The Most Reverend Peter Smith

by | Jul 14, 2017 | Faith / belief based groups, Interview | 0 comments

How would you describe your religious identity?

I’m a Roman Catholic. I was baptised as a child. My father was Church of England, my mother was Catholic so I have been a Catholic since my baptism 71 years plus ago.

What made you decide to stay with the tradition you were born into?

Well, I was brought up with it and to me it was just part of my life. Even though my father was not a Catholic he approved and agreed that any children of the marriage would be brought up as Catholic. We were taken to Mass, I was confirmed in due time. It became very much part of my life. When I was late teenage, end of sixth form, first year of work, I did get cross a few weekends. Our home was equidistant from two different parishes, I didn’t feel like the walk down and didn’t want to go to Mass. I remember driving up to one church, parking up sitting there all through Mass time and feeling incredibly guilty. It was an incredibly odd thing and I don’t know quite what it was all about. The following week I did confess to it to my confessor.

After that, when I went to university, there was a Catholic society and I got involved in that, and Ecumenically, there was an Ecumenical society and I got elected president of that. It was a new thing in those days, back in the early 1960s, I’ve never had any fundamental doubts about the reality of God, all the basic truths of Christianity, the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension and coming of the Holy Spirit.

I would have perhaps some theological questions about some of the doctrines, and some difficulty coping with some of the moral teaching. But I would uphold the moral teaching on the basis that my thinking has always been that I need to rely on the wisdom of Church over 2000 years and I hope I would never be so arrogant as to say that I know better than all of that. But anyone who is thinking Catholic or Christian would have difficulties or doubts. The key to remaining faithful I think is prayer, regular private prayer. I think in Catholicism, over the recent centuries there has been a heavy concentration of the intellectual side, spelling out the doctrines in quite an academic way. The heart of the Gospel for any Christian I think is our personal relationship with the Risen Christ. Now as Catholics we see that comes about through the celebration of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, where we spent time quietly. Not just asking the Lord for everything we want, because it might not be what I want, but to have a conversation. I always think of the words of Christ, abide with me, remain in my love. I think that’s what keeps us faithful.

Would you say that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society?

I would answer that with a counter question. It depends what you mean by equality, because I think that is often misunderstood. We have a great tradition in this country of human rights going back to Magna Carta, because of course we are celebrating 800 years of that. And of course when the 1948 UN Charter, there were a lot of them were Catholic, but people wanted to put something together to try to keep Europe on the right path after the war and the terrible abuses. That was and remains a very valuable document, spelling out the same rights.

Subsequently, we’ve had the European Conventions, which on the whole follow the Charter and tweak it somewhat. That’s not the problem, the problem is the interpretation of those documents and the Human Rights Act and Equality Acts over here in Great Britain. Because a key thing which they don’t seem to do is to make a distinction, as Catholic and a citizen, I would say that because we are made in the image of God every person has equal dignity in the eyes of God and amongst ourselves. It’s not a question of status, power, we are made in God’s image we have equal dignity. I think it’s a very loose way to say that we are also all equal. Just to take one infamous example in recent days that I had fierce arguments with the Secretary of State over. When they were talking about equal rights for gay couples, now there was an element of justice in that. When it came to marriage, they said that everyone had an equal right to be married. I said well hang on a minute, men and women are different. But they’re all equal was the response. What do you mean by equal? And I remember sitting in a room, first of all it was Theresa May we dealt with and then we shifted it off to another minister, Culture Media and Sport took responsibility for it, Maria Miller. But they could not engage in any rational discussion, it was all emotional stuff about surely if people love one another they should be able to get married. I said but marriage has since the beginning been between a man and a woman, men and women are complimentary. I said look, look round this room. You’ve only got to look and open your eyes and see that men and women are different; physically, psychologically, spiritually (some people question that). I said that equality doesn’t mean the same. I said there is a complimentary there. I said I love my brother but I’ve no intention of marrying him, or vice versa. But they could not see that at all.

