I was asked to contribute to this morning’s Nolan show on the letter issued by the north’s Catholic bishops, which highlights what they consider important questions in the upcoming Assembly election. Ten minutes ago I got a text telling me I wouldn’t be needed after all. But on the basis that you should never throw anything away ever, here are my thoughts.
The Catholic Church, like any faith or religion, has a right, even a duty to comment on moral matters. Politics is all about making choices, very often moral choices. So it makes sense for the north’s bishops to present their views alongside those of everyone else.
In the pastoral letter, the bishops include ten questions which they urge voters to ask (respectfully) of those who come seeking their vote. Since it’s reasonable to assume that those thinking of voting DUP, UUP, PUP, TUV or even Alliance will take little heed of anything the Catholic bishops may say (quite a few believe the bishops and their flock are on the high road to hell), I’m assuming that their letter is in the great majority of cases directed at Sinn Féin and SDLP voters. And that’s where I begin to feel uneasy. How uneasy? Let me count the ways.
- I’m very much in favour of the Catholic Church articulating its teaching. I’m also aware that the Catholic Church historically has always been opposed to republicanism, starting with the United Irishmen of 1798, through the Young Irelanders of the 1840s and the Fenians, up to and including the Easter Rising and republicans in the conflict of our recent Troubles. On occasion bishops have even told their flock which party not to vote for. I’m totally opposed to that kind of instruction.
- The bishops list ten questions to ask your candidate. This can be viewed in two ways. One is that it provides a handy series of points to use when talking to the candidate. The other is that the questions reduce the Catholic voter to a ventriloquist’s dummy. Church teaching should be clearly laid out so people know what it is; but teaching is one thing, instruction down to the very words to use is another.
- There are ten questions listed. No advice is included as to what you should do with your vote if a candidate gives the right answer in five cases and the wrong one in five other cases. Are these questions weighted? For example, do the two questions (Nos. 2 ad 3) dealing with abortion rate more highly than the last two, about the candidate’s commitment to sustainable development and an ‘inclusive political culture’ respectively?
- The bishops’ appeal for political parties to work for the common good “rather than on traditional constitutional issues” shows little respect for voter intelligence. True, this is a line followed by much of the media; it’s also one I unequivocally reject. The Irish public are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at the same time – the question of Irish re-unification and independence, and the question of what are called ‘bread and butter issues’. In fact the two interweave: many people believe that it would be to the economic benefit of Ireland were reunification to take place and end duplication of services and institutions. A major and independent study from the University of British Columbia in Canada stated that re-unification would, in the short-to-medium term, bring real economic benefits to all of Ireland.
- The letter quotes Pope Francis to reject the notion that ‘homosexual unions [are] in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family’. In other words, the Church is opposed to gay marriage. While I really don’t rate the right to gay marriage as an issue that demands priority, I know that many young people in Ireland feel otherwise. In which case, providing they’re not saying that ministers of religion should be compelled by law to perform the marriage ceremony, good luck to them. Gay marriage doesn’t change my understanding of my own man-woman marriage in any way. I personally think it’s an odd thing to have strong views on, but clearly others differ. They’re entitled to, regardless of Pope Francis’s thinking.
I could go on. Some points I agree with, others I don’t. Apart from the implied need that election candidates should come up with the right answer to all ten questions (or do they?), there’s the matter of what doesn’t appear on the question list. For example, where does the candidate stand on the £100bn that the Tory government plan to spend on nuclear armaments in the coming years? While the bishops rightly call for candidates to commit to resolving the scandal of child poverty, there is nothing about poverty in general, world poverty, how inequality in society should be tackled. And while they urge candidates to budget for a free school breakfast for children who otherwise might go hungry, they say nothing about the continuing practice in some schools of selecting pupils on academic ability. All the research indicates that this warps the primary curriculum, creates social division largely based on class, and delivers a body-blow to the confidence of young people, a body-blow from which some never recover.
Summing up I’d say the Catholic bishops indeed should articulate Church teaching on matters relevant to the world of politics. But to boil that teaching down to ten questions, and even provide the wording for voters to use when questioning candidates, is patronizing. Don’t Catholics know Church teaching? Aren’t they capable of reading party manifestos and drawing their own conclusions?Finally, while the bishops’ letter doesn’t tell Catholics which party to vote for, they do seem to be hinting that good Catholics will follow the Catholic bishops’ historical line on republicanism.