Letting Go of the Right to Teach Catholicism
|Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine September-October 2008|
Joanna Bogle, a Catholic journalist, brings out the contribution that is being made by the Catholic unpreparedness to teach effectively on marriage and related issues towards making it illegal to do so.‘Being a Catholic isn’t just something for church on Sundays’ we are told, and simply because that’s a modern cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I think it captures one of the reasons why I try to propagate, through my chosen profession of journalism, the Church’s message on marriage and family.
I follow up stories concerning the latest research and statistics on marriage. I’m interested in social trends concerning marriage – both here in Britain, in Europe, and in the rest of the world. I take part in debates on the subject in the mass media. I talk about it in schools. I’m the editor of a paperback (“Engaged to be Married”, Gracewing Books, 2001) produced by a Catholic women’s organization and in use by RC marriage preparation groups.
So I’ve got a problem. I’ll come to the details of the problem in a moment. But frst I must establish the nature of the thing.
What is Marriage?
When I speak of marriage, I mean the lifelong bond of a man and a woman, as defined in the law of England and Wales and as established in culture, tradition, testimony and Canon Law by the Church.
The law sets the tone, establishes the basis of the social relationship of marriage and confirms its status in the community. I became aware of this in a particular way. When I married some 25 years ago, it was in a Roman Catholic Church but due to a falling-out between the local registration authority and our parish priest which had occurred a year or two earlier, it was necessary for brides from our parish to go to the local Register Office and arrange personally for someone to come along to the ceremony to witness the legal side of things and sign the relevant papers. I expected this to be a quick matter of a phone call – but discovered this was not the case. Marriage was taken seriously. On arrival at the Register Office I was ushered into a rather grand office and asked to take aseat.
“Now. Marriage under the law of England and Wales is the union of a man and a woman, exclusive of others, for life” said the kindly, rather serious official in front of me. “Can you confirm that you understand that?” And with a seriousness that I had not known I would feel, and a sense of solemnity about what I was considering undertaking, I answered “Yes.”
I appreciated then – and appreciate now – the solemnity with which the matter was approached. As he proceeded to explain to me what I needed to know (including the information that, when making my vows, I must speak loudly enough for the registrar, sitting in the front pew, to hear me!), I was very much aware that I was embarking on something that was of huge legal and social as well as personal and spiritual significance. I have never forgotten it, and that spring day in1980 is as etched on my mind as the later September day when Jamie and I made our vows together before God with all the glory of a Mozart Mass and bridal finery and hugs and the tears and fun and joy of a family wedding.
So what’s my problem? The problem is that by reiterating what I was told by that registrar, let alone what was stated in church and what I know and believe as a Catholic concerning marriage, I could, under certain circumstances, be in legal trouble.
As a Catholic journalist and commentator on these issues, I am – or have been up until now – sometimes invited into schools and colleges to take part in conferences and seminars on marriage and linked issues. You know the sort of thing: Religious Education lesson, or General Studies, or Sixth Form debating group…programme for the year…um…capital punishment… vegetarianism… hunting… smoking… oh, and something about sex and relationships of course…um… maybe that woman who was on the TV, she does the hard-line Catholic bit…
And up until now I have welcomed all such opportunities, indeed relished them.
A Beautiful Vision to Offer
“ By its very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered toward the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory… Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptised persons are sanctified by the sacrament”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1652, 2360).In explaining the Christian understanding of marriage – and the fact that it echoes the natural law written into the very fabric of our being, and undergirds the law of our country which governs how we are to live – I have been privileged to be part of some excellent classroom discussions, heard some forthright views, been touched by young people’s statements of their beliefs and hopes and aspirations.
But under the Sexual Orientation Regulations, effective from April 30th 2007 and passed with rather minimal Parliamentary debate despite a valiant attempt in the House of Lords to tackle them properly, it is going to be difficult for me to talk about marriage in schools any more, or even to be of much use as a visiting Catholic journalist. The new regulations expressly ban my doing anything which might make pupils of homosexual inclinations uncomfortable. Suggesting – let alone firmly stating – that marriage is, by definition, a bond between a man and a woman, is going to be rather too antagonistic. Affirming the Catholic Church’s position on other sexual relationships, including the homosexual one, is going to be trickier still unless I am prepared (which I’m not) to state that it ispossible that the Church is wrong and/
or that other opinions on homosexual activity are of equal moral worth and validity, and/or that I recognise that everyone has the right to affirm his or her own sexual desires in his or her own way.
“Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, Tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357). I have never actually quoted that in a school, and have no particular desire to do so. In general, I steer well away from the subject. I’m concerned to communicate the facts about the Church’s message on marriage, and/or my own involvement with this as a Catholic journalist. But if the issue comes up (“Well, what d’ya think about, like, gays, then?”) I amcertainly prepared to quote the Catechism and to explain that I support its teaching - and I’d probably link the section just quoted with the next, which says, among other things: “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition: for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catechism 2358). I might go on to add that such people are not just a “they” - for among such people are personal friends, people I enormously like and whose company I enjoy.
