A few years ago I was riled into writing about SPUC in less than complimentary terms following some less than charitable remarks about Catholic Voices, the organisation of which I am proud to be a part, not being orthodox enough. Writing on his blog back in 2011, John Smeaton, Director of SPUC called for the voices of ‘real Catholics’ instead of our appeasing liberal heterodox ones.
Admittedly I was less than charitable in my reply, my irritation and indignation fuelled in part by pregnancy hormones. The accusations of heterodoxy and attacks upon Catholic Voices coming from John Smeaton, did cease, for which I think we are all grateful – after all when it came to the thorny topic of the redefinition of marriage, it was clear that we were all on the same side.
And when it comes to the aims of SPUC, I think we’re all on their side, we all wish for a successful pro-life lobby group in this country. It is very disappointing for ordinary Catholics in the pews that by and large our leadership seems to be quiet on the subject of abortion, with a few notable exceptions and that there seems to be no specifically Catholic pro-life organisation, which is why SPUC occupy a weird hybrid position, ostensibly being a secular lobby group and not a registered charity, with no official Catholic endorsement. To be fair to SPUC they are simply filling a gap.
SPUC has two problems, the first one being that in order to gain any serious political traction, any pro-life movement, be that in the realms of abortion or euthanasia should not be perceived as a purely religious movement. To use the cliche, if I had a penny for every time I’ve trotted out the phrase that life issues, including contraception and IVF for that matter, don’t actually require any sort of religious belief or recourse to theism to be valid ethical positions, neither do they fit into any sort of left/right-wing praxis, then I’d be a seriously rich woman by now.
One of the accusations trotted out by those angered by my original post was that my criticism came from self-interest, I had my eye on staging some sort of coup and emerging as a female pro-life leader. One of the reasons that I have absolutely no intention or desire to lead any sort of movement (aside from the fact I am not a natural leader and have never been comfortable in these sorts of positions and have more than enough on my plate at present) is because as a lesser-known Catholic, I’d never be able to move beyond the ‘religious agenda’ template. The future of pro-life in the political sphere in any event, needs to be able to bust the religious zealot/wingnut frame and led by someone who has kept below the radar.
LifeCharity has a Catholic founder and chairman in Jack Scarisbrick and admittedly employs practicing Christians of all denominations, but it also employs those of other faiths and none. It is this wholly secular, non-religious flavour of the organisation which has enabled it to make some inroads in terms of being invited to participate in policy forums. It is precisely Life’s lack of overt religiosity, it refuses to endorse or alternatively condemn 40 Days for Life for example which makes the pro-choice lobby spit with fury as the tired accusations and tropes simply don’t work. This is why organisations such as Education for Choice, do their damnest to undermine them in other fields, such as pregnancy counselling and education. It isn’t LIFE’s secular nature that protects them from such attacks, let’s face it, there’s a whole plethora of people whom it would suit, from professional lobby groups to big Pharma groups or anyone with any sort of financial interests in contraception and abortion, who want pro-lifers kicked out of schools and not being allowed anywhere near a woman with an unplanned pregnancy. The lack of religiosity makes the smear merchants’ job much harder as well as enabling LIFE to reach a wider audience who would perhaps be more willing to lay their prejudices about religious organisations aside and listen.
The second problem is that the UK Catholic church should have a dedicated pro-life movement throughout the country. It’s very hard for Catholics to donate to secular pro-life charities who make appeals in church, when they emphasize the non-religious nature of their work. Now there’s no reason why religion should come into fields such as crisis pregnancy counselling or sex education especially for the wider world, but neither should Catholicism be excluded, particularly when we are talking about Catholic schools or parishioners.
I’m proud to publicly state my support for 40 days for life (as has Pope Francis), I believe that respectful, dignified silent prayer vigils with specialist trained and experienced crisis pregnancy outreach workers are an excellent witness to the faith. But it’s very hard to support an organisation who comes into my church and says ‘we don’t stand outside the abortion clinics’ in lofty tones signifying disproval.
There is a need for a Catholic organisation not only to support prayer vigils, but to do all of the grass-roots and outreach work to change hearts and minds which is every bit as vital as the politics. SPUC are quite good at some of this. My father-in-law is a member and is always exercised into action by the literature that comes dropping through his letterbox at regular intervasl from SPUC. He made an appointment to see his MP about same-sex marriage on their advice, rang them up and had a ‘very long helpful conversation for at least half an hour with a girl from there’ which briefed him in terms of what to say and what to expect.
