Wed 17th Sep 2014 | Last updated: Wed 17th Sep 2014 at 17:30pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Features

Can the Church work with David Cameron?

Paul Goodman asks if the Church’s social conservatism is at odds with David Cameron’s model of conservatism

By on Thursday, 18 August 2011

Can the Church work with David Cameron?

Almost a year ago there seemed for a moment to be a meeting of minds between the old man who is the Pope and a young man who is Prime Minister. As Pope Benedict left Britain after his visit he said that he had been grateful “to have the opportunity… to share some thoughts… about the contribution that the religions can offer to the development of a healthy pluralistic society”. Only a few moments before David Cameron had responded to those thoughts as follows: “I believe that we can all share in your message of working for the common good and that we all have a social obligation to each other, to our families and communities.”

The common bond of which the Pope had spoken, he said, had been “an incredibly important part of your message to us. And it’s at the heart of the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain. People of faith – including our 30,000 faith-based charities – are great architects of that new culture.” The Prime Minister was careful to keep two words out of his remarks: Big Society – the slogan which, more than any other, summarise his localist-flavoured, grassroots-dependent, traditionally-moored One Nation ideal of what his Government should be all about.

He would have done so in order not to drag the Pope into party politics, but was evidently seeking to manoeuvre British Catholics in that direction. The Conservative Party, he was indicating, no longer holds that “there is no such thing as society” – Margaret Thatcher’s words, and ones that inflicted a slow-burning and decade-lasting reputational damage on the Tories. We believe, he was suggesting, in solidarity – just as Catholics do.  And we believe in subsidiarity, too: that power is best exercised when devolved down to the most local level. Your values and instincts are as ours.

All this gives rise to a lot of questions. Did Cameron really mean it? If so, was he right? And what should the Church’s response be in any event? Perhaps the best place to start is by searching the Prime Minister and his team for any background in or sympathy for the Church’s social teaching. There is always a sprinkling of Catholics at the top of Britain’s political parties, the most obvious one in the Conservatives’ case being Iain Duncan Smith, their first Catholic leader, since then triumphantly reinvented first as founder of the Centre for Social Justice and now as Work and Pensions Secretary.

The work of Duncan Smith has been directly inspired by the teachings of the Church to which he converted. But from Thatcher through Tony Blair to Cameron himself, political parties have become increasingly centralised: the best place to look when weighing up a leadership isn’t around the Cabinet table but in the private office – among the tight-knit teams who plan and execute political strategy. None of the men (and, yes: it is almost entirely men) who make up the Prime Minister’s inner circle have ever shown much of an interest in Catholicism – George Osborne, the Chancellor; Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s ideas guru; Andrew Cooper, the newly appointed head of strategy; and Ed Llewellyn, the chief of staff.

Merge Team Cameron into one individual, and you’d have someone rather like the Prime Minister himself: privately educated, metropolitan, liberal-minded, and if inclined to religion at all then drawn to a reserved Christianity with a distinctly Anglican flavour.  (The Prime Minister, according to Boris Johnson, has compared the difficulties of believing in God to the difficulty in picking up Magic FM in the Chilterns.) But to establish that no member of Team Cameron has ever dived into the deep waters of Catholic social teaching is the start and not the end of the story. For that team has two utterly different reactions to it – or, rather, to what it seems to think it is. The first is suspicion; the second, enthusiasm.

The suspicion is founded on the view that Catholicism’s social conservatism is at odds with the age’s social liberalism. This is drawn from experience. Section 28, civil partnerships, gay adoption: party discipline broke down in the voting lobbies over these issues, and the lesson Cameron’s circle draw from this is that to align oneself with Catholicism, especially over any matter relating to homosexuality, is to consign oneself to division and defeat. The enthusiasm is based on the conviction that building the Big Society will be impossible without the faith communities, including the Catholic Church, the second-largest institutional player. It is based on reflection – on considering the range and depth of the Church’s contribution to society.

The Church can never become the property of one political party: indeed, its teaching is wide enough to condemn only those ideologies that make gods of class, race, capital or anything else. But there is enough overlap between the Prime Minister’s Big Society vision and its own for cooperation to be possible: that his Downing Street team has no emotional investment in Catholicism is irrelevant, and that its view of the Church is conflicted is a fact of modern political life. Dimly and hesitantly, it’s possible to see the outlines of a settlement between the Government and the Church.

For its part, the Government would revisit its support for recent legislation, tearing up the rules and regulations that prevent the Church from providing even more hospices, homeless shelters, employment programmes, projects for people with substance abuse problems and mental health difficulties, advice centres for those who are in debt, counselling for people who’ve lost family members and so on. And for its part, the Church would review its attachment to the 1945 settlement, bidding to run some hospitals – which, after all, are institutions with Christian origins – setting up a domestic equivalent of Caritas Europa and encouraging its schools to become academies (if Michael Gove will give some ground over the inclusion of religious education in the Baccalaureate).

