Which group of voters has become most disillusioned with New Labour? There is no shortage of candidates; but few can have travelled so far, from elation to fury, as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Just ahead of the 1997 general election, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales published a pamphlet called The Common Good, widely taken as an Episcopal endorsement of Tony Blair, the first British party leader since Gladstone to wear his God on his sleeve - and absolutely the first to bring his children up as Catholics. Later statements of social policy from the Catholic Bishops seemed indistinguishable, not least in their platitudi-nousness, from the "communitarian" guff which emanated from 10 Downing Street in the early years of the Blair ascendancy.
It dawned on their Eminences rather too slowly that New Labour was a profoundly secular strain of politics, notwithstanding the apparently devout nature of its figurehead. It was that formidable Archbishop of Glasgow, the late Thomas Winning, who made the first break. Winning was Old Labour in the purple, a man of working-class origins who never strayed from his roots; he was also a ferocious defender of the Catholic Church's traditional teachings. When, in 2000, the Labour Party Pro-Life Group was banned by its own Party Conference from taking a stand to display its pamphlets, Winning appealed to the party's leader for support. Blair refused to get involved, and Winning drew his own conclusions.
It is true that the 1967 Abortion Act was brought on to the statute book under an "Old" Labour government; but it wasn't accidental that it did so by providing time for a Private Member's Bill by a young Liberal MP, David Steel. Even Roy Jenkins was wary enough of the strength of the working-class Labour Catholic vote - and not just in Liverpoolto treat the issue as purely one of personal conscience. It is in the name of religious conscience that the Cardinal of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, demands that Catholic Adoption agencies be exempt from the clauses of the 2006 Equality Act, which bans any form of sexual discrimination in the provision of goods and services: this will make it illegal for an adoption agency to reject as potential parents a gay couple, on the grounds of their sexual relationship. Murphy-O'Connor, in a letter sent to every member of the Cabinet, declares: "Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life means that Catholic adoption agencies would not be able to recruit and consider homosexual couples as potential adoptive parents".
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor was not simply being self-serving when he goes on to describe the extraordinary quality of the work provided by Catholic Adoption Agencies: if you talk to the British Association for Adoption & Fostering - an organisation which is fully in favour of adoption by same-sex couples - it will tell you that the Catholic Agencies have an outstanding record in providing homes for the most difficult children to place. Murphy-O'Connor's warning that such agencies will have to close rather than be required to place children with same-sex couples, should therefore be taken seriously.
This newspaper argued yesterday that "Ministers must call the Catholic bishops' bluff ". It isn't a bluff. Similar legislation has been passed in a number of American states, with the result that the Catholic Church from Boston to San Francisco has closed down its adoption agencies. Boston is an especially interesting case-- and not just because of the appalling record of child abuse among its own priesthood. …