Hey Telegraph editors: Where’s the Catholic left?

One thing is certain, the facts boldly stated in the headline at The Telegraph are enough to grab readers from the get-go.

Gay marriage could signal return to ‘centuries of persecution’, say 1,000 Catholic priests

The story opens with an imposing block of paraphrased and quoted material from the letter, which was signed by some key bishops as well as priests.

The key, however, is the word “some.” More on that later.

More than 1,000 priests have signed a letter voicing alarm that same-sex marriage could threaten religious freedom in a way last seen during “centuries of persecution” of Roman Catholics in England.

In one of the biggest joint letters of its type ever written, they raise fears that their freedom to practise and speak about their faith will be “severely” limited and dismiss Government reassurances as “meaningless”. They even liken David Cameron’s moves to redefine marriage to those of Henry VIII, whose efforts to secure a divorce from Katherine of Aragon triggered centuries of bloody upheaval between church and state.

They claim that, taken in combination with equalities laws and other legal restraints, the Coalition’s plans will prevent Catholics and other Christians who work in schools, charities and other public bodies speaking freely about their beliefs on the meaning of marriage.

Even the freedom to speak from the pulpit could be under threat, they claim. And they fear that Christians who believe in the traditional meaning of marriage would effectively be excluded from some jobs — just as Catholics were barred from many professions from the Reformation until the 19th Century.

Now the key to this story is who signed this document and who did not.

Some of the important facts are clearly stated in the story. The letter — apparently sent to The Daily Telegraph, not to a government office of any kind was signed by 1,054 priests as well as 13 bishops, abbots and “other senior Catholic figures.” In all, these Catholic leaders are said to “account for almost a quarter of all Catholic priests in England and Wales.”

A quarter signed. There’s the key to the whole matter.

One quarter of the priests signed on, which means that 75 percent or so did not. The fact that 13 bishops signed on is impressive, but aren’t there 30-plus chairs for Catholic archbishops and bishops in the United Kingdom?

In other words, a crucial element of this story is the point of view of the Catholic leaders who either (a) opposed this letter or who (b) declined to sign it for other reasons. Where, in other words, are the voices on the Catholic left in this article? It’s understandable that they might choose to remain silent. But total silence from the majority of the bishops and priests, as well as their supporters in academia and the world of politics?

The story does a better job of explaining the parallels between the current legislation and the oppressive laws in England’s past.

Until 1829 Catholics and other religious dissenters in Britain and Ireland were barred from entering many professions or, in many cases, even meeting to worship under a body of restrictions collectively known as the penal laws.

The priests write: “After centuries of persecution, Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country. Legislation for same sex marriage, should it be enacted, will have many legal consequences, severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship. It is meaningless to argue that Catholics and others may still teach their beliefs about marriage in schools and other arenas if they are also expected to uphold the opposite view at the same time.” …

Rev Dr Andrew Pinsent, a leading Oxford University theologian, who also signed the letter, said: “We are very sensitive to this historically because of course the reformation started in England as a matter of marriage. Henry VIII could have been forgiven for his adultery but he didn’t want to do that, he wanted to control marriage and redefine what was a marriage and wasn’t.

“Because the Church would not concede that point, that launched three centuries of great upheaval in English society, and from the Catholic point of view life was very difficult. We fear that what is happening now is that a network of laws are being put in place which would violate our freedom of conscience.”

All well and good. But, speaking of Henry VIII, where are the Church of England voices — left and right — in this piece?

All in all, what readers end up with is a news story that presents the fears and arguments of one side, alone.

Meanwhile, it appears that the law would not ban all Catholics from holding these kinds of public positions. The issue is how it will affect Catholics who insist on believing in and defending the teachings of their church. It’s the pro-Vatican Catholics who could be in trouble.

In other words, the Tony Blairs of England are free to do that thing that they do. The question is: Where are their voices in this story? What are the counter arguments that would be made (a) by leaders of the Catholic left or (b) those who simply think that the Catholic traditionalists have been too bold?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    I will tell you where they are: in the other ninty nine percent of the this and the other newspapers in print. If the “lefts” voice isn’t in this one article, I say its about time!

  • Suburbanbanshee

    On many Catholic websites, conservative priests from the UK (particularly ones from the UK countryside) have been noting unhappily that they were never asked to sign and didn’t hear about the petition before it was published. A lot of them have been asking how they can sign on now.

    So basically, even with a rush petition that was only circulated to a relatively few priests in convenient urban areas, they managed to get a quarter of the priests in the UK to sign. That’s pretty darned good.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    “Meanwhile, it appears that the law would not ban all Catholics from holding these kinds of public positions. The issue is how it will affect Catholics who insist on believing in and defending the teachings of their church. It’s the pro-Vatican Catholics who could be in trouble.”

