Same-sex Marriage and an Uncertain Church
Niall Gooch FAITH Magazine January – February 2012
Niall Gooch places the relentless push for the civil recognition of "homosexual marriage" in the context of the marginalisation of the Church, and our unrequited need for coherent catechesis concerning the nature of man. Mr Gooch, Research and Education Officer at the charity Life, is writing in a personal capacity.
Next spring, the government will begin a consultation on introducing what is often referred to as "full marriage equality", that is to say legislating to allow two men and two women as well as one man and one woman to form a civil marriage contract. Given David Cameron's professed enthusiasm for the cause, and his government's near pathological desire for the approval of the Guardian-reading classes, it is inconceivable that it will not happen. The idea seems to be that Britain will have full same-sex marriage by the end of this Parliament. Hot on the heels of this bombshell comes the news that religious buildings will be allowed -though not (yet) compelled - to host civil partnership ceremonies from this December.
This is more confirmation, if any were needed, that the fight about sexuality is not going away. Not very long ago Ben Summerskill of the campaigning organisation Stonewall said "Right now faiths shouldn't be forced to hold civil partnerships, although in 10 or 20 years that may change." Chilling words, when you think about it. The coming battle is really several different battles: a struggle within the Church to combat ignorance, misunderstanding and dissent; a political fight to maintain the freedom of religion for Catholics; and a public policy battle to form the law of the land. And, of course, it is incumbent upon the Church to engage on all three of these fronts.
According to a survey published in September 2010 by the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of the British population who self-identify (to use the questionable modern phrase) as homosexual is around 1 \%. Another 0.5\% say they are bisexual, while 3\% refused to answer the question or said they "didn't know". If this survey is accurate, rather fewer than 5\% of the population experience some kind of attraction to their own sex. Even this is probably an overestimate, since there is no reason to suppose that all of those in the don't know/won't say column are same-sex attracted. Perhaps we may now see the end of the myth that 10\% of adults are homosexually attracted, a pseudo-fact with shady origins in the "scientific" "research" of that mixed-up mogul Alfred Kinsey
The Catholic Church's view on sexuality is likely to be a key rhetorical, legal and moral battering ram against the freedom of the Church in the UK. We are seeing a gradual ratcheting up of the pressure to exclude from public life anyone who holds "incorrect" views on sexuality. We face, in effect, a modern version of the Penal Laws, the legislation which for well over a century systematically excluded Catholics from public life by requiring them to publicly deny various parts of the Faith or to take Communion in the Anglican Church before they could hold certain jobs. This parallel may seem extreme; but such is the direction of our current culture. In many areas of society, Catholics will face the choice of complicity in grave wrongdoing, or dismissal.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that homosexuality has trumped abortion as the cause - or more accurately the pretext - for most anti-Catholic hostility in Britain. And this hostility is not just cultural or social. It is political. The state is increasingly hostile both to the expression of "incorrect" views on sexuality, and to people behaving in a way that accords with such views. The ruthless attitude taken towards the Catholic adoption agencies - co-operate or close, no room for compromise - was an early indication of this trend.
As the conservative writer Peter Hitchens once put it: "Having justly accepted that what people did behind closed bedroom doors was their business, we are now being ordered to step inside the bedroom and applaud. Or else." There is no right to conscientious objection for registrars who do not wish to register civil partnerships. Bed and breakfast owners who do not wish to let double rooms to same-sex couples have faced steep fines and official censure. There have been media reports of parents whose application to foster or adopt has been refused because of their moral views. Just a few weeks ago a Manchester man named Adrian Smith was demoted and docked almost half his salary for expressing, in a context entirely removed from his workplace, his opposition to religious buildings being usedfor civil partnerships.
It is already vital that Catholics at all levels of the Church are able to understand and articulate the Church's doctrine. There are pastoral, catechetical, social and political reasons to clarify and defend the Church's teaching. The Church must begin the work of challenging and transforming the culture, taking a bold approach to challenging the faulty anthropologies that plague the "debate" over sexuality and marriage in the UK.
GK Chesterton rightly noted that all arguments are theological arguments, that is to say, eventually all political and moral disagreements, if pursued for long enough, get down to the brass tacks of our basic assumptions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human individuals and human society. "What is man that you are mindful of him?" as the Psalmist asks (Ps 8v4). It is very much true of the marriage debate, which shines a bright light on some of the key anthropological fault lines in our culture.
