Or should they only intervene when they have the weight of the Magisterium behind them?
Dr Rowan Williams’s remarkable attack on the Coalition Government this week dismayed many Christians. In a guest editorial for the New Statesman, he not only criticised the Government’s policies, but questioned its mandate to implement them. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote:
With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context… The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.
It is hard to imagine the Catholic hierarchy intervening as forcefully as this on any subject at all. Occasionally, they will oppose some Bill or other, when the issue is clear-cut, and when Church teaching offers an obvious guide: the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008, for instance, which approved experimentation on human embryos and the creation of animal-human hybrids, was opposed by the bishops (though not perhaps as strongly as it might have been).
Yet since the Coalition Government came into power last May, the bishops of England and Wales have been remarkably quiet. Is this wise? After all, the Government is making radical, far-reaching reforms. Should the Catholic Church speak up more loudly? Or are the bishops right only to intervene in areas within the scope of the Magisterium?