    The mathematicians among you will have worked out that this only leaves a 20% allocation for children from the local community.

    Regardless of personal views on religion, it does highlight the worrying aspect of academies, i.e. whoever pays the piper- calls the tune.

  • David Morton 5th Jun '07 - 10:51pm

    Rationalism and indeed secularism are respected strands within liberal thought. However so are diversity, individual expression and localism. You suggestion that the party trys to remove religion from the public square is highly illiberal. However bonkers the Archbishops pronouncement is ( and I agree that it is) he has much right to express it in public debate as Greenpeace, the WI or the Monster Raving Loonies. I’m also a little alarmed at the implications of your view for the numerious Faith based groups inter twinned with Civil Society. Where does this leave funding for Faith based youth work, social programmes etc?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 5th Jun '07 - 11:13pm

    Respond by simply stating the good moral and practical arguments for legal abortion, sex education, and gay adoption.

    Win the debate, don’t exclude someone just because you disagree with them.

    We are not going to win the nation’s confidence by talking about “driving out” anyone.

    Talk about a country with an equal voice and equal place for everyone, whatever their views on religion. That’s partly why the party of Gladstone was first founded, to emanicpate Catholics, Jews, and the non-conformists.

    Separate church and state but don’t separate of any British people from each other or from the Liberal Democrats with your choice of language.

    You can achieve what you want by using terms like equality and tolerance and ‘live and let live’. Aggressive language sends the mainstream majority running away.

  • Claire Williams 6th Jun '07 - 6:40am

    Agree with Jeremy, Tim & co that the Cardinal is probably doing what’s in his job description (if Cardinals have such a thing) – however stupid and despicable are his views, they are also the stupid and despicable views of his religion.

    I want nothing to do with him or his religion, just as I want nothing to do with the BNP, but even in that (even uglier) case, we ought to defend their right to say it.

    I think Laurence is on firmer ground when it comes to church schools and religious indoctrination. Sadly still seems political suicide to advocate withdrawal of funding from such schools, at least until the academic performance gap can be dealt with. But if we were starting afresh, I hope we’d accept that there should be no more place for schools with a religious agenda than ones with, say, a political one.

  • Richard Gadsden 6th Jun '07 - 8:01am

    I think that the excommunication of people who support abortion is the sort of thing that churches should be doing more of.

    If they kicked out everyone who didn’t obey the doctrines they dogmatically stick to, then it would soon be clear what a bunch insignificant little sects they really are.

    It would also mean that a lot of people who were brought up Catholic or Church of England or Methodist or whatever would have to confront the creed and decide whether they accept every jot and tittle. Many more would decide that they do not.

  • I thought Church of England disestablishment was existing Liberal Democrat policy.It doesn’t necessarily mean greater secularisation.British society is already secularised to such a degree that many believe there is already a separation of Church and State.
    There is no justification in the modern world for one Church or religion to enjoy official status over any other so let’s keep pressing for disestablishment!

  • Bridget Fox 6th Jun '07 - 11:56am

    Freedom of religious expression is an important strand in Liberal and Liberal Democrat history and values, whether that’s defending the rights of non-conformists and Catholics to become civil servants in the 19th century, or opposing restrictions on freedom to sepak out against religious views today.

    Liberalism is not the same as secularism. Opposing theocracy is not the same as secularism. Liberalism is about tolerance including religious tolerance. Liberals should oppose oppression of Christians in China or Buddhists in Tibet as much as the oppression of gays in Russia or women in Saudi Arabia.
    Laurence may believe that the need has never been greater for an explicitly secular political party in Britain. That party will not however be the Liberal Democrats.

  • While I’ve always voted LibDem, I’m going to vote Green until LibDem policy is to remove the power of selection from publicly funded faith schools. It’s just descrimination by another name.

  • Hywel Morgan 6th Jun '07 - 4:39pm

    I’m slightly with Richard G on this.

    The Catholic Church regards abortion as an absolute moral wrong. It’s not unreasonable for their spiritual leader in this country to condemn people who disagree with that view.

