Cardinal Keith O'Brien
has a habit of poking his head above the parapet whenever politicians dare to venture into the religio-political domain, as though the authoritative moral position has been imparted to one body and articulated infallibly, and it is to this teaching that all ‘right-thinking’ people must adhere. But he does not hesitate to censure with accusations of bigotry those who seek to address politically issues which are manifestly politico-religious, as though the entire realm of the political is ultimately also subject to his worldview.
On the question of the Government’s ‘Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill’, Cranmer agrees, on balance, with the Cardinal. Though whether he was wise to term it ‘monstrous’, or to suggest that its provisions will permit the creation of Frankenstein's monster, is quite a different matter. If his objective was to go for headlines, and upstage his
weak and insipid
humble and holy counterpart at Westminster, he has succeeded. But if he were really concerned with the ethical issues in the provisions of this Bill, he would have been wiser to apply pressure behind the scenes.
The Cardinal has turned this into a Church vs State battle – a conflict as old as the Church itself – and by stoking the fire (by pre-disclosing the content of his Easter sermon days before it is delivered), he has made a free-vote compromise difficult if not impossible, as neither party can be perceived to ‘back down’.
Thus Ben Bradshaw
– the overtly gay and more covertly Anglican health minister – has been wheeled out to contend with the (Roman Catholic) Church and insist that the Bill is about the easing of suffering. Supporters of the legislation believe hybrid embryos could lead to cures for diseases including multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's. According to Mr Bradshaw, the Government is therefore right to force through the legislation on a three-line whip, and is manifesting Christian compassion in the process because it will be ‘to the potential benefit of many people in this country’. He said: ‘I think if it was about the things the Cardinal referred to, creating babies for spare parts or raiding dead people's tissue, then there would be justification for a free vote. But it's not about those things. He was wrong in fact, and I think rather intemperate and emotive in the way that he criticised this legislation. This is about using pre-embryonic cells to do research that has the potential to ease the suffering of millions of people in this country. The government has taken a view that this is a good thing.’
The Government is promising a limit of 14 days' development of the embryo, and an assurance that they cannot be put in a woman or an animal. They are (unsurprisingly) supported by scientists who are more at liberty to condemn the Roman Catholic Church than politicians. Dr Stephen Minger
of King’s College London states unequivocally that ‘this is yet another example where it is clear that the Catholic Church is misrepresenting science because it doesn't understand the basic facts’. He added: ‘The church should carefully review the science they are commenting on, and ensure that their official comments are accurate, before seriously misinforming their congregations.’
Well, faith and fact are frequently held in tension, and the principal contention is that this Bill will permit scientists to create chimeras - part-human, part-animal embryos for use in stem cell experiments. Looking at some Labour MPs, it is
difficult not to believe that chimeras have existed for quite some time, but the Cardinal’s concern (and that of many Christians, Jews and Muslims) is more to do with the spiritual status of the chimera – that is, its ensoulment, and the sanctity of its existence. If humans are made ‘in the image of God’, in whose image is something that is part human part animal? And does such a creation have ‘human rights’, ‘animal rights’, both or none?
Chief Whip Geoff Hoon
has offered Roman Catholic members of the Cabinet the option of writing to him asking him to be excused from the vote on ethical grounds, but he has made it clear that they must not vote against it. Des Browne, the Defence and Scottish Secretary, Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, and Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, are understood to be pushing to vote against parts of the Bill. They may be forced to resign if Mr Brown does not back down and allow a free vote on the issue.
But what intrigues Cranmer is the extent to which this is being portrayed as an ‘anti-Catholic
’ provision and an exclusively ‘Catholic’ concern
. Those who feature in the media appear to be exclusively Roman Catholic, such that the Established Church is perceived as having no point of view at all, and the Evangelicals, Muslims and Jews have ceased to exist altogether (not to mention the Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists who rarely get a look-in on any matter, yet all of whom might oppose such a bill on the basis of their commitment to the principles of ahimsa
In fact, the very issues now being raised by leading Roman Catholics were raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury
as far back as January 30th. Dr Williams called for the Government to allow a free vote on the 'big issues' of conscience, posed by the proposals on hybrid embryos in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and the removal of the clause on the need for a father.
He said: 'The hybrid question - there has been a lot of rather extreme and alarmist talk about this and I fully accept that it is not about the breeding of monsters, but at the same time, I think there remains this very instrumentalist view of the human embryo: we use it for something and then destroy it, and I find that ethically very hard to accept. The hybrid embryo is just an aspect of overall attitudes to embryo research. In this country, more than in many others we seem to be taking for granted that it is all right to regard the human embryo as something to be used instrumentally - that is my big moral concern.'
He further said that he 'regretted' the proposals on removing the need for a father, saying it was a 'downgrading of the ordinary processes of reproduction and upbringing' in favour of a 'highly technological view' of what human reproduction was about.
There has been no reporting of this in the wider media, and absolutely nothing on the scale as that achieved by sundry Roman Catholic cardinals, archbishops and bishops. It is as though the Established Church speaks with no moral authority, yet when Rome speaks Parliament must listen.
This is not an exclusively ‘anti-Catholic’ Bill; it is a fundamentally anti-Christian one, and some might say an anti-religious one, for it is secular to the core. While the Prime Minister pontificates about his manse upbringing, and quotes Scripture as evidence of his ‘moral compass’, he is quite blatantly unsympathetic to religious orthodoxy, and is manifestly hypocritical in his politics.
And when one considers the some of those who are jumping on this bandwagon (like the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols) it is difficult not to perceive this as jockeying for position in the battle to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
But Cranmer is further intrigued by Cardinal O’Brien’s condemnation of the Bill on the grounds that ‘the government has no mandate for these changes: they were not in any election manifesto, nor do they enjoy widespread public support’.
As an aside, Cranmer has not heard the Cardinal demanding a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon on the basis that the Government has no mandate for the ratification, or that the referendum promise was a manifesto pledge, and the demand evidently enjoys widespread public support. The Cardinal simply appeals to these criteria on issues with which he has no sympathy: he is dedicated to the break-up
of the United Kingdom, and in favour of an ‘independent’ Scotland within the European Union.
And the Cardinal calls for the establishment of a ‘single permanent national bioethics commission’ as ‘the only way in which the issue could be "adequately discussed".’ But who will sit on this commission? How and by whom will they be selected? To whom will they be accountable? Do we not have enough quangos already doing the business of government and deflecting the accountability of our elected representatives?
One can only guess at the Cardinal’s hopes and aspirations, but it is certain that he intends that such a commission should include prominent Roman Catholics. So what happens then when they are out-voted? Or is the make-up of the commission somehow to be rigged?
Whipping MPs is of course for the maintenance of party discipline. Where members rebel against the Whip, the worst they can expect is political oblivion. Yet when they ignore their consciences, reject their religion, and rebel against God, there is the distinct possibility of eternal damnation. For the devout, there is no contest. But the wisest political leaders would never force such a scenario. David Cameron has said that Conservative MPs will get a free vote on all aspects of the legislation. This is just as it should be. Sensible fellow.