I said that you gave no proper Parliamentary process, there was nothing in your manifestos, no green paper, white paper. You’ve just suddenly landed us with this consultation. Is this about whether you should legislate on a major matter, or is it about the nuts and bolts. At that stage it was Theresa May and she said that latter. Oh I said, well how you are going to define for example non-consummation. And her mouth dropped, her officials looked incredibly embarrassed. She said we’ll leave that to the courts, well I said that’s a bad way to legislate. The judges want to know what was the intention of Parliament, and I asked a couple more question along the same line, they hadn’t thought the thing through at all. You are going to bring about a major change to the social structure in this country without proper thought and consultation. We are against it as the Catholic Church and we are not going to change our view. Full stop. And we didn’t.

And how easy is it for you to live in accordance with your faith in this country in 2015?

Well now it has become so complex. Basically, no I’m comfortable living in this country as a Catholic. I suppose that I am in a slightly different position as an archbishop, given that I speak with some authority on behalf of the church. I am in a different position to most lay Catholics. We are still on the whole a very tolerant society and people can get jobs and so on. The difficulties come, usually through HRA and Equality Acts. For example our Catholic Children’s Societies, when they brought in adoption for gay couples. We said that we didn’t think that this was a good idea, forget about religious side of it, just psychologically and so on. All of the reports say that the best place to bring up children is in a stable marriage between a man and a woman. There were about 500 adoption societies in this country, 13 of which were Catholic. Our argument was it is not discriminatory if we say that we are not prepared to deal with gay adoption. There is plenty of scope, we think that this is morally wrong and not a good thing for society. Ask any psychiatrist, children need for full development a mother and a father. We know that marriages break down, there are many single parents, and I said in no way are we condemning them. That is reality and we must support them all the way. But to put it in as a constituent part of our social life we think is wrong. Then there was gay marriage, the questions now coming up about the role of conscience.

Nurses up in Scotland, there has always been a conscience clause for doctors about abortion. In terms of moral theology there is an issue about whether it is direct, compliance with doing something material of formal cooperation, I won’t go into that. The nurses argued that in conscience it would go against their faith to assist in an abortion, even at a fairly remote level. They initially won their case, but then the Supreme Court changed it all. I think that is highly dangerous and for doctors too. This is where you get a conflict in the thinking in our present society. Those in authority make these decisions but don’t think through the consequences, the unintended consequences.

When I was in Cardiff we had an issue with the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Faulkner (who now wants to kill us all off) over the Mental Capacity Bill. It was a good Bill in many ways but when we examined it we said there was a danger that could have euthanasia slipping it. We didn’t approach the government, they approached us and asked what the Catholic Church’s teaching is on end of life issues. So I told them and she was quite taken aback, then I copped on to what was happening. She said are you vitalists and I said no. You can’t deliberately finish someone off, but there comes a point in life where you can let go or let them let go. You mustn’t kill but needn’t strive officiously to keep alive. It’s very nuanced, she was very enlightened and listened carefully. So I said why are you asking and she said we’ve had a lot of letters, so I said oh from SPUC? She said oh you know them? Yes, I said the first thing is it is not a Catholic organisation, although there are a lot of Catholics in it and it’s not a registered charity either, that’s why they lobby. Now to me they are extremists, they tell me I am not upholding church teaching, but the reality is they don’t know what church teaching is. I’ve quoted the Popes, John-Paul II, you could hardly call him a heretic, he spelled all this out. But they will not accept it, I agree with what the Pope says as long as it suits me.

So there were discussions with the Lord Chancellor, his Treasury Counsel and Prof John Finnis at Oxford, brilliant mind. Lord Faulkner couldn’t get hold of the principle of double effect. I was concerned that the clause was too close to bringing in euthanasia. Charlie Faulkner said that we have no intention of doing that. But I said that is because you define euthanasia as a positive act, to put it crudely, filling up a needle with something and injecting it. But you can have euthanasia by omission, withdrawal of treatment when it shouldn’t be withdrawn, like feeding and hydration. But that doesn’t mean we’re vitalists. You talk to any palliative care doctor, like Laura Finley. There comes a time when it causes more suffering to the patient because they can’t absorb fluids or food. If you keep feeding them artificially through tubes they suffer much more. It is the body saying enough is enough. That is not euthanasia. Or when their pain gets worse and the dose of morphine is upped to deal with it, that my shortly reduce their life term.

