BY FREDDY GRAY
CARDINAL Cormac MurphyO’Connor has warned priests against supporting a militant lay group that is urging Catholics to boycott Cafod, the overseas aid agency of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
Catholic Action Group (CAG), an organisation of conservative Catholics that claims to have more than 1,000 members, has launched a ferocious “Truth Campaign” directed at Cafod, the bishops and even the Cardinal himself on the issue of condom use in the fight against Aids.
On Thursday last week, the group sent out leaflets to every parish in England and Wales, calling on priests to stop all collections for Cafod because the agency “advocates, recommends and supports” the use of condoms and is therefore “out of line” with the Church’s Magisterium.
The CAG has also criticised the Cardinal’s stance on condom use, as well as his recent comments on hell, and the engagement of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles.
Based in Essex, the group has set up a website to publicise its activities and has advertised in the Catholic Press. It is understood that some board members of the Tablet, the liberal Catholic journal, are furious with staff for accepting a CAG advertisement.
Church officials are mystified as to how this previously unheard-of group could afford such an expensive campaign. It is rumoured that the group receives funding from other conservative Catholic groups in America.
However, John Gunn, the group’s outspoken leader, shed light on his organisation’s finances last week. He said that he and some of his fellow members were successful businessmen who have made large sums of money from hedge funds.
“We have a six-figure war chest for this campaign, but there is more if we need it,” he claimed.
Mr Gunn describes himself as a “revert” – a former lapsed Catholic who rediscovered his faith.
“If you had challenged me not so long ago on these issues I would have said ‘Get a life,’” he said. “But now I have been made aware of the truth.” Mr Gunn insisted that his campaign was not an attack on any particular organisation.
“It’s about giving people access to the truth,” he said. “For 40 years there has been an attempt to move away from the truth.
“I have no problem with people giving to Cafod, just so long as that they are aware, that from a traditional Catholic standpoint they are affirming the sin of fornication.
“Cafod is using Aids to water down Catholic moral ity. But God’s law is God’s law and that’s that.” Mr Gunn added: “As Catholics, we have a dogmatic religion. If you cross the line, then you must repent.” Chris Bain, the director of Cafod, was appalled by the CAG campaign.
He said: “This is an irritating distraction because we are trying to do our ongoing relief and development work, responding to the devastation of the tsunami, leading a major programme with displaced people in Sudan, and playing a large part in the ‘Make Poverty History’ Campaign.
“We have been accused of supporting artificial contraception, even of supporting abortion. That is absolute nonsense. If we felt that our approach did not have the support of the Church then we would change it.” The ferocity of the CAG has shocked Church authorities in England and Wales. Indeed, the campaign has prompted so much concern among the bishops that a recent standing committee meeting – a gathering of the most senior Catholic churchmen in this country – included a lengthy discussion about how to respond to the group.
Speaking after the meeting, Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood offered his support for Cafod, and spoke out against CAG, which is based in his diocese.
“I am very concerned that there are certain individuals and groups within my diocese who aim to undermine the excellent work and credibility of Cafod,” he said. “I add my voice to that of the Cardinal and the bishops of the Stand ing Committee in total support of Cafod’s statement on HIV and Aids prevention.” After the committee meeting, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor sent a letter to Chris Bain, offering his support for Cafod’s strategy for Aids prevention and implicitly indicating his disapproval of Mr Gunn’s activities.
In his letter, the Cardinal applauded the work of Cafod and confirmed that the bishops of England and Wales believe that Cafod’s strategy for the prevention of Aids accords with the Church’s teaching.
“I am taking the opportunity of sending it to Cardinal Lozano Barragan in the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care for his information,” he added.
He also attached a copy of Cafod’s latest statement on the role of condoms in the fight against Aids.
“The use of condoms as an immediate and short-term measure for countering the transmission of HIV is part of many agencies’ HIV prevention programmes,” the statement said.
“It should be made clear that Cafod does not fund agencies for whom condoms are central to their programmes. The vast majority of Cafod’s partners are Church partners.
“All partners, including secular ones, are made aware of our stance, which is that Cafod neither funds nor advocates the supply, distribution or promotion of condoms. In this, Cafod seeks to exercise a role consistent with its Catholic character.” This week Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor circulated the same message to all Westminster priests.
But Mr Gunn remains defiant. “They are out of line on this and they know it and we know it,” he said.
“If they were so sure about this, they could show a letter from Rome on their website saying ‘We got the green light from the Congregation’– but they won’t because they never will get a green light.” The debate over Cafod’s position on condom use reached boiling point in July last year after Ann Smith, corporate strategist for the agency, argued in favour of an ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms) approach in the fight against Aids during a speech to a UN Aids conference.
“Cafod also believes in an ‘ABC’ approach, but not in the simplistic terms in which it is often promoted,” she said.
“We see ABC as belonging to one layer – risk reduction – of the three needed for effective prevention. Promoting abstinence, for example, means upholding the value of not having sex until marriage while also recognising that for some young women abstinence might mean delaying the age of first sexual encounter beyond the more physiologically vulnerable teenage years.” The speech enraged many Catholics, and the Cardinal’s office was overwhelmed with letters – many of them from Mr Gunn – calling for the bishops to clarify the matter.
In December, Mgr Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, issued an official statement in which he said it was “misleading” to argue that the bishops were not in accord with the Magisterium on the issue of condom use in the fight against Aids. “The bishops oppose artificial contraception and do not advocate the promotion of condoms as a means of combating Aids,” he said. “The way to combat Aids is through the Catholic ethic of monogamy, fidelity, and abstinence.” He added that Cafod’s policy was in accordance with Church teaching.
The CAG also attacked Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor individually for comments he made on condom use in July 2003.
He told the Independent newspaper that it was right for the Church to preach chastity.
“But God knows people just do not live up to ideals,” he continued. “While we can say that, objectively, the use of condoms is wrong, there are places where it might be licit, or allowable, as when there’s a danger of intercourse leading to death.
“It would be wrong to take a special case and make it a universal law.” Mr Gunn disagreed sharply with the Cardinal on this matter.
“He is a good bishop, but I believe he is wrong,” he said. “He is out of line with Humanae Vitae [the 1968 encyclical which confirmed the Church’s traditional opposition to artificial contraception] and Veritatis Splendor [the 1993 encyclical on the basis of Catholic ethics].” The CAG now intends to conduct a “Catholic Survey”, an attempt to establish how many “real Catholics” there are in England and Wales, and to issue a “voter guide” advising Catholics on how to vote in accordance with Catholic teaching in the next general election.