(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.