The devil would be in the detail, figuratively if not literally: at a time of spending constraint it isn’t easy to see how all this would be financed. But if there are questions about Downing Street’s commitment, there are questions about the institutional Church’s response, too. The Catholic Education Service is skilled at lobbying on behalf of its interests. But the machinery of the bishops’ conference is small-scale, and its staff have mostly been there for some time. Continuity is often a good thing, but in so far as Downing Street has a collective view of the Catholic Church in Britain – and whether it has a fully formed one is doubtful – it finds the Church bureaucracy timid and, in the literal sense of the word, reactionary.

Responding to a big idea like the Big Society requires, in the first instance, a lot of small competences: reading the relevant Government documents, knowing who the main players are, lifting one’s eyes beyond the ranks of familiar Catholic MPs.  Although the Archbishop of Westminster has given the scheme as warm a response as is prudent, there is no sign that the conference is grappling seriously with such a programme of work. All the indications are that while a few leading figures in the Church are willing to look forward and test the Prime Minister on the ideals he championed as the Pope departed, more are inclined reflexively to look back – towards the familiar comfort zone of the 1945 settlement.

Paul Goodman is executive editor of ConservativeHome and former MP for Wycombe

  • D B McGinnity

     I does not matter whether or not the Catholic Church can work with David Cameron because he is not the head of state; the Queen is the head of state. There is an old Yiddish saying, loosely translated says that what you sow you reap. St Paul of Tarsus gave us some good advice in the New Testament in Galatians  6:7)”Be not deceived, God is not mocked; whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.” 
    This applies to to the Vatican at the present time regarding Enda Kenny and China because Lateran Treaty of 1929 when The Vatican is an independent state. Mr Kenny is quite right as the Irish head of State not to tolerate interference from any other head of state, in this case the Pope. Mr Hu Jintao The President of the People’s Republic of China is also quite right not to tolerate interference from the Pope about the appointments of Bishops. Look at the fiasco that the Vatican choice of Bishops has caused in Ireland. Bishops should be elected by the people and not through political patronage or nepotism.

    Therefore, Mr Cameron, The Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, does not have to take any notice whatsoever of what the Pope says. As a statesman he cannot be seen to be swayed by Papal doctrine. The Pope carries no more weight than The Dali Lama or Rowan Williams (and he carries very little at the present time).

  • Mark Castilano

    Imagine if the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh wrote to David Cameron and insisted that Hinduism was to be the faith of The United Kingdom and that The Bhagavad-Gita was to be taught in all schools. It would be a great insult indeed that one head of state would try to impose his religious values and dogma on another. Well this is what the Pope has been doing in Ireland for the past ninety years, and is still trying to do in Ireland, and in China. The worldwide clerical sexual and mercenary outrage has exposed the Vatican for what it really is; a place of prurience, degradation and vice. Other than in his role as a religious leader, The Pope has no power to influence world opinion anymore, in spite of the well orchestrated WYD 2011 in Spain.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    Bishops are meant to represent the pope, not the president of China or the prime minister of Ireland, not even lay Catholics. I am sure that if the Vatican was not an independent state, you would still find a way to criticise it’s diplomacy, and you would no doubt claim that it represents the Italian state.

    Even if we avoid basic theology, the only way your argument holds water is if you would also have the president of China appointing the British ambassador to China.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I bet you’ve copied-and-pasted that precise comment in quite a few articles – seeing as it has very little relevance whatsoever with what’s written in the article.

    In case you are not aware, the head of your state – the queen – is also the head of a Christian community, and I believe is even sworn to protect it, so you have in effect Christianity as a state religion. Now, whether it is the pope or layman who makes the case, it is certainly not out of place to ask the British to respect their state religion.

  • Mark Castilano

    You possess all the characteristics of a catholic inasmuch that you base your life on groundless assumptions, and your assumption that ‘I cut and pasted’ says more about you than it does about me, not to mention you being erroneously judgemental, and against the eight commandment.I read the article in full and my response was very appropriate. The Church of England was once referred to as The Conservatory Party at prayer. That is not the case any more. The role of all religion is seen as a nuisance purveying inconsequential and superstitious nonsense, based on assumptions that cannot withstand objective scrutiny or critical examination. So why should any politician base it’s political philosophy and social strategy on what an old man and a group of elderly cardinals decree as truth. When there is not one ounce of truth in the whole caboodle.The Catholic Church could be aptly renamed as: “Constantine’s Catholic Church” where contrived and concocted teaching of Mithraism and the practice of Sol Invictus is presented as the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is not true because the Catholic Church’s does not emulate the ethics or the benign pristine practices of Jesus Christ, but the status, attire and abode of the Pope is more in keeping with that of a Roman Emperor All religion should be a private enterprise where there is membership like The Masonic Lodge, The Rosicrucian’s, The Theosophical Society or some Astrological movement. As I previously said: It does not matter one jot whether the Catholic Church and David Cameron agree about anything. Catholicism is not a good role model.

