Catholic Church at war? Bishops' dismay at 'tragic' editorial in The Tablet criticising teaching on abortion

The Catholic Church in the UK is descending into civil war behind the scenes after a major row over abortion was sparked by a controversial editorial in the respected journal The Tablet.

A number of bishops were 'scandalised' by the article, Christian Today understands, and are urging Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, to intervene. One figure accused the weekly magazine which is sold at the back of Westminster Cathedral – the home of Catholicism in the UK – of trying 'to obscure the witness of Christian teaching'.

The Tablet is a leading Catholic weekly magazine which is seen as relatively liberal compared to its conservative counterparts.Twitter / The Tablet

It comes after The Tablet published an editorial [paywall] criticising a conservative view on abortion and saying the Church's strict stance means it '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 leading article, published on September 13, was titled 'Restricting abortion: Catholic teaching sets bar too high' and said 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'.

The intervention on the controversial topic came after Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, when questioned on his views on abortion, cited the teaching of the Catholic Church to justify his position that all terminations are wrong — including in cases of rape.

But The Tablet's critique of the Church's doctrine prompted fury among bishops.

In a blistering statement 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.

'The teaching of the Church could not be clearer in affirming that every human life must be presented and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.'

He went on: '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.

'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 Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Davies, launched a scathing attack on The Tablet.The Diocese of Shrewsbury

The Auxilary Bishop of Westminster, John Sherrington, has also complained, writing to The Tablet 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'. 

Catholic politicians in Parliament are upset by the article, Christian Today understands, but are reluctant to weigh in publicly. However a number have written to bishops behind the scenes, urging an official response.

The general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, Reverend Christopher Thomas, is said to be handling the fallout and is considering whether to make an official response from the bishops.

But Brendan Walsh, the editor of The Tablet, hit back at the criticism, saying the bishops are 'in a bit of a bind'.

He told Christian Today: '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 strongly against terminations.