Is our experience of bodies mere cosmic accident, merely contingent? Is our "true self" entirely separate from any physical attributes of our bodies? Are there such things as "normal gender roles"? Am I not only the master of my own life, but the very creator and arbiter of what counts as "I"? Why should I accept restrictions on my autonomy? The answers offered to these questions by our society's key opinion formers are very different from the true answers. Consider the increasing willingness of doctors to mutilate their patients in the name of gender reassignment, or the law which allows the sex recorded on birth certificates to be altered, or for mother and father to be replaced by parent one and parent two.
In some ways, of course, the Church has always existed in a hostile culture. Reading Newman or Chesterton, we see that even a century or two centuries ago, parts of the intelligentsia believed that Catholic dogmas were ludicrous, hateful, indefensible, brutal etc. In Newman's day there were men like T.H. Huxley; Chesterton faced H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell. But what has changed in 2011 is that the negative view of traditional Christian morality and metaphysics, once confined to a subsection of the intelligentsia, is now totally dominant among opinion-formers, legislators, academia and the state bureaucracies. Almost every significant lever of cultural and social influence is in the hands of people who are opposed to Catholic moral teaching. It is increasingly clear that they do notjust disagree, but disapprove. Civilised co-existence between the Catholic Church and a powerful secular state is beginning to look like a pipe-dream.
The attack on religious freedom is subtle. Catholic objections are met with replies along the lines of "It's not true that Catholics can't run adoption agencies, or work as registrars or GPs, receptionists or pharmacists. They can "believe" whatever they like, but they have to keep that belief private. They can't let that belief affect the way they act, and they certainly can't discriminate, or restrict the rights of others." This is a difficult argument to answer; not least because, like most Big Lies or heresies, it contains within it a kernel of truth, in the sense that the right to act according to one's conscience is not absolute. An extremely poorly formed conscience might, after all, tell someone that he ought to kill every left-handed person he met. It also appeals very stronglyto the sentimental and emotive spirit of the age, which demands that no one ever be offended or upset, and to the increasingly deep and ferocious opposition to Christianity.
The Church faces the task of making the more difficult and nuanced argument that the Catholic conscience should be respected on particular occasions, when the extent of the co-operation and the gravity of the moral issue at stake are such that forcing co-operation would be unacceptable. The problem of course is that, despite the rhetoric of pluralism, tolerance and dialogue, few secularists or gay rights activists are interested in staking out a reasonable compromise, or recognising the seriousness and rationality of Catholic objections. One suspects that this is largely because they recognise, on some level, that the sexual anthropology of our culture collapses into incoherence as soon as a little analytical pressure is applied, and so they resist genuine intellectual engagement,short-circuiting the debate by retreating into insults, relativism and disingenuous blather about Catholics wanting a theocracy.
To some extent, and this is a point sometimes missed, arguing simply for the limited freedom for the Church to act as she desires in her own limited sphere is unsatisfactory, because it appears to abdicate the Church's responsibility to proclaim the truth for all people in all cultures. The Church's argument is not that is wrong for practising Catholics to have sex outside marriage, or enter same-sex marriages, but rather that it is not truly good for any human being to do those things, regardless of that individual's feelings.
The idea that you cannot bring any objective ideas about metaphysics or the good of the human being to public debate is sometimes called "procedural liberalism", or in the words of the late, great R.J. Neuhaus, the "naked public square". It is a concession to the secularist assumption that arguments about public policy and state behaviour must appeal only to "public reason"; that they must be accessible to all, regardless of their religious or philosophical assumptions. Though atheist thinkers keen to tilt the playing field in their own favour cling to this idea, thinkers such as Neuhaus and Alistair Macintyre have demonstrated its shortcomings. They have shown procedural liberalism does not even work on its own terms. Pre-logical premises are, in the final analysis, a feature of anypolitical argument.
Procedural liberalism is cheating. It is like a cricket match where one side is docked two hundred runs before the game even starts. It begins debates about the human person and the structure of social relationships by presupposing a particular view of the human person and of what the structure of social relationships should be.
