The row over abortion between the English Catholic Church heirarchy and a respected Catholic journal has escalated this week after a bishop said that Catholics – including on newspapers – cannot claim to be true to their faith if they question Church teaching on the issue.
The leading article, which came after the rightwing Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said he opposed all terminations including in rape cases, argued that the Church 'comes close to having no position at all, or at least none that has any relevance either to law-making or to the lives of real people'.
The Bishop of Shrewsbury Mark Davies told Christian Today: 'Sadly there are journals which use the name "Catholic" but are not reliable guides to the faith and teaching of the Catholic Church...No Catholic Christian could sincerely claim that this teaching is unclear or irrelevant to law-making or the moral choices made in the lives of people today.
Now, in a blog post first reported by the Catholic Herald, Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster said abortion was a 'foundational issue', adding: 'Sadly, the price of admission into mainstream British life has meant that we somehow keep the Catholic brand name and tribal loyalty, but are content to live a mix of nostalgia and generic good will and "keep our heads down" in the public sphere'.
Bishop Campbell added: 'Some Catholics – including some periodicals and newspapers who claim to use that name – seem simply embarrassed by the abortion issue.
'The abortion struggle gets in the way of their natural political alliances. Others don't really agree with the Church's teaching, or don't accept the personhood of the unborn child. Others just want a respectable way to explain away this issue and get on with what they regard as the 'real' work of the Church!'
As Britain approaches the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act in November, the bishop went on to argue, Catholics must remember opposition to abortion is integral to the faith. 'There's no way around it. It's the cornerstone issue for any society because it deals with the most basic human right of all – the right to life.'
The Tablet's leader said that the Church's teaching 'would logically involve handing out long prison sentences not just to the doctors and nurses involved but to the women herself – and in every case, including if the termination of the pregnancy occurred the day after it started'.
Davies responded by saying: 'It would be especially tragic in this anniversary year which marks the destruction of 8 million human lives since 1967 that anyone would seek to obscure the witness of Christian teaching to the value of every human life.'
The Auxilary Bishop of Westminster, John Sherrington, has also complained, writing to The Tablet last week to say the Church's position is 'not unrealistic but can help to better protect the child in the womb and are relevant to lawmaking and the lives of all people of goodwill'.
But Brendan Walsh, the editor of The Tablet, hit back at the criticism, saying that the bishops are 'in a bit of a bind'.
He told Christian Today last week: 'The sanctity of the life of the unborn is one of the cornerstones of our beliefs as Catholics. Our leader in the issue of September 16 sympathised with the position of the Catholic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who personally opposes abortion in even the most difficult of circumstances, but has said he would not try to impose his views on others. It's a position that attracted considerable hostility, but was also widely understood and respected, and could even be the start of a helpful conversation about life issues.
'The Catholic bishops – it seems to me – are in a bit of a bind. They want to celebrate and protect every human life, from the moment of conception. But if they hold fast to the view that women should not be allowed the right to choose an abortion under any circumstances, the Catholic voice is less likely to be listened to.'
The row reflects major divides in British Catholic's social views as research reveals the Church's staunch opposition to any termination is not held by most of the faithful.
The 2016 British Social Attitudes survey found 61 per cent of British Catholics agree 'the law should allow an abortion if the woman decides...she does not wish to have a child'. The research represents a dramatic shift since 2012 when just 39 per cent supported a women's right to abortion and 33 per cent in 1985.
But despite this view from the laity, the official position of the Church is still firmly against terminations.