I would like to think that I have built up a certain amount of goodwill on the Catholic blogosphere and therefore it was with some sadness that I read John Smeaton’s pre-Christmas blogpost in which he denounced me and all of my Catholic Voices colleagues as “highly compromised establishment mouthpieces” and called for “voices of real Catholics”.
I found his post deeply offensive, not just on a personal level but also on behalf of the very faithful, highly intelligent, talented group of people it has been my privilege to have formed friendships with over the last few months, as well as those members of Catholic Voices with whom I had already established relationships of friendships and trust.
John Smeaton has absolutely no ecclesiastical authority to doubt whether or not we are “proper Catholics” because some of us might have a perfectly permissible divergence of opinion and frankly I am minded to investigate canon law to see whether or not I am entitled to defend my reputation as a Catholic in good standing. I probably won’t bother, but I do not take kindly towards John deciding who or what constitutes “real Catholics”, he has no more authority than Andrew Brown of the Guardian or other liberal commentators who are minded to define the beliefs of the faithful (which usually involves ignoring a large part of the magisterium).
I am roaring with laughter at the concept of being an establishment mouthpiece – anyone who has ever known me will testify that I do not take kindly to being told what to say, think or how to act. I’m terribly free-spirited in that respect and it was that part of my nature that brought me back to Catholicism, in that I had to use solid reasoning, philosophy and cold hard logic in order to understand many of the precepts of the faith. I am a rebel who questions every single orthodoxy, therefore the concept of joining any organisation which tells me what to think or to unquestioningly obey does not appeal. If Catholic Voices were that type of organisation I would not have been a part of it. The fact is that I joined in order to be able to learn invaluable media skills as well as be part of the general conversation about faith and politics. Catholic Voices is the model of subsidiarity – nobody is told what to say or think, quite the opposite, it is assumed that as orthodox and faithful Catholics we are well-informed about our faith, we are simply taught the skills to be able to effectively communicate it in a climate of 24/7 rolling news coverage. Not once have I heard “this is our official policy” vis a vis any of the major issues.
John Smeaton has constructed a paranoid and false narrative, that Catholic Voices have been “frantically scrambling” to defend the Bishops, we have been secretly briefed to defend the Bishops against accusations of dissent from Catholic pro-life teaching. My recent blog posts and Thirsty Gargoyle’s recent post on the Catholic Voices website is the latest irrefutable “evidence”.
Actually John needs to make his mind up. If we are indeed dissenters from the Vatican and the CDF, which is the establishment, then how can we be said to be establishment mouthpieces? I’d also love to know what qualifies me as being part of the “establishment” and how I am highly-compromised? What qualifies John Smeaton to make such a judgement?
In order to set the record straight – the reason that G and I both came out with similar views, is because when the Oddie/Nichols controversy first kicked off, we were privately exchanging emails as neither of us knew quite what to make of it. We were then both asked to present on a panel at the Catholic Voices final weekend – my subject was “Civil Partnerships and the Church”, G’s was “the Archbishop Nicholls controversy”. I received a two line email asking me to prepare a presentation and warned to expect vigorous grilling. I was asked to stay away from the Archbishop’s remarks as G would be covering those. There was absolutely no brief to “defend the Bishops” whatsoever. As G and I had some overlap, we discussed it briefly first and realised that we had reached a consensus of opinion, but it wasn’t “official policy”. G’s presentation was so illuminating, he was asked to turn it into a blogpost for CV. I decided to post a condensed version of mine on my blog. People are free to disagree, it is a matter of judgement, but it is not one that deserved quite so much acrimony and/or frothing from John Smeaton and his advocates. There really is no “conspiracy”, it was simply that G and I do get on enormously well and happened to agree with each other having thought through the issue at length. I am also minded to be charitable to the leader of Catholics in England and Wales – I don’t presume he’s an automatic apostate on a secret mission to overturn CDF directives or subvert Catholic teaching. I can see why John Smeaton’s fevered imagination was working overtime here, but it’s utterly untrue that anyone was frantically scrambling to the Bishops’ defence, I don’t even want to give his nonsense credence.
