Duncan Hamilton: Viewing any religious group as a ‘block vote’ is outdated and patronising

IN TROUBLED times, people often cling to old certainties. Not so in Ireland, where a survey of practising Catholics has just revealed a chasm between the official view of the Catholic Church and the opinions of the rank and file church members.

The survey makes an important point both for Ireland, and indeed for Scotland; the days when churches spoke with one voice on behalf of a compliant and uniform membership are long gone.

Consider the remarkable statistics in a nation still more conservative than our own. The survey was carried out for the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), which, while in strictly theological terms doesn’t make it “infallible”, presumably makes it sufficiently authoritative. It found that, in direct contradiction of the official position, 87 per cent of practising Irish Catholics believe priests should be allowed to marry and 77 per cent favour women being ordained. But if those numbers grabbed the headlines, just consider some of the others. Should divorced Catholics in a stable relationship receive Communion? Some 87 per cent think they should. And how many practising Irish Catholics agree with the Church teaching that sex between gay couples is immoral? Only 18 per cent. That’s astonishingly low. Drill deeper still and you find that 75 per cent believe Catholic teaching on sexuality is described as “not relevant”.

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Pause there. Let me be clear – I don’t cite those numbers to have a dig at the Catholic Church, nor to argue that its position on one or all of those subjects is wrong. I respect entirely the right of the Church to hold and promote its views.

Rather, the more important point is that made by Father Sean McDonagh, the founder of the ACP, who argues that “a similar survey in other countries would produce much the same results”. Certainly, in Scotland, there is no reason to believe he is not correct. And if so, doesn’t that give food for thought?

It raises questions for all churches, not just the Catholic Church. Each has a different model of governance, and each may claim with greater or lesser credibility that it does indeed speak for the ordinary members. But the truth is that on questions of morality, sexuality and social attitudes the notion of any institutional church being able to present a view representative of its members is not now sustainable.

The 21st century is all about the individual – often to our collective harm. In an era of rampant individualism the need for collective action is all the greater. But turning back the clock to achieve that isn’t an option. The empowerment at the heart of the information age means that the notion of a single, centralised, unified opinion delivered from on high and without dissent has gone forever. That needn’t be a threat to churches. In fact, if embraced cleverly it can be the basis for revival.

But what it does mean is that we should treat with deep scepticism any attempt to present a “Church” view on matters of public debate. Such a view is plainly not the considered or unified opinion of the membership. The difficulties within the Church of Scotland in forming a unified view over gay ministers makes the point. Equally, I would be genuinely surprised if the implacable opposition of the Catholic Church to same-sex marriage represented the views of ordinary church members.

Going forward that matters, not least because of the tone adopted by some on the big social and political issues of the day. I welcome the participation of all churches and faiths in public policy – that inclusion was exactly what the Scottish Parliament was designed to ensure. The churches played a vital part in the Constitutional Convention. Remember, too, that despite declining numbers we are still talking about active church membership which effortlessly dwarfs those of political parties. That demands, and gets, our respect.

But in return, there needs to be restraint and reflection from church leaders in relation to the tone and language adopted towards government. The unhelpful distortion of the debate over same-sex marriage and the over-reaction to aspects of the anti-sectarian legislation are recent examples. It isn’t that both policies weren’t open to criticism or a range of opinion, but the attempt by some in the Catholic Church to represent such measures as driving a wedge between the Scottish government and “Catholics” or that the approach was to breach the bond of trust with the “Catholic community” was both counterproductive and inaccurate. It’s time to accept what the more reflective members of the Irish Catholic Church have now apparently understood – even committed church members are primarily individuals with the same hopes, fears and aspirations as non-church members. Presenting Catholics, Protestants or any other denomination as some “block vote” to be delivered or withheld at the whim of church leadership is both patronising and outdated.

It is easy to generate coverage by fulminating against the government. But hitting the headlines and effectively influencing policy are very different things. Church members understand that, even if sometimes the churches don’t.