Catholic bishops in Scotland and Northern Ireland have joined their English counterparts in urging voters to follow their consciences in upcoming elections, in which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's governing Conservative Party looks set for a crushing defeat after 14 turbulent years in power.

"The principal task of society is to defend and foster human dignity in its laws and institutions," the Scottish bishops said in a late June pastoral letter.

"This General Election presents us with an opportunity to connect our voting to our Catholic faith and elect an individual representative who reflects as closely as possible our values and beliefs," the Scottish bishops said.

The letter, read in churches in the final stages of pre-ballot campaigning, said rising poverty and homelessness were affecting "many families of faith," while a widespread reliance of food and clothing banks across the country also represented a "damning indictment."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's bishops said many voters believed the British Parliament in Westminster should "play no part" in Irish affairs, but warned its decisions still "impact the lives of every person here in a fundamental way."

"As pastors … our deepest concern today is not just the important social and economic issues that have dominated the pre-election discourse. We are concerned about a much more fundamental and underlying risk to our society’s well-being -- a growing breakdown in social cohesion, and hope!" the bishops said in a statement.

"If our political leaders do not give people concrete reasons to hope, if they do not hold out a vision for our society that embraces the basic needs, dignity and inherent worth of all, it should be no surprise that society fractures, and confidence in politics is eroded."

Sunak called the election 19 months after becoming the United Kingdom's first non-white head of the government, and the youngest for two centuries, following the scandal-ridden leadership of Boris Johnson and brief tenure of Liz Truss, who quit amid economic strife after just a month.

The former investment banker -- a practicing Hindu who took his oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture -- adopted a technocratic approach, achieving a degree of stability after prolonged crises over Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

But with cost of living and energy supply problems worsened by strikes, rising crimes rates, injustices and pollution scandals, as well concerns about mass immigration, Keir Starmer's opposition Labour Party has pulled ahead on a promise of change, with other parties from the Liberal Democrats to right-wing Reform also eating away at Conservative support.

Catherine Pepinster, former editor of The Tablet Catholic weekly and leading commentator, thinks Catholics will face tough choices.

While those from working-class or migrant backgrounds traditionally voted for Labour, many switched support to the Conservatives in 2019, only to face disappointment over the party's liberal, hands-off approach to issues from abortion to gender ideology, as well as its failure to stem what many see as an intolerant "woke" culture in the media and public institutions.

Practicing Catholic politicians are now dispersed across the electoral map -- from the hard-left rebel George Galloway to the ultra-conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg.

"As demographic patterns have changed and Catholics become better integrated, all parties have had to appeal to them," Pepinster told OSV News.

"But on conscience issues such as abortion, we naturally want to know about the character, background and beliefs of candidates, not just about their parties. This has become increasingly difficult when all you get is a leaflet through the door or some social media comment," she said.

Most likely sensing the need for Catholic support, Sunak's government has shown signs reconsidering some liberal causes.

In late April, it pledged to lift restrictions on admissions to faith schools, including the 2,100 (9% of the public total) owned by the Catholic Church, which take in a more diverse mix of pupils and usually outperform state schools.

It also instructed state schools to stop teaching the "contested theory of gender identity," and promised to allay what Sunak called the "current confusion around definitions of sex and gender."

This may have owed something to a lengthy April "pastoral reflection" by the Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales, which called on church schools and parishes to uphold traditional biblical teachings on human identity and sexuality.

Life issues feature among the seven priority areas set out on the bishops' website to guide voters, which include criminal justice, taxation and family life, education, environmental issues, migration and asylum, as well as peacebuilding and disarmament.

"Gospel values inform how we look at the world as Christians. These values can also offer a different way of looking at politics, a way that puts the common good before self-interest," the bishops' website notes ahead of July 4 elections.

"We are not merely the passive recipients of politics but active citizens. An election is the best time for us as Christians to speak out, to get involved, and to lead," the bishops' noted.

Although other Christian denominations, including the official Anglican Church, have since also pitched in with voter advice, Timothy Guile, chairman of the English Catholic History Association, thinks an authoritative Catholic voice has been particularly important.

"Catholicism has been part of the social and cultural mainstream here for a long time, and it remains a key source of spiritual and ethical guidance," Guile told OSV News.

"Although Catholics are divided in their party preferences, many hold strong moral-views issues -- they expect personal honesty and are wary of politicians who spout things not in keeping with Catholic teaching."

Parallel controversies have flared to the north in Scotland, where the Catholic Church, has clashed with the Scottish National Party's pro-independence government over legislation to permit physician-assisted suicide and outlaw prayers outside abortion clinics.

When a government-backed Hate Crime and Public Order Act was enforced April 1, making it a potential criminal offense to question a person's transgender identity, the bishops warned it could outlaw passages from the Bible, as well as sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on sex and family life.

In their June pastoral letter, Scotland's bishops reminded Catholics that society depended on "the building block of the family."

They also warned of a "creeping intolerance towards religious belief," with "politicians and citizens finding it increasingly difficult to be true to their faith" in face of "prejudice, intolerance, abuse or violence."

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's bishops said Catholic social teaching offered reflection on key concerns -- from the "unprecedented crisis in mental health" and "epidemic levels of substance abuse," to child poverty and threats to life.

Guile, the Catholic historian, thinks the preelection statements have unusually highlighted common concerns among bishops across the U.K.'s four nations, where Catholicism has traditionally differed sharply in its historical and cultural expression.

Although the most recent 2021 census suggested Christians had now fallen below half the population of 68 million for the first time, with 37% of citizens claiming "no religion," interest in faith remains strong and extends well beyond dry data on declining church attendance.

"Although our own bishops won't say anything too controversial, they're at least reminding people of Catholic values," Guile told OSV News.
"The main inhibitor to Catholic outspokenness today isn't lingering anti-Catholic feeling, but rather cancel culture, which denies freedom of speech to those daring to raise their heads and publicly defend a Catholic position," the historian pointed out.

With legislation pending across the U.K. to allow assisted suicide and even more permissive rules on abortion, already at record levels, church leaders hope Catholic voters will be guided by their consciences.

Pepinster, the former Tablet editor, thinks even more could have been done, at a time when many fear a shift toward a less representative, more elitist American-style form of democracy, based on central figures and big party machines. She's still hopeful things may change.

"After the terrible corruption of recent years, it's been gratifying to hear talk of a return to politics based on service," the Catholic commentator told OSV News.

"Even if these are electoral slogans, they could reflect a genuine recognition that greater engagement is needed with real social issues, not just politics at the top."