John’s rationale that we are not authentic Catholics stems from the fact, that as he points out, a requirement of being a member of Catholic Voices is that one is not angry or upset with the Bishops. Leaving aside the obviously absurd notion that an orthodox Catholic might actually experience some allegiance to the bishops who have been appointed by the Pope, surely being angry is a sin. To be in a state of permanent anger could well be grave matter and a mortal sin. Although it may be argued that there is such a thing as “righteous indignation” I would posit that this is something that can only really be experienced by the divine, since none of us humans can really count ourselves as righteous. Anger/indignation is always intermingled with other emotions, such as pride and so who can really state with any authority that their anger, no matter how justified they may feel it is, is “righteous”. As Christians we are supposed to forgive and let go of our anger, so it seems to be quite fitting that those who publicly make the case for the Church should not be in a state of sin. Not angry or upset, does not equate to “you must agree with and condone every single thing that the Bishops’ Conference” says, clearly the Bishops need to exercise prudential judgement at times and there is room for disagreement, but if we are to make a public case for the Church, to go on national media in state of anger or upset or to publicly denounce and condemn our spiritual leaders is hardly going to advance anyone’s cause. But no, according to John Smeaton, unless you are absolutely fuming, or at the very least very disappointed with our Bishops, you cannot be a “good” Catholic and are therefore highly compromised.
One has to ask oneself, what exactly has all this to do with SPUC? To use the phrase from their website, they are a “secular lobby group”, therefore what on earth are they doing pronouncing Pharasiacal judgement upon who is really a good Catholic? What on earth are they doing immersing themselves in Catholic politics and how does this advance the pro-life cause?
SPUC’s answer would be that at their recent conference, they voted to conduct a campaign to defend marriage as a result of the forthcoming government consultation with regards to same-sex marriage. Catholic teaching is holistic; anything that undermines family life is liable to increase abortion and perhaps euthanasia. At the very least, functioning families provide socio-economic stability which is a factor in teenage pregnancies. It is my opinion, that this decision was perhaps unwise, as the case linking same-sex marriage with the pro-life cause, is a very subtle and complex one that requires careful explanation; it is difficult to convince those who do not understand or accept the link between stable families and the pro-life cause and it is likely to do more harm than good. One only needs to imagine the outrage that would be stirred up on Twitter and in the liberal press by claiming that gay marriage leads to abortion. There is not a direct causation and understandably the notion would cause huge offence. Going by recent campaigns, I doubt SPUC have the subtlety or resources to be able to do this effectively. John Smeaton produced several photographs of high profile couples in civil partnerships on his blog, in order to support his assertion that they are perceived as similar to marriage; his outrage is palpable, the post feels like something produced by Westboro Baptist Church. “Look at these gay couples – isn’t it disgusting and terrible”, is not the way to win hearts and minds. It certainly risks alienating members of the LGBT community who might otherwise be supportive of the pro-life agenda.
It seems to me that any pro-life group needs to be broad in base and narrow in focus. SPUC are wasting precious time and resources by fighting battles on all fronts. A friend reminded me of the concept of concentrated force. Think of door wedges, chisels and hammers, which are deliberately fashioned into triangles. Defending gay marriage confuses the issue, muddies the waters and weakens the focus. Even if one disagrees with my analysis and thinks that campaigning against same sex marriage is an appropriate activity for a pro-life organisation – how on earth does immersing oneself in Catholic politics, help that aim? Whilst Catholic social teaching mirrors the pro-life cause and therefore perceived deviations must prove frustrating, attacking the Bishops and genuine Catholics in good standing, does nothing to advance the cause. Besides I do not believe for one moment, that there is some secret conspiracy by a group of apostate Bishops intent on leading us into heterodoxy. It sounds like something out of the pages of Dan Brown!
