I was on the best programme aired by Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster this morning – Sunday Sequence. The matter for discussion was Bishop Noel Trainor’s letter to Catholics last week, urging them to query candidates about their stand on abortion, gay marriage, social justice, concern for the poor and promoting peace and reconciliation. My co-panellists were Patricia McBride and Fr Tim Bartlett.
We never did get to discuss promoting peace and reconciliation, even though we were talking for forty minutes (with some of that time used up by Justice Minister David Ford, who rang up to differ with Tim Bartlett). And we didn’t really discuss promoting social justice either. We got snagged mainly on the abortion debate, which was a pity, and the wider question of whether or how far Churches should intrude into politics. It was a, how shall I say, spirited discussion; I don’t know how it sounded to the listener but it flew for me. Several points arose that have stayed with me.
1. As Tim Bartlett pointed out (in passing) twice, he was outnumbered two to one, assuming that William Crawley was a neutral chairman. I agree with Tim on that one: it’s tough to present an argument when several people are coming at you at the same time.
2. Pope Francis has recently said that the Catholic Church (for which read ‘Catholic clergy/hierarchy) is obsessed with questions about sex and should spend more time obsessing with questions like social justice and poverty. I couldn’t agree more – yet somehow we spent that forty minutes in which we barely touched on the social justice and concern for the poor issues. I tried to point that out at one stage but Tim told me he had talked or tried to talk about it. I’m not totally convinced he did. Maybe someone should rewind the tape and listen again.
3. Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin accept gay marriage and the SDLP is opposed to abortion and Sinn Féin is opposed to it except in particular circumstances such as when the mother’s life is at risk or she has been raped. Were Catholics to follow Bishop Trainor’s injunction, they should stop voting for either of these pro-nationalist parties and start voting for pro-unionist parties like the DUP and the TUV.
4. If we must obsess over sexual matters, why didn’t Bishop Trainor include in his letter the questions of contraception and co-habitation? These are surely matters where a very much greater number of Catholics ignore the teachings of the Catholic Church than those who are affected by abortion or gay marriage?
5. As Tim and the letter (William Crawley suggested Tim rather than the bishop wrote it) make clear at the end, conscience should indeed be the ultimate guide of Catholics, but that should be an informed conscience. I’m totally in agreement on that – although the letter seems to me intent on forming the conscience of Catholics rather than informing it.
6. The question of how far the Catholic Church or any other faith should intrude on politics is one that frankly baffles me. On the one hand, I do resent it when the Catholic Church (or any other faith) leans in and tries to push political matters in a particular direction. Tim Bartlett says they don’t, they simply enunciate Catholic principles. Which brings me to the other hand. John F Kennedy famously reassured the American people that if he were elected, he’d be parking his Catholicism at the door. I don’t quite understand that. If you have central religious beliefs, shouldn’t those pervade every area of your life, including the political? In short, I haven’t thought my way through the relations that should exist between Church and State.
7. Finally, I’m feeling reasonably proud of one point I made during the discussion, which I don’t remember having heard on the air before. It is that the Catholic Church has always been more comfortable and supportive of the SDLP than it has been of Sinn Féin.Tim denied this but I think most people know it’s true. In fact, the Catholic Church has frequently denounced republicans in general and Sinn Féin in particular. In the end, I think the bishop’s letter was at least partially a continuation of that tradition.