And that is what Charlie Faulkner couldn’t understand. But if the doctor knows that surely he is committing euthanasia. But I said not. He is saying, what is my task as a doctor, it is to relieve the suffering of this patient. That means at this stage they need more morphine, that may reduce their length of life but that is not my major intention. He still couldn’t get it. So I said when Eisenhower sent the troops across the Channel on D-Day, are you saying that his intention was to kill off all of our troops? No. Well you are essentially. He knew many of those would be killed, but his intention was to rid Europe of that terrible evil. He had trouble grasping this and said he would write a letter.

I was furious with Faulkner’s letter when it was faxed through and he was trying to get me say that I accept all of this. I said leave it with me for half an hour to Charlie, we will have to do a little re-drafting, both of your letter to me and mine in reply. So, as soon as we got a conference call with John Finnis, he drafted it and they accepted it. They were determined to get this Bill through and I could understand why, it had been eleven years in the making and there was a lot of good stuff to protect vulnerable people. SPUC you see, their consistent line was that you are not accepting church teaching.

I knew that we had no power to stop the Bill, there was a huge majority and no mood in Parliament to stop it. The only thing we could do was to make sure that it was amended properly. Our bishops office ‘phoned up and asked whether I was watching the debate in Parliament. My name had been quoted, one person had asked who was running the country, the present government or the archbishop of Cardiff. I nearly went through the floor. Somebody else said that I obviously had my guns and tanks on the Lord Chancellor’s lawn. It was all about this letter. They’d given it to the Labour Back Bencher but not the opposition. This got out, there was a big fuss and I ended up on News Night. Paxman asked if I felt I had been manipulated and I said not at all, we’d been quite straightforward all the way through. The amendments we have suggested and which were accepted have made it a much better bill. It isn’t perfect but no legislation ever is. SPUC have never forgiven me for that and they will still, I could probably sue them for defamation but I can’t be bothered.

How does the RC Church view human rights? Has it contributed to the world’s understanding of them?

Well I hope so because it was Catholic philosophers who were involved in drawing up the European Convention on Human Rights. I think in the past we have not been quite so prominent in our support. The second Vatican Council there was a decree of religious freedom. As a church we’ve been more explicit in upholding basic human rights. But our understanding of what that means is different in some respects from that of the secular world. We would make a distinction between all having equal dignity, but it’s got too tangled up now with the notion of equality which has great merit but is taken too far. The other problem is the way the ECHR is being interpreted not only in Europe but here. There was a case with a prison riot some time ago, a prisoner on the roof refused to come down until he got a burger or chicken and chips or something. Not that to me is not what human rights are really about. Human rights are rights to life, marriage, job, education for children. There is confusion about what equality means and how to define it.
We had a conference in Cambridge about human rights, facilitated but not pushed as a Catholic thing. There were lawyers, theologians and philosophers. There was a great debate. The important they gave to the notion of human dignity and the difficulty in defining it. There was consensus on some things but not others. That is just one example of a contribution of the Catholic Church. It was done with the approval of the Vatican.

Do you think that human rights generally speaking which apply to everyone are a good thing for British society?

Absolutely, from a Catholic point of view, what is due to us in justice as people of equal dignity constitutes the spelling out in terms of an Equality. I think that it has been misinterpreted. Ordinary people in the street see the ridiculous conclusions of some courts and then dismiss the whole concept of human rights.

Can you think of any ways in which the Church has a practical influence on human rights in contemporary Britain?

Yes, a good example, human trafficking. My auxiliary bishop here Pat Lynch has been one of the prime movers in that. When we became aware that young women in particular were being trafficked. I suppose we all knew vaguely that it was going on, but it was coming to light. Pat looks after the migrants’ office in the bishops’ conference. We have always supported the freedom of people in this country and have had a good record of welcoming people. This came up and the bishops’ conference supported Pat, he got very involved with the Met Police. What developed from something reasonably local it became an international thing, went to the Vatican. Kevin Highland was the police representative at a conference here with police chiefs from all around the world. Our women religious congregations have got very involved in providing safe houses. Now the police when they had identified what they believe to be a house used for trafficking, will not go in unless they have two religious sisters will them. Because these poor lasses come from countries where nobody trusts the police, so their view of a police raid is that they are as bad as the lot keeping them there. They are more open to the religious sisters. That to me is a magnificent input by the Catholic church.

