Church challenged to broaden its moral scope

Baroness Shirley Williams

Baroness Shirley Williams

The Catholic Church has been urged "to get away from being a church primarily involved in sexual morality" by Baroness Shirley Williams of Crosby. Speaking to an audience of around 1,000 supporters at CAFOD’s annual Pope Paul VI Memorial Lecture in London on 27 November, she called for church leaders nationally and regionally to engage with politicians on a broad spectrum of social justice issues. Her talk, entitled ‘Capitalism, Catholicism and Community: Harmony or Dissonance?’ touched on some of them.

Lobbying governments to honour their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals was a key issue, in her view. She complained that the UN target of richer nations providing 0.7% of their national income in aid to poorer ones “is a long way from being met” and she contrasted it with “the huge debt being racked up to save the banks”. Britain’s aid, as a percentage of national income, stands at 0.43% and in the US the figure is considerably lower at 0.18%.  She also urged the churches to promote the Tobin Tax, a tax on international financial transactions which would potentially raise more than US$ 420 bn a year for such things as public services, green energy and funding the Millennium Development Goals. “Fifty-eight countries have embarked on an intergovernmental working group to study the tax but the UK is not a member” she noted.

Baroness Williams also felt Churches could also do more to raise awareness of climate change. “I’ve rarely heard a sermon on climate change in my parish, but the parishes should take up this moral issue” she said; “after all, papal encyclicals have addressed it, albeit in passing”.

She felt Catholic schools should move towards becoming eco-schools, having recently visited one in Northumberland which generated its own electricity from windmills in its grounds.  They could then speak at their local parishes and educate Catholics in the pews.

The veteran politician felt there should be more dialogue between politicians and clergy at local level to inform moral issues being addressed at a national level.  “Life sciences, for example, is just one of the heavily moral issues that comes up increasingly”, she said; “human trafficking is another”. There was laughter throughout the room when she suggested that “perhaps one reason for the distance between Catholic clergy and politicians is that clergy don’t always relate well to women, such as me!”.

She expressed deep appreciation for the inspiration of the Church’s "distinguished" Social Teaching, particularly the 1965 document, ‘Gaudium et Spes - the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’. Also, for proponents of liberation theology in Latin America, such as Brazilian church leaders Dom Helder Camara and Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, and their identification of structural sin. Yet she lamented that “as the influence of Vatican II falls, so does public perception of the Church and its Social Teaching”. She outlined three miracles she had witnessed during her time in politics – the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union, the peaceful of apartheid in South Africa and the reign of the Pope who was regarded as a stop-gap candidate at the time of his election in 1958 but called the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council – Pope John XXIII. The audience of CAFOD and Justice and Peace activists cheered.

The lecture was chaired by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, former Master General of the Dominican Order and a member of CAFOD’s Board of Trustees. It was preceded by a presentation from CAFOD Director Chris Bain, who explained that CAFOD partners have been hit by “a double whammy” this year of recession and climate change. He felt December’s climate summit in Copenhagen is critical for global agreement to reduce emissions to keep global temperature rise below two degrees, and urged supporters to attend ‘The Wave’ events in London on Saturday 5th December. The vote of the thanks was expressed by Bishop John Rawsthorne of Hallam and Chair of CAFOD, who is joining Archbishop Vincent Nichols at ‘The Wave’ ecumenical service next weekend.

Baroness Shirley Williams is a renowned politician and academic. Serving as a life peer in the House of Lords, she is also Professor Emerita of Electoral Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a member of the Tablet Trust.

Details of The Wave service and march on 5th December can be found at:

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