Today, Ruth Kelly announced her resignation from the cabinet. We look back on her career and ask whether a woman with such strongly-held views informed by an extreme brand of Catholicism should ever have been allowed into high office in the first place.
Ruth Kelly [British Secretary of State for Transport] is a very frightening woman indeed. In Britain, we like to shrink in melodramatic horror at US politics, outraged as we are by the thought that a creationist could possibly run for high office there as a credible candidate. In Ruth Kelly, though, we had a minister of our own who's deeply-held religious views seem far more sinister than those of Sarah Palin or George Bush.
Kelly has long been known to be a practising Roman Catholic. Tony Blair, of course, was a closet Catholic during his time in office (despite sending his children to the prestigious London Oratory Catholic school and having a wife who wore her fervent Catholicism as a badge of honour, Blair, in the words of his spin doctor Alistair Campbell, didn't 'do God'), and plenty of other cabinet ministers also hold strong religious beliefs. None, though, do so quite as vehemently as Ms Kelly.
It became widely known that Kelly was a member of Opus Dei
, the fundamentalist Catholic organisation. This menacing and secretive society was made notorious its role in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code
. Even though its portrayal in this work of fiction was probably a little hyperbolic, the extreme beliefs of Opus Dei
, which certainly extend to practicing the mortification of the flesh (a typically Catholic practice of inflicting physical pain on oneself through whipping or cutting the skin), are well-attested, as is the society's high-level involvement in and role as an apologise for the extreme right-wing dictatorship of Franco in the 1960s and 70s. Other, more extreme allegations, which include child abuse, extreme misoginy bordering on slavery and the use brainwashing techniques are harder to confirm. For some reason, though, the organisation seems to attract a barrage of criticism even from within the Catholic Church.
Regardless of whether Opus Dei
is actually as sinister as it appears to be, the idea of a cabinet minister with a direct line to the prime minister of a liberal, secular democracy being a member of such an organisation seems rather disturbing. There are no laws in Britain which dictate that a minister's religious convictions must be kept separate from their decision-making processes. On the whole, though, even the more devout in government like to keep their private, spiritual beliefs and their professional, governmental decisions apart. Any act that could be portrayed as pursuing a religious agenda doesn't tend to be good for business.
Not so with Ms Kelly, though. Just as Blair felt that his invasion of Iraq constituted a mission from God, Kelly regularly let her deeply-held beliefs in extremist Catholicism cloud her judgement. Kelly famously toed the line with regard to the Catholic church's dogmatic and immoderate points of view on both gay rights and stem cell research. Unbelievably, she was made minister for Women and Equaliy. In this role, she refused to comment on whether she regarded homosexuality as a sin and seemed distinctly uncomfortable when pressed on the issue. The support she received from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, made it abundantly clear that her bias was not without its supporters.
The media furore over Ms Kelly's religious convictions often eclipsed the more alarming fact that her grandfather, Philip Murphy, was a terrorist. Having been quartermaster of the West Fermanagh IRA Battalion in Ireland in the 1920s, Murphy was certainly involved in attacks on British military personnel and civilians in Ireland and, once captured, was detained until 1924. Ms Kelly's strong Irish Republican connexions make it all the more astonishing that she was given so high-profile a role within the government of the United Kingdom. She was, perhaps fortunately, never pressed publically on where her sympathies lay in the Northern Ireland conflict. Given her background, though, it surely wouldn't be too hard to guess.
Today, Kelly announced her resignation from the cabinet to spend more time with her large family. In her absence, we would to well, in Britain, to reflect on her career. We exclaim in horror at the thought that Islamic sharia law might one day be integrated into our own legal system; we scoff at the ignorance of an American political system that allows an openly anti-gay, pro-life creationist to run for vice-president; but we are too frequently blind to the equally disturbing reality on our own doorstep. Throughout her career as a minister, Ruth Kelly has quite blatantly had a religiously motivated, highly controversial agenda to follow. As such, the fact that she is no longer in a position to influence thinking at the very top of government must come as a relief to most right-thinking people.
Ben Snook is a writer and researcher. Although he lives in London, he is currently in the final stages of a PhD in tenth-century history and literature at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His collected thoughts can be found at Your Correspondent Writes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2008 Ben Snook