Michael Kelly: Devine intervention casts Church in poor light

YOU would think a cleric as experienced as Bishop Devine would have developed a nose for trouble.

But yesterday – Good Shepherd Sunday – when the sermons in Catholic churches are normally devoted to extolling the role of priests, he avoided an examination, much less an apology, for the scandals that continue to haunt the Church. He didn't even launch a prayerful preparation for the Pope's forthcoming visit in the light of the mild offence caused by the spoof Foreign Office memo.

His Lordship Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, chose instead to provoke a political fight by making the latest in a series of attacks on the Labour Party.

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When you've endured as many sermons as I have, you are not surprised at some of the daft things priests come away with. But for Bishop Devine to claim, in a national newspaper, that the Labour Party is anti-Catholic is ludicrous. Before Bob Winter became Lord Provost of Glasgow in 2007, the last non-Catholic to hold the post was Bill Gray in 1975. All the candidates for the vacant leadership of the council, after the exit of Steven Purcell (Catholic) are Catholics. And colleagues in North Lanarkshire cannot remember when a non-Catholic was leader of any of the various local authorities in that county.

Jim Murphy is the fourth Catholic Secretary of State for Scotland. All appointed since 1997 by Labour.

Is that sufficient evidence to dismiss Bishop Devine's claim that in the Labour Party "you can still hold office unless, of course, you happen to be a Catholic"?

Equally preposterous is his claim that Gordon Brown is "anti-faith" and "anti-family". Gordon Brown believes in God, is a member of the Church of Scotland and is devoted to his family, which for him ideally consists of one man, one woman and kids.

Where the Prime Minister disagrees with the prelate is that he recognised that other people have a broader definition of family.

This is where the fundamental disagreement between this representative of the Church and democratic politicians is seen to be unbridgeable.

What he is advocating is that the Labour Party – and the Tories and Lib Dems as well, although he is much less harsh on them – adhere exclusively to political agendas that mirror Catholic teaching.

What he is refusing to recognise is that a modern pluralistic tolerant democratic society cannot be run like that. His medieval stance finds more resonance with radical Islam than with other Christian sects. Muslim fundamentalists want the laws of their countries to be based exclusively on religious dogma. In the UK, where 66 per cent of Britons have no connection with any church or religion, it seems bordering on fanaticism for His Lordship to demand that scale of conformity to Catholicism.

Because it is Catholicism he is speaking up for. If we go through some of the social issues that cause Bishop Devine greatest concern, we find that on many he cannot even command the support of other Christian churches. Contraception both here and in the Third World? Abortion? Divorce? Gay marriage? His answer will be that he is right and that they are wrong. Catholics always think that.

It's a stance that a church is entitled to take. Religion is a matter of blind faith. Politicians have to give reasons for their answers. In my experience – and in complete contradiction to the bishop's claims – most elected members who are also Catholics do justice to both roles. They do bring their beliefs to bear and ensure that the arguments of faith groups are properly examined.

They will, first and foremost, vote with their consciences. But what their consciences dictate may not coincide with Catholic teaching on the issue. And that's the freedom that His Lordship will not countenance. Politicians also recognise that they are duty-bound to represent all of their constituents and that they make decisions in the best interests of society as a whole. An appeal to conscience can be very selfish.

The conflict was illustrated in how our MSPs arrived at the correct decision over adoption rights for gay couples – another of Bishop Devine's bugbears. A number of MSPs who have personal experience of adoption decided, despite misgivings, to support these rights. They took as their criterion the one that Bishop Devine advocates – the interests of the children. They decided that, in the absence of sufficient adoptive heterosexual couples, it was better for children to be brought up in loving relationships than in cold institutions.

Given the record in Catholic children's homes, I am surprised the bishop still objects.

But the greatest chasm that currently exists between Catholicism and the way democrats run society is in developing laws to encompass the dramatic benefits that medical science promises in the very near future.

Since Galileo, the Church has fought a losing battle with science. Unfortunately, it has not learned its lesson. Fortunately, thinking Catholics have.

Boundaries on the inquiries of science cannot be set by doctrines established in ignorance of the new knowledge that science reveals. God put man at the centre of the universe, so the Sun had to revolve round the Earth. Wrong. Similarly, the Church's definition of when and how a human life begins was set centuries before genetics, DNA stem cell and other embryology research fundamentally altered how the beginnings of life are understood.

There is never going to be a political party that satisfies Bishop Devine. He has only one option. He must set up his own. In these days of proportional representation, he has the chance to test the popularity of his opinions.

Of course, that will mean he will have to be prepared to undergo the kind of scrutiny to which he subjects others. And the Church has a lot of questions to answer.

When you raise a stink, you're not guaranteed to come up smelling of roses yourself. But his press officer, former Tory public relations man Gerry O' Brien, could have told him that before he started his anti-Labour campaign.