    If a religion won’t speak out against what it regards as a moral wrong then there’s not much point in it’s existence!

    Isn’t the case though that what you object to is the Cardinal’s views. If not do you also condemn Archbiship Tutu, Rev King and Archbishop David Shepherd for their “deeply political interventions”?

  • I absolutely agree that religious indoctrination should be cast out of our schools. My parents were both brought up religiously, both later rejected it, and me and my siblings were brought up in a secular environment. To such as I, religion in all it’s forms seems preposterous.
    Sadly, the party I used to hold much hope for went and gave Ming the leadership.
    What a disaster!
    This country is crying out for an alternative to dying New (sic) Labour and Cameron”s Eton creeps; the centre was there for the grasping after Kennedy’s fall, but Lib-Dem gave up, ran from the challenge and elected a pensioner.
    For the sake of this sadly failing country, every liberal should surely push to eject Ming (god bless him) and install some balls!

  • What can possibly be wrong about the leader of a religious group laying down the rules by which people can be members of that religious group? Indeed, what he is calling for is a bit of honesty from our politicians – those who want to be seen as Catholics (and let’s not pretend that this isn’t politically important in some areas) must actually abide by the Catholic church’s teachings.

    If our elected representatives find they cannot follow Catholic doctrine, then they should leave the Catholic church. If they have to be threatened with excommunication instead, then that’s a rather sad comment on the honesty of our politicians.

  • I’m always amazed at these religious freaks who think your moral duty to do X, as a committed member of a religion, means you also have a duty to coerce other people to do X. What an abominable moral principle. If other people are not “right with God”, it’s God’s business to coerce or punish them. Your duty as a Christian is not to sin, and the suggestion that you should be enforcing non-believers’ morality is not a million miles from blowing up infidels. I think someone in some book said it best: Judge not lest ye be judged

  • Martin Curry 7th Jun '07 - 4:06pm

    I think the Cardinal is right to point out to catholic politcians that their faith holds that abortion is murder.

    The belief in the sanctity of every human life is a key part of catholic doctrine and those who do not agree with it should recognise that they are not fully part of their faith community.

  • Stephen Robinson 7th Jun '07 - 7:50pm

    This thread has been more thought-provoking than any other. So thanks at least for that. And this reply has evolved during its writing over an extended period. Like Jeremy’s, it became just too long (even after editing) to be posted here.

    My view in short: the cardinal leads a particular group in society. He has articulated one of the rules of his group. If his group believes that that rule is so fundamental to membership of that group, they have every right to exclude members who do not agree. The only wonder is that they have not done it sooner. The fact that their group would be smaller (and probably have less influence) probably explains why.

    The cardinal can express his group’s view in vigorous terms if he likes. But he should not be surprised if my group (whether that is liberals or all politicians) are equally robust.

    I suspect that most of us liberals see religion as one of many influences on our lives, not more important than every other – and for some completely unimportant. Outbursts like the cardinal’s might provoke more people to say that religion should not have a special place in public policy e.g. seats in the upper chamber of parliament.

    Further thoughts, including why I think religion and political ideology are actually not that far apart, are here: http://chelmsford-stephenrobinson.blogspot.com/2007/06/religious-debate-one-of-many-influences.html

  • Hywel Morgan 8th Jun '07 - 10:09pm

    “if you believe that Elvis is still alive then you belong in an asylum”

    Odd view for a liberal to have though – punishing eccentric views by the asylum is a tad old fashioned 🙂

    Mind you my religious upbringing was a church which accepted homosexuality when it was still illegal so I don’t subscribe to the view that all religion is restrictive and illiberal.

    “You’re quite right of course, religion has enormous benefits for those on the inside track.”

    I would suggest that Archbiships Tutu and Shepherd generated benefits for others not on the inside track.

  • Jesus of Nazareth was a liberal!

  • Lib Dem member 9th Jun '07 - 11:21am

    Jesus was far more tolerant of people who disagreed with him than you seem to be Laurence.