The Church has little to lose; why not then be bolder in the fight for truth? The Church has a beautiful, intricate, genuinely liberating vision to communicate. Even those who are fully loyal to the Magisterium can be cagey and reluctant about proclaiming this vision, and how it integrates with the fullness of God's self-revelation in Christ at the centre of creation. We needn't be. As noted above, the sexual consensus of our society is an incoherent, inhuman and (literally) sterile dead end. There are so many points where the full beauty and coherence of the Truth can challenge it. But we must understand the argument that we are taking on.
It cannot be reiterated enough that, based on our culture's assumptions about marriage, there is no real reason to exclude same-sex couples from this institution. Marriage is seen as the state setting its seal on a romantic/sexual/ emotional partnership between two autonomous individuals.
As one Telegraph columnist who is in a civil partnership wrote recently. "I love, and am loved. Simple." Would that it were as simple as that. For one thing, there are all sorts of loving relationships that are not marriage. There is the love between parents and children; the love between siblings; the love between friends. As a former editor of this magazine used to say. "You don't kiss your grandmother in the same way you kiss your girlfriend."
Personal choice and autonomy have become paramount. Marriage has gradually been emptied of objective meaning, although of course there are still relics in the marriage law of an older, fuller understanding (such as the requirement that a marriage be consummated if it is to be valid). Hence the powerful challenge from revisionists: if the generation of life is no longer an important component of marriage, then why should maleness and femaleness be essential?
Just as the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930 undermined a key part of the conceptual framework that made potentially fruitful heterosexual intercourse the only acceptable kind of sex, so the gradual degradation in the popular understanding of marriage makes it very difficult for many people to conceptualise the Catholic argument against gay marriage. Marriage, says the modern man, is for two people who love each other and want to make a public commitment of that fact. There's no reason why two men or two women can't love each other, so why can't they get married? And if it is objected that marriage is about children, well lots of "straight" marriages do not result in progeny, for various reasons, and those marriages are not invalid, are they? And in any case same-sex couples can adoptchildren.
The crisis of catechesis in the Church during the last forty years or so, about which so much has been written in these pages, has made it very difficult for ordinary Catholics to articulate the true view of marriage against this error-strewn account.
There is a vicious loop at work. Priests and others are reluctant to talk about controversial areas of morality, especially the "pelvic issues", with the result that the main influence on Catholic thinking on those issues comes from the surrounding culture. The people in the pew therefore become more hostile to any attempt to reaffirm the orthodox teaching, which further inhibits priests from speaking out and so prevents good formation. The result is that the vast majority of Catholics are vaguely aware that the Church disapproves of homosexuality, but have no idea why, and so are highly susceptible to plausible-sounding counterarguments. Worse still, the perception that the Catholic "policy" is irrational and prejudiced or has been "disproved by science" leads to the Church becomingfurther discredited. After all, if Lady Gaga can assert that people with same-sex attractions are "Born This Way", who is the Catholic Church to disagree?
It is, of course, of the utmost importance that the watchwords of the Catholic approach should be charity and clarity. We must be honest and forthright about the Church's teachings, but this honesty is a manifestation of an intense love and concern for our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction. After all, when the sound and fury of the debate has died away, this is about individuals who are children of God; it is about God's love for them, and His desire that they truly flourish in this life and for all eternity. We need to be honest, clear and compassionate about what God asks of those of us who experience homosexual attractions and what resources and friendship we offer to those struggling with issues of sexual identity. As the Evangelical writer Peter Ould has noted,the priority ought not to be changing one's "sexual orientation", something which has been shown to be of somewhat limited use, but changing the orientation of oneself towards prayer, holiness and godliness. In some people, this may mean they discover a vocation to marriage, but this is unlikely to be the case in general.
The response by the Scottish bishops to the same-sex marriage proposals has been a powerful start to a renewed proclamation of the truth. Movements like Catholic Voices, originally set up to defend the Holy Father during his visit last year, are increasingly prominent in the media, unashamedly but sensitively communicating the timeless teaching of the Church. The time for ignoring sexuality, or fudging the issue and trying to talk about something else, is past. The Church will be attacked whatever she does. Accommodation of, and acquiescence to, the sexual revolution has not filled the pews - quite the opposite. Why not then proclaim the absolute fullness of truth? The whole, glorious truth that helps us find identity not in our disorderly desires, but in our Saviour Christ - thekeystone. We have a faithful promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church.