The odour of sanctimony

David Aaronovitch murmurs a quiet word in the ear of the bishop of Durham.

Sermon continues: “This secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people…” Now, this is as close to a lie as makes no difference. Dr Wright may reply directly to the Times letters page, which, even in this fallen age, generally prints the words of high clergymen, to tell me which significant secularist body, or scientific group, or gaggle of atheists is it that believes “we” have the right “to kill surplus old people”?

Ah, you see, we must allow for episcopal hyperbole, and we must respect the beliefs which prompt them to indulge in such hyperbole. We’re not allowed to tell whoppers like that about them, but when they do it about us, why, they’re…um…following their consciences. Or something.

This almost wanton disregard of fairness was being deployed for the specific purpose of attacking the proposals to allow the creation and use of hybrid embryo tissue in scientific and medical research…[T]he argument about what is actually in the Bill has been sidetracked by the mass complaints about the decision by the Government to put a three-line whip on Labour MPs. This has led, among other miracles, to the call by the Catholic hierarchy for there to be a free vote – a “conscience” vote – on the entirely contradictory basis that, according to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor: “Catholics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions.” But these are not personal convictions, they’re matters of doctrine. Churches constantly change their collective minds about what God says, so what is being asked is that MPs put their Church – not their conscience – above everything else.

Not personal convictions? Matters of doctrine?! That’s blasphemy! It’s insulting! Of course the embryo nonsense is a matter of personal conviction; it’s totally a coincidence that it’s Catholics who have it and who keep saying that as Catholic MPs they – um – well let’s talk about something else now.

Naturally, despite this, just about every editorial in every newspaper lined up, almost languidly, behind the free-vote demand…It is an easy concession to make to the religious lobby…providing that you don’t believe they’ll win. That way the churchy can go back to their bishops and say they’ve done their bit, and the rest of us can have our Bills to ameliorate or improve the human condition. Then, when the Bill becomes law and, over time, the advances save lives, the bishops and their flocks can quietly benefit from the measures they so denigrated, have the operation, swig the medicine and move on, sanctimoniously, to the next bit of opposition.

Sanctimoniously. Just so. That’s what’s so irritating: the preening, self-admiring parade of ‘conscience’ superior to everyone else’s – when they’re putting a handful of cells ahead of the well-being of real humans.

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