Friday, July 28, 2017

Catholicism and politics: a continuing story

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 26.)

Ever wondered why Britain has never had a Catholic prime minister?

Contrary to a popular misconception, there’s no constitutional barrier preventing it. So why hasn’t it happened?

The most likely explanation is that there remains a residual suspicion of Catholics that dates back to the bloody power struggles between Catholic and Protestant contenders for the throne several centuries ago. A gentleman named Guy Fawkes might have had something to do with it too.

Fears that Catholic politicians might secretly owe allegiance to Rome have never entirely been erased. Until 1829, Catholics weren’t even allowed to sit in the British parliament.

The closest Britain has come to getting a Catholic prime minister was Tony Blair, who regularly attended Mass with his Catholic wife when he was in No 10 Downing St, but waited until he had stood down before formalising his conversion.

Blair, who was nothing if not a shrewd calculator of political odds, knew that Catholicism would have been an impediment to his career. Besides, he wouldn’t have wanted to imperil the fragile Northern Ireland peace agreement by antagonising Protestants in the religiously divided province.

By comparison, we in New Zealand are relatively relaxed about Catholic politicians. We got our first Catholic premier, Frederick Weld, in 1864 and have had several Catholic prime ministers since then, including Labour hero Michael Joseph Savage, National’s Jim Bolger and of course Bill English.

This differentiates us not only from Britain but also America, which didn’t elect a Catholic president – John F Kennedy – until 1960. There hasn’t been another Catholic in the White House since then, despite Catholicism being the largest religious denomination in the US.

But while we in New Zealand might view lingering religious prejudices in other countries as rather quaint, there have been periods of religious tension in politics here too – especially in the early 20th century, when the Catholic Church in this country was led by bishops of Irish descent whose republican sympathies were at odds with staunchly pro-British governments.

Archbishop Francis Redwood and Dunedin’s Irish-born Bishop Patrick Moran were both outspoken supporters of Irish home rule – a cause energetically taken up by the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, which Moran founded.

The Irish issue famously caused political ructions when a priest named James Liston, later to become the long-serving and politically influential bishop of Auckland, was tried in 1922 on the rare charge of sedition. Liston had offended the government of William Massey, a Northern Ireland-born Protestant, by making a St Patrick’s Day speech in which he praised the IRA rebels behind the ill-fated Easter Rising of 1916. Ironically, he was acquitted by an all-Protestant jury.

Even relatively recently, Catholicism has been suspected of wielding too much influence behind the scenes. Anti-Catholic resentment surfaced during 1970s debates over abortion and state aid to Catholic schools. Opposition to liberalisation of the abortion laws was often dismissed as being driven entirely by Catholics, which wasn’t the case.

I remember once interviewing the late John Kennedy, then the redoubtable editor of the aforementioned Tablet, who told me there was a feeling in New Zealand that the Catholics had to be watched.

That didn’t stop Kennedy stirring things up by writing a controversial editorial in 1972 supporting the election of a Labour government – this at a time when New Zealand newspapers rarely took political sides, at least not openly.

Kennedy’s editorial probably served to reinforce suspicions that there was a Catholic bloc vote and that Catholic voters did as they were told. It certainly did no harm to Norman Kirk and the Labour Party. They swept into power, ending 12 years under National.

Again ironically, Kennedy later became a supporter and confidant of the autocratic National prime minister Robert Muldoon, whose social conservatism aligned closely with his own.

And so we come to the present day, and the New Zealand Catholic bishops’ 2017 election statement, which was distributed to Mass attendees recently.  

Dear me. What a wishy-washy, touchy-feely, hand-wringing document it is.

Under section headings such as “Fair Tax Structure”, “Affordable Housing” and “Caring for our planet” it largely parrots the position of the centre-Left parties.  But it conspicuously stops short of any rigorous critical analysis, preferring to take refuge in facile generalisations and cosy platitudes.

