I'm delighted by the Cardinal's political meddling

When religious leaders get involved in elections, it is usually with a reactionary social agenda
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The Independent Online

He isn't actually telling Catholics to vote Conservative, you understand. That would be interference by the church in an election and we don't do that in this country, unlike the US (of which more later). The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has simply pointed out his church's teaching on abortion, a helpful gesture to those who were confused about the matter or thought that the Vatican was in the vanguard of the movement for a woman's right to choose. (It's just so hard sometimes to work out where people stand on these things. I mean, isn't the Pope a feminist?)

He isn't actually telling Catholics to vote Conservative, you understand. That would be interference by the church in an election and we don't do that in this country, unlike the US (of which more later). The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has simply pointed out his church's teaching on abortion, a helpful gesture to those who were confused about the matter or thought that the Vatican was in the vanguard of the movement for a woman's right to choose. (It's just so hard sometimes to work out where people stand on these things. I mean, isn't the Pope a feminist?)

Anyway, the fact that the Cardinal's advice happens to coincide with a signal from the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, that he intends to make abortion an election issue is just that - a coincidence. "I think, as bishops, we are not going to suggest people support one particular party," says Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, choosing instead to give the faithful what journalists call a "steer" - a device that allows someone to get his or her opinion into the public domain without actually leaving fingerprints all over it, although I'm afraid the Cardinal hasn't quite grasped how it works.

Shortly after it emerged that the Tory leader wants to reduce the upper time limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks, the prelate declared that "the policy supported by Mr Howard is one that we would also commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion". This does at least have the merit of exposing the debate about the upper time limit for what it is, the opening move in a campaign by hardliners to outlaw abortion altogether. But the Cardinal went on to muse on the historic link between Catholic voters and the Labour Party: "There has been a notion in the past that Catholics would be more in support of the Labour Party because they were working-class people," he observed. "Now I'm not so sure that will be quite so true today, the Labour Party has developed."

Don't you just love those circumlocutions, the "I'm not so sure" and the "quite so true"? You would have to be very thick indeed not to get the Cardinal's drift, prompting speculation that Labour's election strategists are panicking over the prospect of losing the Catholic vote. Whatever Tony Blair's personal feelings on the matter - the Prime Minister dislikes abortion and is keen on going to church, so it seems logical to assume he is dismayed by the Cardinal's remarks - I don't think the party's supporters should be downhearted for one moment.

First, whatever happens elsewhere, European Catholics have a relaxed view about their church's teaching on sexual matters. In Latin America it is not unusual to find Catholic families with 10 or 12 children; in Spain and Italy, where official Catholic teaching is no less hostile, the birth rate is among the lowest in Europe. For many Catholics, the Vatican's views on these subjects are out of date and frequently disregarded, a situation that priests have had to learn to live with.

Perhaps even more significant is the widespread distaste in this country towards the idea of religious leaders intervening in elections, especially when their advice spotlights a single issue. And even if some Labour MPs from Catholic constituencies do not object to Christian leaders becoming actively involved in politics, I doubt whether they would welcome the prospect of imams advising Muslims to vote against the Government because of the Iraq war - or because of the support that Foreign Office ministers have given to British women seeking to escape forced marriages.

This may yet happen, which is why I am delighted that the Cardinal has brought the question of the church's role in elections out into the open. On yesterday's World at One programme, he said he would welcome the idea of moral issues - as defined by clerics, naturally - playing a bigger, American-style role in British elections. Recalling the dismay and disbelief which greeted the result of last autumn's US elections, I'm not convinced that many people here share his appetite. And I don't see much evidence that British voters yearn for the small-mindedness and bigotry displayed by senatorial candidates running on a "faith" platform: anti-gay, anti-abortion, and in one notable case pro-capital punishment for doctors who perform terminations. How moral is that?

When religious leaders get involved in elections, it is usually with a reactionary social agenda that drowns out whatever they also have to say about hunger and poverty. After Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's "soft" endorsement - to use the current jargon - of the Conservatives, what are Catholic voters to do if they happen to think, quite reasonably, that the Labour Party is more likely to alleviate the problems of Africa? Or if they believe that abortion is a moral issue in which, regardless of what the Vatican says, a woman's right to control her own body is paramount? Keep giving the guys in dresses a platform, I say. If he has achieved nothing else, the Cardinal has almost certainly brought wavering women voters back to the Labour Party in droves.

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