Do you think that human rights are generally respected by public bodies?

Yes, but it depends how you interpret them. Everyone has a right to a job, but I don’t have a human right to be a brain surgeon as I don’t have the ability to do. It has to be interpreted and applied with common sense and balance. It’s we call in moral theology the virtue of prudence. Take good advice and look at consequences before making a decision, so often that principle is not gone through in the process of applying human rights.

Does the State intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals?

Both and. Sometimes they interfere where they shouldn’t, others they are pretty good at it. The State is there to make sure that we live in a safe environment. Some health and safety rules are daft or unnecessary. To say that an employee needs three days training on how to use a three step ladder. Everything is a risk, it’s a risk when you get out of bed. There should be a balance. Ordinary folks again react, their common sense tells them that it is ridiculous.

When should the State interfere with individuals expressing their religious faith?

I think of the Vatican document on religious liberty. There should be freedom but there is a caveat, unless it leads to civil disorder or does harm. That was never spelled out in detail what it mean, was one of the most difficult documents to get through Vatican II.

Is that the Dignitatis Humanae?

Yes. Again, one would have to try and find examples. Faith schools for example, that’s been a big topic. We would say we have a right to have our children educated in accordance with the principles of their parents. There has been a lot of chat and attacks from opticians and academics. Having a faith school is discriminatory, and I would say yes but it is not an unjust discrimination. Most parents would not want their children in a Catholic, but the interesting thing is that our schools are heavily oversubscribed because they look at the State schools and see what the Catholic schools have and they want it. Human dignity is lived out, the fruit of what it means to live a good life. There is a difference between reasonable and unjust discrimination. If I discriminate when a man and a woman apply for a job, and reject the woman because she is a woman even though they are both able to do it, that is unjust discrimination. On the other hand, if there is a choice between two candidates and only one has the capacity to do the job, it is reasonable to discriminate on that basis, otherwise the business would go bust.

Do you think that living in a Parliamentary democracy makes it easier or harder to live in accordance with your faith? Is there any system which you would prefer?

Well certainly not a theocracy! We’ve seen the effects of that elsewhere, without going into the details. I think that the Parliamentary system which was developed since Magna Carta, is probably the best way of governing, it’s not perfect but better than other ways. We’ve learnt to be tolerant, respectful and create a just society.

Given that we live in a democracy, do you feel a personal responsivity to vote?

Yes, as a Catholic and a citizen. Being a Catholic motivates me to live well. As a citizen, I have a duty to vote, we should all be concerned for the common good, whether we are of faith or not. I have to judge who is best to govern this country. I will always make a judgement based on what I understand to be just society and that is shaped by my faith and the Gospels.

Is it good or bad that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see judges able to strike down law?

No I would not. There has been a long debate over the years about the role of the judiciary, we could be all night on that. Traditionally the major view has been that the job of the judges is to interpret the legislation passed by Parliament. If you get to the state where judges start making law, you get a dangerous and autocratic situation, because the particular views of a particular man or woman could be completely askew. Parliament is elected by the population, we vote so that they legislate.

Do you think that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority is problematic for minority groups?

I would say on the whole the tradition has been for centuries. Not to legislate too much, leave people the freedom to live their lives as they see fit, but always respecting others. That’s why we have law because it settles conflicts and so on. Now, I would say our democracy is a good example for the world. But that notion is beginning to creak a little. It will be interesting to see that the ordinary Muslim community here who do not agree with such awful things that are happening in France or the Middle East, nothing to do with their religion at all, the danger is that they are going to get side-lined. Some would say that they already are. I would say it was only a minority of people who would be violently anti or discriminatory against somebody because they’re a Muslim. Again, we’ve recently seen a rise in Anti-Semitisms, which we would condemn absolutely, they have as much right as anybody else to live in the country and express themselves. Proper tolerance of other people’s views has always been a central feature of our culture.

