Card-carrying Catholics

Catholics are being encouraged to carry a 'faith card'. Could it catch on?

I'm intrigued by the proposal, revealed yesterday by the Telegraph's Martin Beckford, to issue all one million regularly practising Catholics in England and Wales with credit-card-sized "faith cards". One side carries a quote from the recently beatified John Henry Newman, while the other lists six things that good Catholics ought to do (number one is to share the faith, incidentally) and carries the injunction, "in the event of an emergency please contact a Catholic priest."

I assume that this refers to a medical emergency, rather than to a sudden crisis of faith or to a difficulty encountered while trying to explain the finer points of the doctrine of transubstantiation to an incredulous atheist.

Launching the scheme, Bishop Kieran Conry put the card in the context of modern society, in which it is common to carry cards "which reflect something of our identity and the things that are important to us." But it would surely have appealed to the fifteenth century Franciscan preacher St Bernardino of Siena, who used to carry around a plaque inscribed with an IHS logo, the better to impress congregations with reverence for the name of Jesus. He's now the patron saint of advertising.

According to the bishop, the card will remind Catholics of their faith and encourage them to share it. It isn't, though, a membership card. There's no suggestion that it would be necessary to show it before receiving communion in an unfamiliar church, for example. Perhaps they're missing a trick, there. Given the complexity and specificity of the rules surrounding who is and isn't permitted to receive the sacrament, it might be considered surprising that the system continues to function largely on trust. A smart card would provide an excellent way of keeping track of which Catholics were in good standing with the Church, as well as preventing Anglicans from surreptitiously availing themselves of communion, as Tony Blair used to do while he was prime minister.

Nor is it, yet, a loyalty card, although I can imagine enterprising Catholic-friendly businesses offering discounts to its bearers. It's not uncommon, after all, for some clubs and societies to negotiate discounts on behalf of their members, or universities on behalf of their alumni, while many businesses spontaneously offer discounts to students, pensioners or local residents. At a time when the Catholic Church is seriously worried about falling congregations (the pope himself warning the other day that "in large parts of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame that has no more sustenance") some such incentive scheme might prove useful.

More seriously, it was interesting that bishop Conroy chose to make the point about identity. The Catholic Church doesn't have an obvious marker of faith identity, like the hijab, turban or the Jewish skullcap. There's the crucifix, of course, but not all cross-wearers are Catholic, or even Christian, and wearing one has never been a religious requirement. The bishop claimed that carrying a faith card "takes courage, it signals to others, every time you use your wallet or purse, that you believe in God, that your life has a purpose." But unless you choose to wave your wallet in front of people's noses, the message is only being communicated to the bearer. Or to a thief.

It's as a spur to evangelism (or evangelisation, as Catholics prefer to say) that the "faith card" is most likely to make an impact. I was somewhat reminded of the five-point pledge cards that the Labour Party distributed at the time of the 1997 election. Indeed, there's a space on the card in which the believer is supposed to inscribe his or her name, turning the front of the card into something of a to-do list. In that context, it's worth noting that "love my neighbour as myself" is at number four, behind not only sharing the faith but also praying and attending the sacraments. Jesus himself put it second, just behind loving God (which on this list is nowhere).

And why six principles of Catholicism? Perhaps just to go one better than the Muslims, who since the seventh century have made do with Five Pillars of Islam. They would fit nicely on a card, come to think of it. Now all we need is something for card-carrying atheists to carry.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle