Archbishop of Westminster asserts the public role of religion in the face of 'aggressive' secularism
BY SIMON CALDWELL
CARDINAL Cormac MurphyO'Connor has said that he would like to sit in the House of Lords.
There are already 26 Anglican bishops — the Lords Spiritual — who are allowed seats in the upper chamber. They include Anglican leader Dr Rowan Williams.
But Cardinal MurphyO'Connor said he would like to be among the first British Catholic prelates to take up political office since the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 some 450 years ago.
He said the Metropolitan Archbishops of Westminster, Southwark, Liverpool, Bimpingham and Cardiff should be allowed places on the red benches alongside their Anglican counterparts.
"The five archbishops should be there because of right not because they are good," he said. "Sometimes I regret that there isn't a Catholic bishop speaking on the points that do arise."
The Cardinal added that he had often discussed the possibility of a Catholic presence in the Lords with his predecessor, Cardinal Basil Hume, who died of cancer in June 1999.
"It was his conviction that it wasn't right for a bishop to sit in the Lords," said Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor. "But by the end of his life he was of the conviction that the Catholic bishops should be there." He continued: "Some of my fellow bishops think we would be less free if we sat in the Lords. I don't quite agree with that. For my part I am inclined to think that it wouldn't be a bad thing."
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has changed his mind several times on the issue, having previously expressed the opposite opinion.
In 1999, the Government signalled that it might increase Catholic representation on the benches of a reformed House. However in a new White Paper published in February it indicated that the appointment of Catholic bishops and other faith leaders might not be possible.
It is unlikely that the Vatican would agree to any Catholic cleric holding political office in Britain. The practice is forbidden by the Code of Canon Law, a rule rigorously enforced around the world particularly since the Second Vatican Council.
The Cardinal's thoughts may have partly been prompted by his concern that religion is being forced to the margins of society by an emerging "secularism which is aggressive".
Seats occupied by the Catholic bishops in the Lords would guarantee that the faith would remain in the mainstream of public life amid an anticipated surge in attacks on the Church's institutions.
The Cardinal's comments came after the annual Cornishley Lecture, which he gave in Westminster Cathedral Hall, London, last week on the role of religion in public life The Cardinal revealed that he will be , meeting Dr Williams and the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the summer to discuss the same issue.
"We hope to meet to talk about religion in the public sphere, to see how we could cooperate," he said. "It could be a very helpful meeting. We are often asked to speak on matters of public morality and it would be interesting to see how we can speak together."
The meeting is being arranged amid fears that religious institutions will come under new attacks now that the Government has passed the Sexual Orientation Regulations without sufficient exemptions for religious groups.
The rules are aimed at stopping businesses discriminating against same-sex couples, but Christian leaders say they will force believers to act against their beliefs.
By the end of 2008, for instance, they will compel the 13 Catholic adoption agencies in Britain to place children in the care of same-sex couples, a move which the bishops have said would lead to their closure.
They were pushed through Parliament last month with hardly any debate in the House of Commons and in spite of pleas for exemptions by the Catholic bishops. Dr Williams and Dr John Sentamu, the Anglican Archbishop of York, had also warned the Government not to -legislate against conscience".
Church leaders are also worried about a series of attacks on state-funded Catholic schools and also how the proposed reforms of charity laws could affect the legal status of their religious orders. which will have to prove they are of "public benefit" to qualify as a charity.
The Cardinal said: "When I was growing up a long time ago the Catholic Church was on the peripheries of society in Britain. It has come as a religious body into the centre to contribute to the public life of this country. It would be a great shame to go back to the periphery. The country expects us to express who we are, not only in Parliament but in public spaces."
During his lecture he also accused politicians of "legislating for intolerance" and questioned "whether the threads holding together democracy have begun to unravel".
He said attacks on religious groups were being made in the name of tolerance, equality and diversity. "My fear is that, under the guise of legislating for what is said to be tolerance, we are legislating for intolerance," he said: "Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends.
"My fear is that in an attempt to clear the public square of what are seen as unacceptable intrusions, we weaken the pillars on which that public square is erected, and we will discover that the pillars of pluralism may not survive.
"The question is whether the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel. That is why I have sounded this note of alarm."
He added: "I am conscious that when an essential core of our democratic freedom risks being undermined, subsequent generations will hold to account those who were able to raise their voices yet stayed silent."
He told his audience that "what looks like liberality is in reality a radical exclusion of religion from the public sphere".
He said: "For my own part, I have no difficulty in being a proud British Catholic citizen. But now it seems to me we are being asked to accept a different version of our democracy, one in which diversity and equality are held to be at odds with religion. We Catholics — and here I am sure I speak too for other Christians and all people of faith — do not demand special privileges, but we do demand our rights."
Speech extract: Page 6