Do you think it is a problem that members of the House of Lords are not elected?

No. Now here I might be expressing my rather romantic views, but it is a system which has actually worked. It needs reform because there are too many in it. Electing a second house. I like the ceremony. The debates in the House of Lords are of a much higher standard than the Commons, the Commons is a bear pit. At the moment they are debating the Faulkner Bill in the Lords, on assisted suicide, or assisted dying, which is a euphemism. Now that has been a very good debate I think. In a sense it is a real example of democratic debate and we have to accept in the end what the consequence is.

What do you think of the Lords Spiritual? The claim by Church of England bishops that they speak on behalf of all people of faith?

The Church of England claims to be an all-enveloping church, whether you want it or not we speak for you, I’ve never agreed with that. The Church of England is by law the established church, personally I wouldn’t want an established church and you have to separate church and state, works in the US. Now our culture has changed so much with immigration, different cultures and faiths….the world religions. They should have representation there, that would be more fair and justice if voices from those groups was heard. The advantage of having the Church of England bishops is that, with respect to them, their view of Christian teaching comes through. As we do work with them on legislation and things to try and get a consensus. It’s come up recently, there was some question around parliament about whether it was right not to have representatives of other faiths. To the Jewish community should be represented given their needs and the tradition.

Do public authorities respect legislation?

Yes, they respect it, they might not like it. On the whole I can’t think of any instance of a LA blatantly ignoring the law.

What does your faith teach about people with power?

We distinguish between power and authority, often the two are mixed up which leads to confusion. From the point of view of the Gospels, having government, kings, those in authority, it should be an authority of service, not so that those in authority are privileged, become wealthy to the detriment of their citizens. Public office is an office of service for the common good of the whole of society. The Queen is a wonderful example of what that means, her devotion to duty and not interfering with the legitimate legal system, at her age going round meeting all these people, it must be an awful job. She is the model of what a king or queen should be, she is not seeking popularity she is doing her duty.

Are RCs appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

It varies a lot. I suppose in Parliament when you look at all of the interest groups we have a reasonable but not a vast number. When we vote we shouldn’t vote for someone just because they are a Catholic because they can still be daft as a brush. I vote for someone who is a person of integrity and who will serve his or her constituents. The issue to get people of real integrity into Parliament.

Is there enough distance between Parliament and the judiciary?

Yes, I’ve no instinct or feeling that they are too close or too far apart. I think it could break down as some judges seem to want to become more law-makers than appliers of the law. The judges don’t normally make political statements.

How do you think the exercise of power by Parliament should be regulated?

The freedom of press is important. The highest authority in the land though is Parliament, so it isn’t subject to anything. We of course, Thomas More, would say that there is a higher authority to which you lot too are subject and will find out later on perhaps. Democracy is not the perfect form of government, it is the least worst. With elections periodically, it’s a mistake in having a fixed term, because a government can’t continue if it’s obvious that public opinion is really against them. Because we’ve had a whole tradition of challenging unjust authority, think of Magna Carta, it is still in the roots of British people and of people coming into the country, because they absorb a little bit of that. But we tend to do it in a gentlemanly way, not with revolutions and blowing people up and all that sort of carry on.

How does the RC church in Great Britain seek to challenge decisions of Parliament it perceives as problematic?

Because we are citizens we have every right to challenge it, and because we have the setup of the Bishops’ Conference we have different departments which look at different areas of church life. Mine is citizenship and Christian responsibility. Our three priorities are marriage and family life, how to support that, vulnerable people, the sick mentally ill, poor, charitable output; life issues, our belief that life is sacred from first conception to natural end. Anything which attacks that sacredness, abortion, euthanasia. We would always get involved in those debates, I would speak on those issues on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference with due consultation if possible if need be. We are quite involved. We are involved in the Middle East from our international department, on the Gaza strip.

Do you think that public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of RC citizens?

