SPUC revisited

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.

Into the maelstrom

The remarks of Archbishop Vincent Nichols regarding civil partnerships have stirred up a lot of controversy on the Catholic blogosphere this week, led by the respected columnist for the Catholic Herald, William Oddie. I won’t re-hash the debate, but Oddie’s pieces may be read here and here. Archbishop Nichol’s response to the criticism may be found here.

I don’t want to add too much to the debate, other than to wonder whether this is something of a storm in a teacup, I’m not going to deny that the Archbishop’s statement was ambiguous, but I think there is a tendency to be guilty of a lack of charity here. I am quite uncomfortable with the concept of automatically assuming that the leader of Catholics in England and Wales has some agenda which runs contrary to that of the Holy See which he is intent on pursuing. I know all sorts of commenters will now rush to tell me about a whole host of scandals in an attempt to demonstrate that there is a consistent trend and underlying proof that secretly the Bishops are seeking to do xyz, but I am also aware that there is always two sides to every story, and so far, I’m only aware of one side, namely that of the very orthodox Catholic blogosphere. I know that things don’t look great on paper, I am not disputing the veracity of various claims or calling into question the integrity of anyone who comments on these things, but in the case of, for example, the Cardinal Vaughan school, it’s quite difficult to comment from the sidelines, only having been party to one side.

Another thing I will note is that I can’t summon up the enthusiasm for ecclesiastical politics. I don’t know anyone from the Bishop’s Conference and if I’m honest, I don’t really want to know either. Networking, schmoozing, knowing who’s who, isn’t my thing, which is probably something of a failing for a former vicar’s wife. I like to write my blog, talk about Catholic social issues, discuss a bit of politics, what’s going on in the twittersphere and in the media, occasionally venture into a bit of theology, hoping that I don’t launch into heresy, but I’ll only call people to account when I feel able and qualified to do so. I genuinely don’t feel comfortable about publicly questioning Archbishop Nichols, for a multitude of reasons, none of them to do with sycophancy or self-advancement, but simply that I am yet to be convinced of certain things, such as whether the Liverpool Care Plan, is back-door euthanasia for example or whether or not it gives ammunition to the euthanasia lobby, so I’m not going to go down that route. Call me naive but I trust in the Holy Spirit whom I believe has a hand in episcopal matters.

In terms of civil partnerships, I think we have to remember, that were Archbishop Nichols grossly in the wrong here, we’d have heard about it already from the likes of Archbishop Cranmer, who wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to criticise the Catholic Church if he thought that they were in any way supporting the issue of same-sex marriage. I admire the dead heretic enormously, but he isn’t exactly Rome’s greatest advocate.

The other thing that I think it is worth remembering, is that civil partnerships do solve some issues of natural justice, without necessarily undermining marriage. It is only right and just that people who are not in a marital relationship should be able to have similar access to various legal privileges, formerly only available to married couples, such as inheritance rights, or the right to nominate someone as your next of kin, or name them as a beneficiary on a pension. Though there are arguments to be made for keeping certain things as being exclusive privileges of a married couple, actually it is no bad thing for people to be able to legally formalise close relationships.

Where civil partnerships have failed and are utterly discriminatory is that they are only open to same-sex couples and necessitate an official public ceremony similar to a wedding ceremony. I have two elderly aunts, Auntie A and Auntie B. Unless my parents have finally got around to changing their will, they are still named as our official guardians in the event of my parents’ death. My Aunties were a part of our family when I was a child, they attended every family party or celebration, were part of Christmas, came to look after myself and my sister for a week when my grandmother died and were the first people my parents called to help when we were involved in a horrific car accident when I was ten, which incapacitated my mother for a year, at one stage all of the family were in different parts of the hospital being treated for our injuries with the aunties switching from theatre to theatre to check on our progress.

Auntie A and Auntie B were both teachers at my mother’s school which is how she came to know them. She immediately clicked with Auntie A and a lifelong friendship was born, I don’t ever remember them not being in my life. Auntie A moved in with Auntie B when she was a newly qualified teacher in the fifties and needed temporary lodgings. She never moved out. I honestly have no idea whether or not they were involved in a sexual relationship, but my instinct tells me that they were not. Schoolchildren being what they are, found out that Misses A and B lived together and constructed their own narrative, but I can honestly say, I never witnessed anything that would lead me to believe that. To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter, I’m not interested, it doesn’t affect my feelings towards them. Auntie A is probably one of the wisest and most perceptive women I’ve ever met. Over the past 60 years the aunties have done everything together, they have a lot of mutual interests, probably one of the reasons behind such a close enduring relationship, and are much loved in the local community, still attending Scottish Country dancing together in their 70s and 80s. They have travelled the world over and had an enormously full life. Auntie A once confided to me however were she to have her time again, she would have liked to have got married, that she would have liked to have had a husband and children, something that surprised me.