As shown in my case, all John Smeaton has managed to do is alienate someone who is passionate about the pro-life cause. I have previously supported SPUC, both on this blog and financially. I sent John an email a few weeks ago outlining these concerns and have yet to receive the courtesy of a response. I also rang SPUC as I am involved in some important activism and wondered if they would support me – I spoke to John’s son Paul, who said he would take a message, but as yet no reply. Is it really helpful to deter someone who could do a lot of good work for the cause – not only in terms of activism, but fund-raising and education. Why on earth should I, or any members of my family support an organisation which wishes to publicly insult me?
It is this antagonism which lies at the heart of SPUC’s problems. If SPUC feel that their criticisms are justified, surely a more sensible approach is to work with the Bishops, instead of constantly sniping and attacking them? Continued condemnation causes continued marginalisation. As I said above, however, as a “secular lobby group”, SPUC have no business wasting their time and resources on this perceived vendetta against certain bishops and Catholic Voices. The pro-life lobby already faces immense problems in terms of being perceived as a preserve of fundamentalist Christians, only last year Sunny Hundal described LIFE, an entirely secular, non-denominational pro-life group with atheists as members, as “religious nut jobs”. How on earth will SPUC be taken seriously by anyone other than Catholics, if they continue with this negative focus upon the Catholic Church? In any event, if they do perceive problems with the Bishops, there are official channels, such as the Papal Nuncio or specific dicastories in Rome, who can investigate any issues.
Log onto John Smeaton’s blog and you are bombarded with posts dedicated to annihilating the reputation of Austen Ivereigh and the Bishops. Even if one happens to agree with John, a lobby group, funded by charitable donations for the purpose of protecting all human life should have no business engaging in unpleasant rumour, tittle tattle and gossip. Having seen how John has constructed an entirely false and paranoid narrative, I am not minded to believe anything that he says. SPUC’s donors are typically elderly and on limited income. Is this what they donate for – so that the director can spend his time pursuing personal vendettas and hobby-horses? Recently SPUC copied and pasted a message sent to me on Twitter by Austen Ivereigh and sent it to journalists such as Damian Thompson, in order to prove a point. Is this where the money in collecting tins goes – to fund their messing about on Twitter and attempts to use social media to have a pop at anyone who they don’t like? Some of my relatives and friends who are SPUC donors were absolutely horrified.
As SPUC are not a charity, their accounts are not public and thus there is no transparency. What is John Smeaton’s salary for example? Why is his young son employed? How is he qualified? What is his job title? Was this position advertised, or is SPUC being turned into something of a neat little family concern using donor money? Where does SPUC’s money go? What are their expenses? Are they audited. Are donors getting value for money.
Here are three examples of areas where SPUC has been remiss:
- I met John Smeaton when he came to address a Shoreham meeting of SPUC in 2009. I raised concerns about a high profile media case of a baby who was born under the legal limit and so was not given any medical care or assistance, his distraught parents watched him struggle for life for over an hour. I asked John what SPUC were doing to campaign for better care and assistance for babies born prematurely. The response: “I hadn’t heard of that particular case, we haven’t got time to keep up to date with everything”, although he did have time to keep up with John Lennon’s views on over-population and American ecclesiastical politics as well as Hilary Clinton’s views on the Lockerbie bombing according to his blog.
- In November 2010 a very damaging and untrue story about SPUC’s school presentations appeared in the Times Educational Supplement, which was picked up by pro-choice groups everywhere as well as the British Humanist Association. It claimed that SPUC were giving untrue information as well as showing graphic abortion videos. I for one, know that this is a false claim, having witnessed SPUC in schools, and yet SPUC did nothing to counter it, thus cementing the idea that it must have been true in many people’s minds. SPUC could have done much to disprove this claim, at the very minimum they had right of reply, but chose to remain silent. The story had the potential to have pro-life groups banned from giving educational presentations in schools. I was present when a freelance journalist friend asked a SPUC representative why nothing was done to counter this story and demonstrate its error. “It was a decision taken at the top, not to bother”, he said. Meanwhile, enormous damage was done to the pro-life movement.