My honest answer is no. As we’ve become a more secular society, many young people have no understanding of religion. If they have any perception it is from press conferences where religious people are made out to be fanatics. It is a difficulty we do find in negotiating with government. We find this with foreign priests coming here for experience, getting them a visa is difficult. Visa forms are for general employment. They have a category for minister of religion. They treat priests as employees. It isn’t prejudice, it is ignorance. They have no understanding of the church. When I was in Cardiff I had somebody from the Health and Safety executive ring up and ask how many branches we had. I explained we had parishes not branches and we weren’t Tesco, she had no clue what parishes were. Half way through I said we had to stop, because I couldn’t answer her questions without being misleading, the categories didn’t fit with churches. The questionnaire wasn’t fit for purpose with churches. From a religious point of view I haven’t experienced antagonism from people. Sometimes from MPs with faith schools.

Is it important to you always to act within secular law?

My general principle is this is the law of the land, and as a citizen I must obey it unless it is a matter of deep conscience. I am trying to think of an example. If there was a trial of a priest for child abuse, and I was called as a witness because I’d heard his confession, and I was ordered to reveal what he said, I would in conscience have to refuse. The law by implication accepts that, although someone is trying to get it accepted.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties?

Absolutely, that is very much part of the Gospel. Luke’s Gospel in particular, the portrayal of Christ’s ministry to the poor and unjustly treated. And Matthew’s Gospel, the portrayal of the Last Judgment. When did you see me hungry and thirsty…….as long as you did it to the last one of these you did it to me. That huge Michael Angelo thing of the Last Judgment. I always think that is what he is going to say to me when I get to the Last Judgment. Here it was the Church which founded hospitals and universities, educated people and looked after the poor. Of course Pope Francis is very much pushing that. People saying that he is making radical changes, well there is nothing radical in that, that’s the Gospel. It’s not about going to church on Sunday and then going home and getting on with what you want. That’s the witness we give, whether people accept the reasons is up to them.

Is the Rule of Law applied equally in the contemporary UK?

Difficult to answer a question like that accurately. I think generally yes. I enter a caveat there because of changes to legal aid. Poor people have a right to justice, but the restrictions to legal aid mean that some poor people will have no access to court. Now some of the judges are saying it.

Would you say that there are circumstances when public authorities should have greater than usual powers than private citizens, stop and search etc?

That can only be looked at in terms of making a prudent judgement. It is a difficult balance to keep. If the police haven’t got sufficient authority there would be complete breakdown in society, if they go over the top people can be unjustly treated, especially minority groups. There have been cases in the last few years where there have been stabbings in London and suggestions that if the victim was a black lad the police weren’t too interested in finding out how had done it. It’s very difficult to get to the truth as the press love sensation, parents are distraught and it quickly all becomes very antagonistic. It’s for Parliament listening to people with experience to decide the extent to these laws. It is coming up now with the internet and privacy. Sometimes I think those in authority don’t seek advice from experienced people on the ground.

Are there any legal rules which are restrictive or problematic for you personally?

Just for the moment, no I can’t. I get irritated with silly little legislation, but doesn’t affect me too much. I can’t think of any major area.

Is there anything else you wish to tell us?

Not immediately.

Archbishop Peter Smith was born in Battersea on 21st October 1943. He completed his secondary education at Clapham College and gained his degree (LLB) from Exeter University in 1966. He studied for the priesthood at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, and was ordained Priest on 5th July 1972.

His first appointment was as an assistant priest at St Francis, Stockwell (1972 – 1974). In 1977 he gained his Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD) from the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome and became Professor of Canon Law at St John’s Seminary (1977 – 1984). He was parish priest of St Andrew’s, Thornton Heath, (1984 – 1985) and Rector at St John’s Seminary from 1985 – 1995.
He was appointed as Bishop of East Anglia in 1995 and Archbishop of Cardiff in 2001. On 30th April 2010, the Holy Father announced that he would succeed Archbishop Kevin McDonald as the tenth Archbishop of Southwark.

Archbishop Peter is Vice-President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Since 1998, he has been Chairman of the Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Bishops’ Conference. His previous responsibilities have been as Chairman of the Catholic Truth Society (1993 – 2007) and Chairman of the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC) of the BBC and ITC (2001 – 2004). He was appointed Sub-Prelate and Chaplain of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 2002. He has been awarded Honorary Fellowships at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge (1997), the University of Wales, Lampeter (2004) and Cardiff University (2006).


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