    I do like the idea by the way that he agreed with “literally every word of the scriptures”. Especially all those words that were written after he died. Has Jesus been in touch with you since to confirm that he agrees with all the words written after his death?

  • Hywel Morgan 9th Jun '07 - 12:32pm

    “The simple believeth every word” – Proverbs 14:15

    It’s what men do with their beliefs that harms people – to paraphrase those great moral philsophers “books don’t kill people, rappers do” 🙂

  • Lib Dem member 9th Jun '07 - 12:43pm

    Hundreds of millions (billions?) of Christians have taken a different interpretation from yours.

    I am impressed by your certainty that your view and only your view is right (along with your certainty about what Jesus thought of words written after his death – has he visited you to let you know?), though I do wonder how tolerant and liberal an outlook that really is?

    If you do have an open mind, try looking at http://www.jesusisaliberal.org/

  • How much progress did Albania make after Hoxha declared it to be the first and only atheist state in history?

  • Lib Dem member 10th Jun '07 - 10:20am

    “We” hey! Didn’t know you were one of the Royal Family Laurence!

    But back to Jesus. You wrote before that he agreed with ever word in the scriptures. How can you be so sure he agreed with words that were written after his death?

  • Lib Dem member 10th Jun '07 - 12:40pm

    You seem to be making a very large number of assumptions about what any Christian must think.

    There is a huge range of flavours of Christianity – many (if not most) of which don’t require literal belief in the Old Testament, don’t require all parables to be taken literally (despite your claim that they must be) and on and on.

    The one thing that strikes me from all your comments Laurence is that you appear to be happy to throw together a rather ramshackle arguments, based on lots of leaps, assumptions and assertions, and end up thinking millions of people are stupid and deluded without seeming to think that such a conculsion should require care or accuracy in your argument leading up to it.

    There isn’t a liberal outlook is it, especially when you seem to love going out of your way to throw in passing insults at anyone who has religious views?

  • Jesus believed in the Hebrew Bible which isn’t quite the same as the Old Testament.After all he was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew.All the stuff about the Trinity came centuries after his death.

  • Hywel Morgan 10th Jun '07 - 7:17pm

    “especially when you seem to love going out of your way to throw in passing insults at anyone who has religious views?”

    That’s how it appears to me as well – I wouldn’t claim to be a Christian but there are a number of people I hugely respect who are. Jerry Fallwell and Ian Paisley are two who use their religion to divide whereas someone like Roger Roberts would appear to have his religious and policitical beliefs closely intertwined.

  • I don’t claim to be a theological expert by any means, but your claim about Christians doesn’t stack up with my own experiences. I’ve come across Christians who don’t take such an exclusive view, but rather believe that there are many different ways to God.

    I don’t know if Roger Roberts’s views fall into this group, though I think you’ll find plenty of non-Christians who respect him and wouldn’t agree with your casual dismissal of him as dishonest.

  • Claire Williams 10th Jun '07 - 11:04pm

    I can’t see why we need get so worried about all this. Jesus and all the other ‘gods’ have about as much relevance or factual basis as the tooth fairy.

    Religion is dying out quite nicely in this country, so let’s leave it to whither on the vine. Creating a big debate about all this just plays into the hands of the theists.

  • Claire Williams 10th Jun '07 - 11:07pm

    PS – the latest Dawkins book is an excellent read, and he’s quite right in so many ways, but he does fall into the above trap.

    There’s a far more respectable position than for which he gives credit that says “religion – what’s it got to do with me? I’m more interested in a nice cup of tea”.

  • “Why aren’t “Christians” Jews?”
    They don’t observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, and circumcise all males.

  • Martin Curry 11th Jun '07 - 3:29pm

    “theres no religion – you did that – it helps to keep your little leaders fat

    Like faith n superstition stay – to help you pass the time away”

    From Ian Hunter’s God (Take1)

  • Hywel Morgan 11th Jun '07 - 5:31pm

    “wouldn’t agree with your casual dismissal of him as dishonest.”

    Frankly if an argument is based on questioning the honesty of Roger Roberts I would suggest the person is losing it (the argument at least) big style 🙂

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