Which group of voters has become most disillusioned with New Labour? There is no shortage of candidates; but few can have travelled so far, from elation to fury, as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Just ahead of the 1997 general election, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales published a pamphlet called The Common Good, widely taken as an Episcopal endorsement of Tony Blair, the first British party leader since Gladstone to wear his God on his sleeve - and absolutely the first to bring his children up as Catholics. Later statements of social policy from the Catholic Bishops seemed indistinguishable, not least in their platitudinousness, from the "communitarian" guff which emanated from 10 Downing Street in the early years of the Blair ascendancy.
It dawned on their Eminences rather too slowly that New Labour was a profoundly secular strain of politics, notwithstanding the apparently devout nature of its figurehead. It was that formidable Archbishop of Glasgow, the late Thomas Winning, who made the first break. Winning was Old Labour in the purple, a man of working-class origins who never strayed from his roots; he was also a ferocious defender of the Catholic Church's traditional teachings. When, in 2000, the Labour Party Pro-Life Group was banned by its own Party Conference from taking a stand to display its pamphlets, Winning appealed to the party's leader for support. Blair refused to get involved, and Winning drew his own conclusions.
It is true that the 1967 Abortion Act was brought on to the statute book under an "Old" Labour government; but it wasn't accidental that it did so by providing time for a Private Member's Bill by a young Liberal MP, David Steel. Even Roy Jenkins was wary enough of the strength of the working-class Labour Catholic vote - and not just in Liverpool - to treat the issue as purely one of personal conscience.
It is in the name of religious conscience that the Cardinal of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, demands that Catholic Adoption agencies be exempt from the clauses of the 2006 Equality Act, which bans any form of sexual discrimination in the provision of goods and services: this will make it illegal for an adoption agency to reject as potential parents a gay couple, on the grounds of their sexual relationship. Murphy-O'Connor, in a letter sent to every member of the Cabinet, declares: "Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents".
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor was not simply being self-serving when he goes on to describe the extraordinary quality of the work provided by Catholic Adoption Agencies: if you talk to the British Association for Adoption &Fostering - an organisation which is fully in favour of adoption by same-sex couples - it will tell you that the Catholic Agencies have an outstanding record in providing homes for the most difficult children to place. Murphy-O'Connor's warning that such agencies will have to close rather than be required to place children with same-sex couples, should therefore be taken seriously.
This newspaper argued yesterday that "Ministers must call the Catholic bishops' bluff". It isn't a bluff. Similar legislation has been passed in a number of American states, with the result that the Catholic Church from Boston to San Francisco has closed down its adoption agencies. Boston is an especially interesting case-- and not just because of the appalling record of child abuse among its own priesthood. In 2004 The Boston Globe revealed that Catholic charities had reacted to the new legislation by accommodating it: the newspaper discovered that they had facilitated 13 adoptions of children by same-sex couples.
At this point the Vatican intervened, reminding Boston that Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had declared such legislation as the state of Massachusetts had enacted to be "the legalisation of evil". Ratzinger is now Pope, and despite his age, an active one. I would not be surprised to learn that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's letter had been composed in the Vatican; I would be amazed if it had not been insisted upon by the Vatican.
In yesterday's Independent, Kate Hilpern, who helps to place children in new homes, praised the work of the Catholic adoption agencies, but wondered why the normally emollient Murphy-O'Connor could not simply have said nothing, and continued to carry on as before; she pointed out that "no gay couple in their right mind would seek the services of a Catholic adoption agency, given the Church's views."
Leaving aside my suspicion that Pope Benedict would have rejected the path of muddling through - he is German, not Irish - this underestimates the intense motivation of the Catholic Church's opponents. We can be sure that a gay couple will go to a Catholic adoption agency, to test if they are considered as potential parents. If they are rejected on the grounds of their sexual relationship, then a prosecution will inevitably follow.
The Labour minister Ben Bradshaw this week compared the Catholic Church's position to declaring that it would be "wrong for black people to adopt". It just so happens that the wrong colour skin is indeed frequently given by local authority adoption agencies as a reason for turning down parents. There is a shortage of black parents willing to adopt black children, but white parents who offer to do so are generally rejected on the grounds that the child will suffer some confusion about his or her identity.
What nobody yet knows is whether a heterosexual youth brought up by two gay men will tend to suffer a different form of confusion. It was, after all, only in 2005 that same sex couples were able to adopt children in this country. There must be at least a suspicion that the idea of deliberately placing children in homes where there is either no father or no mother is part of a social and cultural experiment with consequences which will become apparent only in many years time.
It would be heartless not to appreciate the misery that a gay couple might feel at the prospect of a home without children; but when adoption becomes a battleground for the rights of adults to achieve equality of emotional fulfilment then it's clear that the interests of children have taken second place.
I think, however, that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is wrong when he argues that this legislation is "unjust discrimination against Catholics": what he is in fact objecting to is that Catholics are being treated just like everybody else. Nevertheless it is true that Catholics are still the victims of unjust discrimination: in order to get its own back on New Labour, I suggest that the Catholic Church campaigns to repeal the Act of Settlement, which declares that no one can be Monarch who "professes the popish religion, or marries a papist". That would certainly embarrass Mr Blair.Reuse content