    That’s the way it was after the English reformation, too. Some Catholics were tolerated. Those that actually practiced and believed in their faith weren’t.

  • DJPN

    It may also be worth remembering that this was (necessarily) organised over Christmas. Not only are priests often busier at Christmas, but Royal Mail are even more unreliable than usual. It’s possible that a larger number of priests signed the petition and had their responses either lost or delayed in the post, so that they were not sent to the Telegraph at the time it went to print (or were not sent to the organisers at the time they sent the letter on).

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    1000 priests and 13 bishops is huge. That is not a fringe opinion among Catholics. That is a lot of prudent people looking at the facts and seeing a very bad future. You could say the same thing all over the west. Secularism is the state religion. Persecution of Christians is possible because secularists don’t see it as a state religion persecuting a minority religion. They see it as reason winning out over over superstition. That is politicians and courts don’t think they are forcing their world and life view on Catholics but they are. The fact that they don’t see it means the checks and balances that are supposed to prevent it won’t work.

    I thought the reporting was very good. You don’t need to represent the whole political landscape in every piece. This petition is significant and it is moreso given the history of Catholics in England. Even the petitioners admit the connection with Henry VIII is a strong claim to make. I don’t think you need to quote a Tony Blair type to get that out.

  • tmatt

    Good input, concerning the impressiveness of the numbers.

    I know it’s a big number and reporters should explore BOTH why some were not able to sign who wanted to and why some elected not to.

    Randy, et al. Sorry, in a story on a topic this hot there is no excuse not to seek viewpoints from both sides/multiple sides. I feel that way when that happens on the left (yes, Jettboy) and in this rare case on the right.

  • Julia

    ” It’s the pro-Vatican Catholics who could be in trouble.”
    This is the one sentence that jumped out at me, too. Why would the tame Catholics be in trouble? They will cave just like the ones who couldn’t afford the fines in the bad old days OR were lured by getting properties like “Downton Abbey” from the King’s largesse after the dissolution of the monasteries. Here’s some more history for PBS fans.
    http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/dissolution_monasteries.htm

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What many commenters noted crossed my mind also. How widely circulated was the petition??? Were the non-signers indirectly voting against the petition by not signing or did it not get into the hands of many who might have signed it??? The story should have dug into this aspect. And tmatt is right in pushing for the media to be more conscious of the need to look (at least a bit) at stories from all sides and important aspects whether from right or left, liberal or conservative.

  • Julia

    Damian Thompson, a Telegraph blogger frequently discussing religion in the UK says that the Catholic Left is well-represented as signatories:
    “. . . when I worked my way down the names, I kept coming across priests who are poles apart liturgically and even differ in the way they interpret Catholic teaching on homosexuality. The list includes members of the “Magic Circle” of well-connected liberals, Latin Mass traditionalists, moderate conservatives and the leaders of the newly formed Ordinariate. As for the political leanings of the signatories, I can assure you that Labour supporters are well represented. So, too, are celibate gay priests.”
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100197878/gay-marriage-after-todays-letter-in-the-telegraph-the-catholic-church-really-is-at-war-with-the-government/

  • FW Ken

    “it showed the strength of opinion in the pews.”

    I’ve been wondering if that’s a priest speaking as if those priests represented “opinion in the pews”, or a somewhat confused reporter seeking a cliche.

    Julia brings in fine information that refines tmatt’s point: the priests who did not sign the letter are the missing element.

    But really, isn’t it a little arch to speak of “pro-Vatican” Catholics in England?

  • Melissa

    It could be, by publishing this petition to the Telegraph, the Catholic Church was more or less giving the media a list of names, of spokespeople if you will, against same-sex marriage.

  • Julia

    It was the broad spectrum of the signatories that was significant to Thompson. He would know the stances of the folks on that list. The so-called Catholic Left was not missing – it was represented in the petition signers, along with the so-called Catholic conservatives. You will note that that Thompson links the Traditionalists with the 1962 Mass and not with the conservatives or liberals.

  • Presby Terian

    That image of Anthony Blair sends shivers of sheer horror down my spine.

  • http://queeringthechurch.com Terence Weldon

    There’s even more that could be noted about this. There are in fact 44 bishops for England and Wales, (including those now retired). Of the “8″ said to have signed, only 4 are still active. A colleague who is far more familiar with the English clergy, looked closely at the signatories, and found the same principle applies to many of the priests, too. The description applied by the Telegraph is disctinctly dubious.


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