In a move which some observers believe could seriously backfire on them, Scottish Catholic bishops headed up by Archbishop Mario Conti have launched an astonishing full-frontal attack on Labour in the run up to the forthcoming assembly elections.
A letter sent round to congregations this weekend accuses the government of “a stealthy and unjust attack on the freedom of religion itself and on the rights of conscience” over issues such as gay adoptions – where the Prime Minister and cabinet refused to bow to pressure to allow the church to discriminate though its agencies.
The bishops add: “Last year, in the face of widespread opposition, the Scottish Parliament extended the right to adopt to unmarried and same sex couples. These dubious innovations are detrimental not just to the good of the Catholic community but to the common good of humanity as a whole. They deserve to be challenged at the ballot box.”
The Scottish election is widely believed to be on a knife-edge, with the nationalists (SNP) hoping for a real breakthrough. Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has been courting the Catholic vote with a favourable stance to faith schools.
The bishops’ pastoral letter was read out at all Masses in Scotland's 500 Catholic parishes. The Catholic church leaders point to a "conflict of values in society" which they claim has led to "legislation and regulations which are seriously at odds with the insights and values of our Christian faith and of other faiths".
They go on to raise concerns about; "abortion, embryo experimentation, easy divorce and civil partnerships" and the need to constantly "counter criticism of the very existence of Catholic schools".
A different note was struck this weekend by Tom Horwood, who worked for the Catholic bishops of England and Wales for six years, and holds qualifications in theology, history and management.
Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Mr Horwood, author of The Future of the Catholic Church in Britain said that religious leaders should be hopeful, not defensive, in public debate.
He declared: “There is a new mood of defensiveness within faith communities, the symptom of a fear about where libertarian social trends are leading. It has not always been like this. Skilful religious leaders have engaged in debate and argued persuasively for positive change. Wilberforce, Gandhi and Martin Luther King took unpopular stances, but pointed to a better way for all, inspired by faith.”
“[I]ssuing thou-shalt-nots, without suggesting constructive alternatives, does not persuade the general public or government decision-makers”, wrote Horwood. “A report last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation criticised faith leaders and government for not understanding each other. It urged them to come out of their ghettos and work with others to address today's social problems.”