  • D B McGinnity

    You suggest that I want to blame the Pope on any pretext, which impugns my integrity. I do not wish to blame the Pope as the head of a religious denomination, but I do castigate the Vatican for it’s political interference insofar that it has the audacity to instruct other heads of state on what is moral. Ireland is the perfect example of what Vatican interference can do, and has done. Ireland is now the epitome of religious hypocrisy; of greed, cruelty and perversion. The president of China has every reason to be cautious about the aspirations of The Catholic Church. Mr Kenny has received messages of support from millions of Catholics and also from other heads of state for his stance on Vatican skulduggery. Your quip about the ambassador is facile and there is no comparison whatsoever between the appointment of bishops and Foreign Office appointments of diplomatic staff

  • Anonymous

    Mark you appear to be trolling. Substantive argument is good for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But when you find that someone disagrees with your comment you use their disagreement with you to prove a list of prejudices about Catholics and Christians – that certainly do not apply to me, nor many of the Christians I talk to.

    This is a Catholic discussion board, of course you are going to get more extreme views here, in the same respect that I know that posts on richarddawkins.net are not representative of the views atheist friends I have hold.

    For your information I would never vote for the Conservative Party.

  • guest

    I see no evidence that David Cameron cares about the social teaching of the Catholic Church. He doesn’t care about the poor, he is leaving the sick and mentality sick in a state of fear as many are being declared fit for work, then left with the threat of desitution if they then don’t find a job.  The Big Society can only work with the help of the churches (Catholic and Protestant) already many are setting up food banks because people have a long wait between losing their job and having their benefits paid. Or are having benefits cut and are starving and homeless.

  • guest

    I see no evidence that David Cameron cares about the social teaching of the Catholic Church. He doesn’t care about the poor, he is leaving the sick and mentality sick in a state of fear as many are being declared fit for work, then left with the threat of desitution if they then don’t find a job.  The Big Society can only work with the help of the churches (Catholic and Protestant) already many are setting up food banks because people have a long wait between losing their job and having their benefits paid. Or are having benefits cut and are starving and homeless.

  • Mark Castilano

    I am not an atheist, and I was brought up with strict Catholic principles and had the benefit of a Catholic higher education, and my critical faculties are still in tact. I have read and studied all of Richard Dawkins work, and I am not at all impressed, because rather than being FOR science, he is AGAINST religion and against God. In so doing he has made a critical error insofar that he has allowed his emotions to interfere with his scientific objectivity in the interest of selling his books. This is a serious matter for any researcher, but particularly in the case of scientific research. I accept God just as much as I did when I was six years old, but the context of my Catholic faith has been sadly diminished, mainly because of corruption within the Vatican and my own personal experiences of the Catholic Church in Ireland in Ireland and particularly at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers. I came to the judgement that Vatican dogma was dissonant and discordant with the pristine, benign teachings Jesus Christ. Jesus never intended that his priests, brothers and nuns should have a catechism in one hand and big stick in the other. Jesus would never have condoned blatant greed and theft. The Catholic Church is an text book case of ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ by preaching, and doing another. The Church in it’s present corrupt state is on the way out, and with God’s help in the fullness of time it may be replaced with ‘True Christianity’. The Conservative Party have been exposed as the puppet of News International, as Tony Blair and Labour party were before them. Maybe there are good times ahead for moral politics and truthful religion.

  • Anonymous

    @Mark Castilano.”The Catholic Church could be aptly renamed as: “Constantine’s Catholic Church” where contrived and concocted teaching of Mithraism and the practice of Sol Invictus is presented as the teaching of Jesus Christ.”

    You recommend ‘objective scrutiny and critical examination’. I doubt whether the above statement would survive such scrutiny.

  • Mark Castilano

    It was a very far seeing idea for Constantine to formulate the “Symbolum Nicaenum”, but of course it was not far seeing enough. (The Holy Ghost should have forewarned them that there was trouble to com. It could never have been anticipated that modern communications and the internet would one day scupper the whole Vatican caboodle and render it nonsensical. If you care to look deeper, you will find that there is a plethora of convincing data that proves beyond any doubt that the teaching of The Catholic Church is far removed from the simple message of Jesus Christ. Christianity at the time was amalgamated with Mithraism and Sol Invictus to suit Constantine’s objectives. It does not matter whether you agree with me or not, I have no wish to see the demise of the Roman Catholic Church, but the sad fact is that words of piety and WYD Jamborees will not convince the people of the world that the Catholic Church stands for truth, faith and morals, because it does not. The Vatican State and the concept of Papal monarchy must go!!

