UK: Catholic Cardinal critiques Archbishop's statements
Dr Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, caused uproar last week with his suggestion that the incorporation of aspects of sharia into UK law might be "unavoidable", and could aid social cohesion. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, leader of the 4.5 million Catholics in England and Wales, begs to differ. He is adamant that such a move would only make segregation even more entrenched.
"I don't believe in a multicultural society," he says firmly. "When people come into this country they have to obey the laws of the land."
He has a mellifluous voice and an affable manner, but the cardinal becomes steely when discussing the problems facing British society, and the issue of sharia law.
"There are going to be certain things which might clash in the overall culture of the country. That's where one has to make a judgement," he says, then pauses before continuing, aware of the sensitivity of the issue. "There are aspects of sharia that are practised that we certainly wouldn't want in this country. The laws of this country don't allow forced marriages or polygamy.
"It seems to me a government and a country has a right to make sure that those laws are kept."
Although moderate Muslims are strongly opposed to forced marriage, it is a reality in Islamic countries and a recent report by the Centre for Social Cohesion claimed that it is even practised by some families living in Britain. The issue of polygamy was raised last weekend when The Sunday Telegraph revealed that the Government had decided to allow husbands with "multiple" wives to claim extra housing and income benefits, arguing that recognising "valid polygamous marriages" is "the best possible" option.
The cardinal warns that an approach that treats people in different ways sets a dangerous precedent, and can only make Britain more divided. "The extent to which multiculturalism has been encouraged recently has meant a lessening of the kind of unity that a country needs. It is not enough for people to live within their own cultures and then say 'we'll live within the freedoms that are given in this country within a totally separate culture'.
"Of course you can keep the variety of traditions, but when you enter this country there are common values which are part of its heritage, which should be embraced by everybody."
One of six children of Irish Catholic immigrants, Cardinal Murphy O'Connor grew up as part of a community that was on the margins of mainstream society and that experienced the struggle of trying to integrate without losing its identity.
"When I was young we were the new immigrants," he says. "For the most part, the Irish kept to themselves. They were workers who just came over, who built the railways, but didn't feel accepted to enter the social life of the country."
He sympathises, therefore, with the Muslim community in Britain, which finds itself constantly at the centre of attention, and criticised for contributing to racial tension.
"Variety within unity" is the cardinal's mantra. He says that Muslims should be free to express their religious consciences, but not at the expense of contributing to wider society.
Their views on sharia may differ, but the leaders of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches have enjoyed an unusual level of collaboration in recent years, particularly in campaigning for religious freedom.
They have had to face up to the declining influence of Christianity in Britain - a challenge that has required a united front. But while the cardinal acknowledges that churchgoing has diminished, he maintains that it is still central to the nation's cultural fabric. "You need the clarification of what we've inherited in this country, which is the Judeo-Christian heritage and the values that have flown from that, and they're the only values that cement society in this country - democracy, the dignity of the person, care for the poor, justice."
Sitting in his armchair, his understated presence belies the fact that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has been a thorn in the Government's side, as he has fought to defend Christianity and its traditional values. He has, for example, campaigned for the Catholic Church to be exempt from new homosexual rights laws, and called for a lowering of the time-limit for abortions.
The main targets of his displeasure are the "aggressive secularists", who he claims are trying to "privatise religion and prohibit any expression of faith beliefs in the public forum".
"People of whatever religion are part of British society. I accept we live in a secular country, but a secular country means that everyone should have the freedom to have their say and make their contribution in the public space. "What I object to is the fact that people say they don't like Christians speaking in the public space. Christianity doesn't demand special privileges, but we demand the right to express our conscientious views on what we believe to be the common good."
He argues that a society that tries to expel a moral voice from the public sphere risks creating a vacuum, where people lose their bonds of belonging and sense of identity. He says this is already beginning to happen. "People now feel 'I am what I have'. We live in a me, me, me culture."
Lent - the season of fasting and abstinence - has just begun, but the cardinal fears that people have become less disciplined and more over-indulgent. "A selfish society doesn't cherish life and doesn't bring about a cohesive society." He has just returned from a visit to Zimbabwe, an experience that he found moving and haunting, but while he was challenged by the dire poverty and "utter helplessness" of the people, he warns that the wealth in Britain is hiding deep problems in society.
"Many people in this country are very fearful of the breakdown of the family, the violence, the kind of society that their children are being educated in and the kind of society that is emerging. It's deeply concerning."
He is critical of the Government for not doing enough to tackle the growing divide between rich and poor, and also for failing to do enough to support the family. "The prime teachers of children are the parents, which is why I regret the breakdown of so many families," he says, and warns that this has created a generation of children who lack respect and "a moral vision".
Consequently, it should come as no surprise that faith schools - which he robustly defends - are proving so popular with parents. "The ethos and values of the schools are crucial to their success," he says.
The cardinal supports the view of Tory leader David Cameron that parents who pretend to have Christian beliefs in order to win places in church schools are doing nothing wrong. "I wouldn't want to judge parents who pretend to have a faith to get their children into school. They'd do anything for the good of their children. They have the right to bring up their children with the beliefs and heritage that they believe in."
Figures from the Pastoral Research Centre Trust found that there had been a surge in late baptisms, particularly of lapsed Catholics keen to gain places at the popular faith schools.
The most notable newcomer to Catholicism is Tony Blair, who was received into the Church only yards from where we are sitting in the cardinal's private office.
The cardinal smiles at the mention of the former prime minister, whose conversion was not only a significant personal step, but also confirmation of the new place of Catholicism in British society. The Sunday Telegraph revealed figures recently showing more Catholics attend church services in Britain on Sundays than do Anglicans. "The Catholic community until quite recently was on the periphery, whereas now we're a bit more mainstream," he says. He is hopeful that the same can happen for the Muslim community.
"Piano, piano, it will happen for them. Muslim families need to contribute beyond their own families to the common good, and then gradually it will happen to their children, their grandchildren, that they will become a normal part of this country and, indeed, cherish those values that should be common to everyone."
10 February 2008