Catholicism is not being left to the left in Parliament

Catholics in Parliament come from all parties, not just those of the left.

As Cardinal Vincent Nichols makes a historic visit to the Palace of Westminster (11th June 2014) Roman Catholic MPs are actively engaging with a new Parliamentary organization to ensure that the dialogue between the church hierarchy and policy makers involves a wide range of voices.

Cardinal Nichols’ visit is the first visit by a Cardinal undertaken at the invitation of the Catholic Legislators’ network which brings together on an informal basis Roman Catholic members of all political parties and both Houses of Parliament. Its Convenor is Labour MP, Rob Flello, and the Conservative side is represented by Paul Maynard MP as one of the Deputy Convenors, the others being the Lib Dems Sarah Teather MP and Dan Rogerson MP.

The Cardinal will celebrate a Catholic Mass in Parliament’s beautiful Crypt Chapel, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, and afterwards will attend a Reception in the prestigious Jubilee Room of the Palace of Westminster, which is located just off the Great Hall of Westminster where Saint Thomas More, the Patron Saint of Politicians, stood trial and was sentenced to death.

This is a pastoral visit, a Bishop meeting his flock, and as such all Catholics who work in the Palace of Westminster from the cleaners to the holders of high office are included in the invitation.

Catholics are today well represented in all political parties, no doubt in part because the constant challenge from the Church is that Catholics should go out to be the “leaven in the dough”, an urging which many translate as a call to a vocation to engage in public life, to shape the world in which we live.

Relations between the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church are sometimes seen as strained such as in relation to the law on same sex marriage and the more recent comments by Cardinal Nichols on food banks, about which I posted in February. But, in fact there is a healthy, if sometimes robust, dialogue which ensures that the space is not left empty to be dominated by voices from other parties.

Whilst launched a few years’ ago, the Catholic Legislators’ Network’s importance and effectiveness grew in the heated debates surrounding the same sex marriage legislation. There were Catholics from both sides of both the Commons and the Lords voting in favour, voting against, and abstaining. What they all had in common was that they were put under colossal pressure not only by their Whips, but by strong and unrelenting lobbies from both the “pro” and the “anti” campaigns. Coming together to discuss these pressures enabled mutual support to be given.

Indeed, at one point such were the extreme views being expressed that Rob Flello (who consistently opposed the legislation) issued public statements defending the duty of Catholic MPs to reach an informed view and then their right to vote according to their conscience on that view. Great friendships, some across the Chamber, were forged at that time.

That is the hallmark of Catholic parliamentarians today. There is no Catholic “whip” but a genuine striving after truth and a mutual respect for the way the different parties seek to turn into policy the Church’s social teaching. I will publicly on occasion debate robustly with Rob Flello, arguing that the Big Society is a practical interpretation of Catholic teaching in action; whilst Rob argues that it is a cynical ploy to slash public spending on vital services. But we do so with mutual respect and confident that in private we actually want to achieve the same goals.

A wise commentator when briefed on the work of the Network, recently observed that for the first time since the Reformation there is now a vibrant Catholic community in the Palace of Westminster. That sums it up well, and as its beating heart, every Wednesday when Parliament is sitting, the Holy Sacrifice of Mass is celebrated in the Crypt Chapel for Roman Catholic Members and staff of the House.

To have seen this Network launched and grow to maturity has been a great privilege for me as its Secretary. The visit of the Cardinal is a fitting mark of what it has achieved.

Chris Whitehouse heads The Whitehouse Consultancy, is an Isle of Wight councillor, a Papal Knight of St Gregory, and Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network.