  • Anonymous

    The simple answer to can we have any dealings with the Conservatives as Christians, not forgetting their partners the lib dems,and previously to these the new labour government under Blair and Brown, the answer is a definite and resounding  NO. How can you deal with any government who kills its own citizens with abortion and euthanasia.

  • DB McGinnity

    You are entitled to make legitimate protest, but other than that you have no say in the matter about whom you will do business with, the same applies to the Catholic Church. I imagine there is a framework for discussion between The Church, MP’s MEP’s and Ministers concerning religious issues, but other than that the Catholic Church does not carry any special or particular influence in the outcome of legislation. In Ireland and Northern Ireland Cardinal Brady (living in a time warp) thinks that the Church is in a special position regarding jurisprudence and the privacy of confession. Those days are gone forever. The Catholic Church has no more power to influence political, social and moral events than Astrologers or Spiritualists.

  • ms catholic state

    That’s why the West is in demographic and financial meltdown….it is not informed by the Church and Church teaching anymore.  The wages of sin is death etc!!

    So as Catholics we would do well not to identify with any particular secular political party.  None of them are Christian….nor espouse Christianity.  Not yet anyhow.

  • DB McGinnity

    Very noble indeed. Your mantra seems to be: “Let us march backwards to the middle ages when things were done properly and the church had absolute and unchallenged power”. No! Those days are gone and will never come back. Let us take girls serving mass for example. All it will take is for an enterprising parent to sue the church for sexual discrimination against their daughter under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 , from which The Catholic Church has not been exempted. It will be pointless fro the Church to use, tradition, ideology, and Canon Law as a defence because the Catholic Church does no not have a special position in society and they carry no special status in European Law and Courts of Justice. The Catholic Church is no longer above the law as recent events in Ireland (A Catholic State) have demonstrated. The Bishops priests and clergy are more despised and distrusted by Irish Catholics than by any other religious persuasion in Ireland. At one time The Catholic Church had enormous power, direct and indirect to control society. The threat of a person being excommunicated and of being socially ostracised was a very powerful weapon. Thanks to modern communication and intellectual enlightenment it is becoming clear that the whole story of Jesus as told in the gospels and in the code of canon law is nebulous at best and fictitious at worst. All the words reputedly spoken by Jesus could be stated in about five minutes; ten at the most. Everything that Jesus reputedly said could be written on one page of foolscap; two at the most. The Nicene Creed “Symbolum Nicaenum” was not an academic or scholarly enterprise, it was an edict from the Emperor Constantine who insisted that it was the official religion of Rome and was the law. The antics of Helena, Constantine’s mother and the discovery of true cross were meant to give validity to his edict, and now proves to have been statistically impossible, because crosses were used over and over again, using the ‘crossbeam’ system. The church has used stunts and scams to validate the existence of Christ such as the Shroud of Turin, when radio carbon dating proved beyond any doubt that it was dated between 1260 and 1390. It is not Christ’s face, but the church still insists in the face of scientific logic that it is. There is a plethora of other such pseudo miraculous occurrences and incidents that now in the face of science and logic as incredulous.The Catholic Church must change if it is to survive. It must review The Nicene Creed and make clear that the early doctors of the church meant well and did not intend to deceive anyone but the dogma of the Catholic Church is vague and tenuous and can no longer be sustained as credible in contemporary society.

  • Mark Castilano

    The Equality Act does allow exemption from sex discrimination law in particular cases. The law would not be able to force the church to accept women or married men as priests, because existing law respects the ethos and customs of all religions. The question of altar girls is another matter because there is already a precedence for girls serving mass. The main question would be: what can a boy do while serving mass that a girl cannot do? So it is not the gender of the server that is in question it is the job being done. If a girl learns all the Latin responses to the Tridentine Mass and demonstrates that she understands all the ceremony and ritual, it would be difficult in law, to prove her unworthy. It is only a matter of time until the altar boy/girl scenario is contested in court

  • ms catholic state

    Actually….secularism’s days are numbered….secularism having proven itself a disasterous unworkable failure.  I mean…..ageing societies don’t last forever do they?!  A complete failure of logic…not to mention compassion and morality.  A Catholic society embraces all 3…..while not perfect due the fallen human nature.

    But what will take the place of the dying embers of secular society?!