It could be that the bishops have imbibed too deeply of Christmas spirit. After all, they are prelates of churches in which only a fraction of English people are active. Yet in a secular society the churches retain some influence, greater than numbers alone would justify; the bishops are still in a position to stir things up. Many people will demur at that. They hear the bishops talking morality and say, didn't last year see that word gang-raped by the political bully-boys. In 1996 morality became a code- word for reactionary views about sex and the family.
The bishops' New Year messages are about morality, yes, but they talk about obligations wider than parents and children, husbands and wives. They have not left those behind but they have placed them in a social context. Morality, they say, is also about the equity of institutions, about income distribution, urban deprivation. Morality is about judging the balance between public and private interest and determining the right way of conducting politics in a pluralist democracy. This is moral talk worth hearing - especially by the parties of the centre and left.
Earlier this week, in a desperate piece of confected controversy, the BBC tried to set the Labour Party up by squeezing remarks about abortion out of Archbishop Thomas Winning. Imagine, a Roman Catholic cardinal saying something disapproving about abortion! The real story was that those Scottish Labour MPs who, the cardinal claimed, were being censored on the abortion issue are, generally speaking, oldish Labour and well to the left of Tony Blair on questions of trade unions, state involvement in the economy and so on. It is a fair bet that Cardinal Winning is also, economically speaking, on the left.
That is why, for all the surface ripples about the cardinal's attack on Tony Blair, Labour needs more not less intervention in politics by bishops like him. Labour does not have to concede a single inch over the abortion question to see that there is a lot more to morality than the fate of foetuses. One of the oddest aspects, indeed, of this whole Blair/Winning/abortion story is the suggestion that there is anything new in it. Cabinet papers for 1966 released this week confirm Harold Wilson's personal caution when it came to the great "permissive" legislation passed when he was Prime Minister. His hesitation stemmed partly from his own personal convictions, partly his awareness of Catholic sentiment in and around his Huyton seat on Merseyside. What has changed since then?
Ordinary Catholics vote, like everyone else, for reasons of personal interest. They also pay some attention to their priests who, like the Pope in Rome, have never exhausted morality in talking about sex. Morality is also about justice in the tax system, about social obligations, the distribution of income and wealth and, as the present Pope often says, just treatment by employers of their employees. Working-class Catholics traditionally voted Labour, as they still do, because Labour represented fairness in society and fairness at work. Cardinal Winning's statements about abortion are not going to change that nor, pace the BBC, are they intended to.
In his New Year message the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, deplored what he called "pick and mix" morality. Some people will say, ah, you cannot have fairness in society and "social morality" without buying into reactionary religious positions on abortion (forbidden) and marriage (indissoluble). This is nonsense. There is a moral case to be made for the termination of pregnancy, constructed from fundamental tenets about individual choice and social responsibility. The point the bishops are making is surely that politicians can and ought to reach into these fundamentals and argue them through, escaping the superficiality of who worships where how many times a month.
The fact is that Labour is well-positioned on this moral territory. Even in its modish, Mandelsoned form it still has easier access to the language of commitments, responsibilities and reciprocal obligations than the Tories can ever aspire to. Tory talk about the morality of social arrangements (which necessarily encompasses most ostensibly personal conduct as well) rings hollow: neither John Major nor his intellectual partisans in the right-wing press have yet attempted to repudiate that devastating remark by Margaret Thatcher about there being no such thing as society.
The practical conclusion for Labour in 1997 is straightforward. The more bishops mounting the pulpit the better ... When they start influencing voters, then Labour needs to start worrying. Because then it will have to address the milk-and-water nature of so many of its tax and spending commitments and the resulting doubt whether a Blair-led government would make Britain a fairer place.