- SPUC scored an enormous own-goal in publicly deriding Nadine Dorries’ amendment which forced recognition that abortion providers had a financial interest in the outcome of abortion counselling. Admittedly the way Nadine went about this was flawed, but I could not believe my eyes when we had David Allen Green – an avowed pro-choice advocate, praising John Smeaton, for being sensible and balanced and coming to the “right decision”! Privately I don’t think he quite understood why someone with avowed pro-life views was not supporting Dorries,either. It was absurd.
A pro-life view does not necessitate any religious views whatsoever. SPUC should be concentrating on the very logical case rooted in science and natural law, as opposed to attempting to meddle in ecclesiastical politics and alienating themselves from any position of influence. Why would an Evangelical, a Congregationalist, a Baptist or a liberal Anglican have any interest in what the Bishops and Cardinals might have to say? Why would an atheist? How does quoting John Paul II convince anyone other than Catholics? Why would a liberal Anglican who might be in favour of same sex marriage but against abortion, support SPUC. What about a devout Christian in a civil partnership? SPUC are attempting to appeal to a very narrow group. If they are going to be a Catholic group, then they should at the very least change their name to reflect that. John Smeaton, should, at the very least, consider running two separate blogs, one for SPUC and one with his own views, in which Church matters and his imaginings are kept entirely separate to important pro-life issues.
When SPUC was set up, it was specifically as a secular group – no Catholics were on the board, precisely so that it could not be accused of being simply a Catholic pressure group. I don’t like writing this post particularly, I am desperate for unity in the pro-life group and an end to internecine squabbling, I am wary about becoming one of John Smeaton’s targets, but when he seems to waste his time and more importantly donor money, I feel something needs to be said. Whatever one might think of the Bishops and/or Catholic Voices, this is outside SPUC’s remit. SPUC state that they have an income of £1 million a year, considerably less than many pro-choice groups, who are able to campaign a lot more effectively and who run extremely slick PR operations.
SPUC says on its website, “SPUC enjoys a high degree of independence. As the society is not a body of any church or political party, and has limited affiliations, it is free to operate effectively across a wide denominational, political and social spectrum.”
Why then, is it so obsessed by Catholic politics and Catholic Voices? Why does it not involve itself in the Synod or Jewish or Muslim politics? Why should I support an organisation who ignores a polite email, who publicly insults me and watches my twitter feed and those of other Catholic Voices, like a hawk for signs of heterodoxy and why should I give any of my valuable time and or money?
I have taken so much grief over the past year in support of my faith and particularly in support of the pro-life cause. I have received hate mail and picked up obsessive stalkers. I was threatened and had death wished upon me for expressing a wish to attend a prayer vigil, I had someone attempt to interfere in my every day life because she believed that I “hurt women” and yet I have refused to give in to these bullies. I have PR skills, experience with young people, I’ve helped many victims of abortion and yet SPUC wish to marginalise, ignore and insult me. Is it really a good thing that they are deterring people who could be of much use to their organisation – not only me, but other younger recruits? Does John Smeaton have any idea quite how hurtful it is when he dismisses me as a “highly compromised mouthpiece” or not a “real Catholic”? Is he really prepared to stand by those statements? How has he advanced the pro-life cause, by alienating someone who had previously attempted to support him?
Next Sunday, SPUC are holding their White Flower appeal in which they will be holding collections in Catholic Churches nationwide. They are lucky that the Bishops are able to rise above the acrimony and personal insults and allow these collections to take place. It will be with a heavy heart that I donate money to an organisation which seems to be more concerned with attacking and insulting me, my friends, my brothers, sisters and fathers in Christ, than it does to the defence of the vulnerable and elderly.
As Stuart Reid noted in his excellent valedictory column last week, “the spite and venom of some conservative Catholics you encounter in the blogosphere, puts one in mind of the more primitive American Baptists. Yes, these people are in a tiny minority but they make a lot of noise with their mad certainties and barely concealed hatreds…they feel free to make outrageous assertions about the beliefs and motives of their opponents…all it requires is a PC and a rigid belief in your own moral probity”.
The Director of a secular pro-life group with an income of £1 million a year should know how to behave better. I may be no better than members of the “Temple Police” but at least I am doing it with my own time and money.