It doesn’t come straight out and urge Catholics to vote for Labour or the Greens, but it might as well. In fact I would have more respect for the Catholic bishops if it did. At least they would then be nailing their colours to the mast openly and unequivocally, rather than disguising their soft-Left leanings behind coded signals.

That the statement was issued at all is telling. If I were a practising Catholic, I wouldn’t be impressed by the presumption that I relied on the bishops for guidance on how to vote – least of all when they appear to take the lazy option of suggesting Big Government can solve all our problems.

Will the bishops’ statement do anything to restore the flagging moral authority of the Church? I doubt it. But then I don’t think it will revive fears about Catholic leaders exerting too much influence either. Those days are long gone. 


Mark Hubbard said...

Then it's an even ship, Karl. I won't vote National because I want the choice to die with dignity - I believe it's the biggest issue this election - and the Catholic head boy is on record he thinks it is my lot to suffer for his god (whom I rationally view as a fantasy), and National is staffed at the top level by his ilk: Maggie Barry, I'm assuming Finlayson from his juvenile comments against euthanasia that was the typical Catholic scare-mongering line), Coleman, and we must not forget seminary trained priest Simon O'Connor who was appointed by Key, in the most cynical political move I've ever seen, to chair the select committee on Maryan Street's very good bill. While chairing that committee O'Connor was writing to Catholic rags exhorting parishioners to submit to his committee against euthanasia, hence, despite public polls showing overwhelmingly a desire for law here, he skewed submissions to *his* committee to 50/50 with thousands of one line submissions to the effect of 'euthanasia is against my religion' and from the Pacifica community '... against my culture). He's reporting soon, but it will be a waste of time. He was appointed to make sure the issue never entered Parliament under National.

I'm a small, small stater but I'm disgusted by National's Catholics over this issue. Indeed, even voting for David Seymour to get his bill through is pointless as that just puts in National. It's probably going to be the first MMP election I withhold my party vote on principle.

By the by: I don't think English understands how big both euthanasia and easy access to medicinal cannabis issues are with Grey Power voters: and I suspect he's handy some part of that vote to Winston.

Mark Hubbard said...

Typo: English is 'handing' some part of Grey Power's vote to Winston.

Rosie said...

How do the Bishops reconcile Labour/Green stance on abortion, same-sex "marriage" and euthanasia wth Catholic doctrine?

What about one of the key principles of Catholic social thought known as the principle of subsidiarity? Have the Bishops such little understanding of subsidiarity that they are advocating for a bloated, centralised welfare state?


Mark Hubbard said...

Rosie makes a good point. Just about all Catholics I know vote National on the abortion/euthanasia et al social issues and firmly believe in private beneficent charity, not enforced government welfare which they believe (probably rightly) leads to some of the other sins (birth out of wedlock, abortion, etc).

Please note re my first post, I don't hate Catholics per se: just the ones that would deny me death with dignity because of their beliefs which I don't share, and when my having that option doesn't affect their manner of death at all (they can choose to die in as much suffering for their God as they wish).

The vote of Seymour's bill should not be a conscience vote as that won't be respresentative of what people want in the majority.

Karl du Fresne said...

To be fair, the bishops don't explicitly endorse Labour or Greens policies. I was simply referring to the general tenor of the document. And they do include a pro-life statement, albeit a rather weak and equivocal one.

Mark Hubbard said...

I suspect Catholic (educated) hierarchy, as with secular academia, wants to be far more liberal than their following, and there is always a schism, especially within rural areas where the Church is strong, waiting to flow over.

Kevin said...

Tax the churches.

Brendan McNeill said...

Thanks Karl for brining the Bishops 'thoughts' to our attention. It's discouraging and condescending (as you point out) to hear them spout this tripe. I thought the Anglicans had the monopoly on the modern sins of climate change and inequality, it seems I was wrong.