Now Auntie A is approaching her late 70s and Auntie B is ten years older, in her late 80s. Auntie B has increasingly been suffering health problems. Auntie A has become her full-time carer without complaint. Auntie B recently suffered a rectal prolapse which has necessitated very intimate and compassionate care. They are not in a civil partnership because neither of them want to put themselves through a ceremony that does not reflect the nature of their relationship. This means that when Auntie B dies, Auntie A will have no legal claim (not that she wants one) on Auntie B’s estate, despite having jointly contributed to the upkeep and maintenance of the house as well as the household shopping and so on for almost the past 60 years. She also has no social security rights, no tenancy rights and no right to be consulted in terms of treatment, as next-of-kin. I should imagine that being the canny ladies they are, that the correct arrangments have been made, but it seems nonsensical that Auntie A could well face a claim from Auntie B’s various nieces and nephews and could lose her house. It also seems unfair that Auntie A has no legal status. This could all be rectified with a civil partnership, but this option is not available to them as they don’t wish to formally recognise their relationship as being a same-sex one. Auntie A said that she wouldn’t put Auntie B through it and the pair of them would find it deeply humiliating and embarrassing. They don’t want it on permanent record that they were in a romantic relationship and besides Auntie A feels, it would be a lie or a sham.

This is where civil partnerships fail, because they do not give people like my aunties, or several other people, such as cousins, brothers and sisters, or platonic friends similar rights. Civil partnerships frame these relationships as only being romantic or sexual and are therefore discriminatory. But the principle of offering equal legal and employment rights to those in chaste loving relationships is a noble one, just as it is noble that whilst Catholics should not be seen to support same-sex sexual relationships, we cannot assume that all those who are in a civil partnership are necessarily indulging in sexual relationships. Though the Church of England allows its clergy to be in civil partnerships they are, technically speaking, supposed to be chaste and refrain from sex.

Civil partnerships are, excuse the pun, a b*gger’s muddle. The Church of England is in exactly the same position as the Catholic Church. Civil partnerships were seen as a compromise that served the legal needs of the gay community, but were not seen as undermining marriage as they were separate to them. The rules of democracy mean that views that are seen to be in the minority, and opposition to same-sex partnerships is a minority view, don’t hold sway. Most people were concerned that gay couples were not being treated on a par with married couples and held this to be grossly unfair. A much better solution would have been to create a legal process which meant that all couples could go to a registry office and register another person as their official next of kin. If gay couples had wanted all the extra bells and whistles there was still absolutely nothing to stop them from doing this, with a humanist minister or whatever they wanted, but civil partnerships discriminate nonetheless against those who are in a chaste relationship.

There are many arguments for keeping marriage special and according it unique status, civil partnerships should not, for example, include parental responsibility, which should remain as being the exclusive right of married couples, or put more precisely the right of children to be brought up by a biological mother and father, but done properly civil partnerships might not have undermined marriage.

The problem for both the Church of England and the Catholic Church is that neither wished to be seen to deny legal equalities and rights purely on the grounds of sexuality. The homophobe label still carries immense power, it’s Stonewall’s entire raison d’etre. Also at the time of the consultation on civil partnerships, the gay rights groups stated that they were not pushing for marriage, simply that they wanted equality.

This is one of the reasons why the CDF specifically spoke out against civil partnerships in 2003, they could see that civil partnerships were marriage by the back door – the slippery slope and that civil partnerships could very much be seen as an inferior option. Had all parties pushed harder for a wider definition of civil partnerships, then perhaps we would not be in the mess that we are in today.

In any case, it should be remembered that Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor was in charge in 2003 when this was discussed. I am unable to offer comment as to what the church should or should not have done as I was not in communion with the Catholic Church at that time. I was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and traumatic birth. Had the Church mounted a more concerted campaign, it is unsure whether or not this would have been successful, given how split the Anglican communion was over the whole issue, but the Bishops Conference was very clear in 2003, when it stated that “civil unions would not support the common good and we therefore strongly oppose them”.

Whatever else he might have said, Archbishop Nichols has stated that equality and commitment do not amount to marriage. Surely that is the main thing. Surely what matters now is sticking together to defend marriage, rather than this internecine squabbling, which does no-one any good. We are all part of one body in Christ. Wounds and divisions hurt us all.

*PS I know I will probably regret this and the internet will explode as a result. That’s the problem with trying to please everyone, you please no-one, but my loyalty lies in Christ and the Church that he founded. I am not convinced that hitching my wagon to the “church isn’t catholic enough” train is the way that I might best serve her. Don’t be too horrid in the comments.