Thing is though, as I said before, I’m still not convinced that this was the best use of their time and resources, it’s fighting a battle on too many fronts. Too many members of the general public were baffled by SPUC’s response to same-sex marriage whose point was that anything that undermines marriage therefore leads to the collapse of family life which then results in social consequences such as abortion, was too sophisticated and nuanced to work effectively. Marriage had already been weakened over the past few decades, notably with the introduction of no-fault divorce – an adulterer’s charter, there are consequences for the unborn child in terms of trying to state that every couple has the right to marriage and children, but most people could not see beyond the straw-man argument of causation and asked how two men or women getting married would then cause a third party to have an abortion.
The work that SPUC did in terms of briefing my father-in-law, could and should have been done by a different agency. If we’d had a cohesive official Catholic life movement, then they would have been able to pick up the slack.
The trouble is that because John Smeaton seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time attacking the Catholic bishops and hierarchy on his blog along with LGBT issues, it doesn’t make the Catholic church inclined to work with him, further fuelling his annoyance and thus the cycle of recrimination continues and nothing gets done.
No doubt lots of people will say to me in the coms box, yeah Caroline, but John Smeaton was right to criticise the bishops because of xyz. Specifically on this issue of Archbishop Peter Smith’s statement asking the government not to automatically convert civil partnerships into marriage and abolish them, which John Smeaton has blogged about, I would have a slightly different take. Yes, the CDF did issue guidelines against civil partnerships back in 2003, identifying correctly that they would lead to the introduction of marriage. The Archbishop was however speaking in the context of 2014, when civil partnerships are a reality. His point was the same as it was back in their introduction in 2003, being that civil partnerships do afford some important legal protections for same-sex couples. You really would need to be an unreasonable bigot to deny people the right to live with whom they choose and to be able to have that person given a special legal status as a significant companion, regardless of whether or not they are having an intimate sexual relationship. It isn’t beyond the bounds of imagination to suggest that there could be some Catholics living a chaste life within a civil partnership who do not wish to see them become marriages.
After attacking the Archbishop for his perceived deviation from Catholic teaching about civil partnerships, John then goes into a long diatribe about the lack of condemnation for homosexuality or homosexual acts from Peter Smith and whether or not civil partnerships or gay marriages are deemed to be sexual in nature, quoting an Anglican barrister for support!
It frankly appears prurient and petty minded. We know that there are problems with the legal definition of gay marriage, sexual consummation is necessarily missing, but the Archbishop was neither promoting gay marriage nor encouraging people to have extra marital sex. Stating the legal protections of civil partnerships is not the same as encouraging people to enter them. Does an Archbishop really need to take every opportunity to specifically denounce and reiterate Catholic teaching on homosexual acts? Aren’t we all already more than aware of what the Church says about sex outside of marriage? Besides which the Catholic church welcomed the Wolfenden Report which led to the de-criminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and have also called for homosexuality to be de-criminalised throughout the world, as acts of private morality should not be subject to criminal sanctions.
People are rarely converted to Christianity simply by preaching; clever reasoned, compelling and logical arguments are all very well, but there also needs to be some element of personal encounter as St Paul demonstrates. I recently attended a session with the Catholic Labour MP Rob Flello, who entered the Commons as an atheist, where he talked movingly about a very personal encounter with Christ which led to his conversion.
Continually preaching about homosexuality or reiterating Catholic teaching on it does nothing to bring about the joy of Christ. Surely these discussions are best held on a one-to-one personal basis? In any event context is everything, at a time when Catholics are fighting to have our voices heard in the public square, denouncements of homosexual acts as immoral and disordered in a document concerned with protecting the legal rights of those in civil partnerships is not only irrelevant, but risks any remaining credibility or opportunity to be heard.
But to get back to the point, SPUC have done some good work and do number some good people in their organisation. It’s just a tragedy to see them continually arguing themselves into irrelevance and alienating themselves from official Catholic endorsement and support with their leader’s relentless focus upon homosexuality which is often picked up on by mainstream media, along with criticism of the Catholic bishops. I’m not saying that the bishops should be exempt from criticism where it is merited, but as ever it really isn’t the remit of a secular lobby group.
Catholics cannot deny the link between abortion and the deviation from God’s plan for human flourishing. Perhaps it’s time for the UK church to propose that case a lot better than in the past and then maybe SPUC can concentrate solely on how best they can fulfil their remit of specifically protecting the life of the unborn child, for which purpose they solicit donations and support.