Ignorance causes religious hostility, says Blair minister who now serves the Pope

Image credit: RMC zoom briefing

By Christopher Lamb

People of faith face hostility in public life as a result of religious ignorance, according to the former Labour cabinet minister Ruth Kelly.

Speaking during a discussion for the Religion Media Centre, Ms Kelly, a devout Roman Catholic, talked about the criticisms she faced in frontline politics for her own religious faith. In particular, she faced media scrutiny for her association with Opus Dei, a lay Catholic group vilified for its fictional portrayal in a film.

Ms Kelly was the youngest cabinet minister in history when, at the age of 36, she was made education secretary by Tony Blair and held a series of government positions in the Blair and Gordon Brown administrations.

This month she was chosen by Pope Francis to sit on the Vatican’s Council for the Economy, the equivalent of the Holy See’s financial board.

“There’s a very secular attitude and current in politics and current affairs in the UK,” Ms Kelly, 52, explained.

“In the UK I think there’s an undercurrent of hostility. There is huge ignorance actually, which is even more the case than overt hostility, and people just don’t seem to get religion. They don’t seem to recognise that it has a proper role to play in the public sphere. So that makes it very difficult to have a conversation with the public as a public figure in politics on issues of faith and religion and just you know, the there isn’t the space for it.”

Ms Kelly also served as minister for women and financial secretary to the Treasury but stood down from parliament in 2010, when she went to work at HSBC, and then as pro-vice chancellor at St Mary’s University in Twickenham.

Some of the hostility, she explained, was rooted in a lack of religious belief in Britain, but pointed to the influence that the Vatican, the headquarters of the world’s largest organised religion, plays on global politics.

“I think it [the Vatican] is an incredibly powerful galvanising force on issues across the world,” she said. “They may be more powerful in some parts of the world than in others — in the UK its influence has often been underestimated.”

In her new role, Ms Kelly is one of six new female members appointed to the Holy See’s financial council, the first time women have been given such a position. She said it was “urgent” for more women, and more non-ordained Catholics, to take on senior management positions in the church. This, she stressed, was key to tackling Vatican financial scandals, which the Pope had worked hard to eradicate.

“I think modern governance practices need to be introduced and I think we need to move on from the idea of clerics being all-important,” she explained, adding that there had been “too much reliance on clerics who don’t necessarily have that background and experience” in finance.

The Vatican board on which Ms Kelly sits has an overarching role over all financial activities of the Holy See, which she said needs to be managed with honesty “and trying to be as transparent as possible”.

During the conversation, she reflected on how she handled scrutiny of her membership of Opus Dei. In 2006, while she was in government, the film was released of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, in which members of Opus Dei attempt to prevent the character played by Tom Hanks discovering Vatican secrets.

Away from fiction, Ms Kelly stresses, Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God”) aims at helping people live out their faith at work. It is also behind the University of Navarra in Spain, one of the world’s highest-regarded business schools.

“I sought to find a way of living out my faith as lots of young people do and when I came across Opus Dei University. . . it provided to me a means of really living that out in practice without having to abandon what were my natural ambitions in the world of work and the world wanting to have a family and so forth,” she explained.

Today she talks openly about her Opus Dei membership, but declined to do so while in political office.

“It was one issue among very, very many that I was trying to deal with at the time and maybe I didn’t deal with it particularly satisfactorily but it wasn’t the completely dominating issue,” she said.

“I had no experience whatsoever of being asked about my personal faith by journalists and by people who are very curious and naturally curious, you might say, and so I wasn’t at all rehearsed.”

Ms Kelly admits she “didn’t give the best answers” but was following the “we don’t do God” line of Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications. She also felt people were “stepping over the line” by delving into her faith rather than asking about her views on policy.

Ms Kelly left government in 2008 after the bill introduced by Gordon Brown’s government permitting embryo experimentation.

She left the party after Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader. “It felt so wrong to me and I felt so much that it wasn’t my party any more, wasn’t what I had stood for in 1997 and subsequently, that I couldn’t put my name to that Labour Party,” she said.

But she added: “Keir Starmer is definitely a positive move . . . I mean it’s still very early days and it’’s not clear quite what direction he will go in. Do I still have the values of social justice that originally motivated and led to me joining the Labour Party? One hundred per cent. We definitely need a vigorous vibrant Labour Party in this country. So I wish Keir well.”