What the Bishops do not realise, and Kevin (5:38) expresses with some clarity, is that the Church's tax free status will eventually come under threat. With the introduction of gay marriage in particular, the Church now stands ideologically opposed to the secular liberal ideology endorsed by Parliament. Politicians will be content to live with this dissonance for a while, but eventually one or more will ask why it is that tax free status is being given to a religious group whose teaching on sexual orientation and gender fluidity is 'culturally unsafe'.

As I pointed out to the Salvation Army some years ago, a leftish Government (well, that includes National) will eventually ask why they are outsourcing social services to a religious organisation when they would be best managed by the State, and without the religious packaging.

None of these religious leaders appears to understand the impact that rapid cultural change is having upon our political landscape, and particularly how that will play out for religious institutions in the years ahead.

Bill may well be a Catholic, but he was at pains to point out that his faith didn't impact his politics at a press conference shortly after his appointment as PM. At which point, those of us who are Christians sighed deeply and wondered what kind of faith one must have if it doesn't impact upon one's beliefs, values and voting patterns?

Besides the Czech Republic, New Zealand is perhaps one of the most secular nations on the planet.

With or without the Bishops political exhortations, the electorate appears to be well insulated from Catholic teaching (if not it's politics), Mark Hubbard's concerns not withstanding.

Handsome B. Wonderful said...

The bishops' statement is very soft. Catholics have always known that we are free to vote with our conscience; many would even be obliged to confess to voting for parties that push positions clearly in opposition to the Church. It is imperative upon us (Catholics) to take the opportunity to vote freely seriously. However I don't think the bishops thought very strategically on this one: if they were willing to openly (yet softly) endorse a particular party, then political parties would be willing to produce policy that could be considered consistent with Catholic social teaching. They'd need to consider the "Catholic bloc". With their couched statements the bishops have scored an own goal. Our voting lacking clear direction, we can be ignored, and consequently there's no competition for us. This is a shame given the issue of euthanasia is coming up. All of the major parties are more or less united on social issues, and the Church appears unwilling to take a public stand and offer a clear counterpoint.

My only explanation to offer is that there is a missing part of the spectrum that the bishops may have endorsed if it existed: socially conservative green leftists.

Secularism said...

Interesting article

Australia has had at least 6 Catholic Prime Ministers.
Current Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull is Catholic.
This comes as no surprise in a nation where almost 1 in 4 are Catholic.

Canada has had at least 10 Catholic Prime Ministers.
Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is Catholic like his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau.
Again, this comes as no surprise in a nation where 4 in 10 are Catholic.

England or the UK is the exception. Only 1 in 12 are Catholic. Although 75% of the citizenry claim some Christian affiliation (an observation: British Prime Ministers today seem slightly underwhelming in comparison to NZ, Australia, Canadian Prime Ministers or US Presidents).

The Catholic Church has a legitimate role in promoting its social causes everywhere.
Mainstream Churches like it do this globally. That will never change. Commentators may speak of its waning influence but that is probably incorrect: mainstream Christian churches' influence will always be like the tides: reliably cyclical and persistent. Good luck fighting a tide.

What marks the Catholic Church out from others is an open argument, but there is no doubt that it is 'special' in character. Articles like Karl's simply mark it out as special all over again. Overall, Christian Churches have a strong sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society and many Catholics (imperfect or perfect) are no different than those of other Christian denominations. That social conscience is inculcated in many Catholic political representatives (be they National, Labour, Green, ACT, NZ First or whichever) from infancy, probably.

What marks successful Catholic participation in national politics in most New World democracies is again open to debate. It might be that many Catholic immigrants to the New World were stronger and certainly more determined to exert political influence than those (Catholic and non-Catholic) who could/would not immigrate. Irish Catholics in particular were/are imbued with a strong facility with the English language and argumentation that to this day can throw off balance many an opponent. It is fun to watch.

Going forward, I think there will be many more Catholic Prime Ministers in the New World, including in New Zealand. The drivers are instilled from an early age.

In saecula saeculorum - as they say.