So what am I to do? Probably, I’m not going to asked to speak about marriage or relationships much more anyway. I have benefited from a desire in some - not many - schools to attempt to put “both sides” of the debate on relationships, so getting in someone who has links with the “pro-life”, Catholic, pro-family, or just vaguely Christian, network has been a way of offering a little more than the usual school-nurse-with-contraceptives deal. But it now seems likely this will cease, or gently dry up.
Will there be a test case, getting this whole thing examined in the courts? The stated idea is that people of various “sexual orientations” should not be denied “goods or services”. It was made clear to the Bishops that adoptive children are, in this instance, to be regarded as “goods and services”. Church adoption societies cannot, while remaining true to the Church, offer children to homosexual couples who by their lifestyle openly oppose Catholic teaching.
An Ecclesiastical ‘Hot Potato’?
The dioceses of Westminster and Lancaster seem prepared to maintain their integrity in this regard and leave themselves open to prosecution. Others seem to be allowing their agencies to close and the dioceses of Southwark, Arundel and Brighton and Portsmouth, appear to have decided to create a new society, to be called the Cabrini Society, which will take on adoption work, while being offcially a non-Catholic organization, not formally affiliated to the diocese.
The aim, presumably, is to be able to continue providing services and obey the law whilst assuring the authorities in Rome that no, no, this is in no way a Catholic group, it’s wholly independent, we can’t be responsible.
But as I have mentioned it is not only the adoption issue that is at stake. There are all sorts of other issues - including that of the right to teach about marriage, human relationships, the significance of our being male and female, and much more.
This is because “denial of goods and services” will, it seems, be linked to the notion that people must be free from any sort of harassment - which could include being told, in a classroom, that certain activities are “intrinsically disordered” or that a civil marriage with a person of the same-sex is simply not a marriage as understood by the Catholic Church.
The secular challenge to Catholic teaching, which has already had such a confusing effect upon our people, is reaching a new level. A continued lack of authoritative Catholic rebuttal of this redefinition of sexual morality and of any convincing reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on ‘gay’ and related issues will permit deeper malaise. At this present juncture a clear defence of the rights of all Catholics to speak and act in accordance with our teaching and a well-formed conscience is called for. At present, we are leaving it to the Evangelicals to speak out - as a recent tribunal case (on the right of a Christian to refuse to officiate at a same-sex “wedding”) has shown. But it is properly the task of the Catholic Church, and it needs to be done with love, courage, unity and a sense ofcommitment to the common good.
It is also a matter for concern that there has been inadequate discussion of this in the Catholic press. The Catholic Herald has run one or two news items but seems to prefer not to tackle the moral teaching issue, being busy with liturgical matters. The Tablet fails, at every turn, to see beyond “gay rights” myopia and to consider threats to magisterial teaching.
The Lay Vocation’s Need of Support
As a lay Catholic, trying to make my faith more than a Sunday thing, I frankly need and deserve this support and leadership from my Bishops. That is the sort of teamwork envisaged by the Second Vatican Council when it urged people like me to take up positions in community life and work to build a society and culture on sound human values.
Speaking in schools is only a small part of my work and journalistic talents can be fexible. I might decide to open up a new area of work by producing materials for weddings - helping with Orders of Service, choosing nice quotes for wedding-programmes or menus. If I am then approached by a lesbian couple and politely decline to do business with them, I could be prosecuted, even if I simply fnd some polite excuse and express it in a pleasant and friendly way, designed not to give offence. If I was helping to run a publication and we chose not to have an advertisement from some organization promoting homosexual marriage, there could be legal consequences. And so on and so on.
What do I do? What do any of us do? Shrug, I suppose, and admit that male/female marriage is now a personal thing. Something to be spoken of with confidence only within the confines of our church (they are protected under the law -an echo of the old Soviet legislation which confined all religious activity to church buildings, with penalties for anyone who took part in Christian activities beyond those walls). Something to be affirmed as a private belief, for those who like that sort of thing. Technically, for the time being at least, the law of England and Wales will continue to affirm that marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman - but will a registrar have quite the same confidence in uttering those words as that nice chap had in saying them to me a quarter of a centuryago? He has presumably long since retired, and I expect his successor has been fully trained in officiating at Civil Unions - homosexual marriage in all but name. A Catholic, according to a detailed and useful statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should not officiate at such a ceremony. But is it likely that any Catholic in modern Britain who tried to affirm his conscientious objection to such duty would get very far?
We all know the Church itself is compromised - sinners within its own ranks (those hideous clergy-abuse cases: no use in pointing out that the numbers were tiny, statistically insignificant compared to members of other professions -that’s not the point), disloyalty to Church teachings (“Who listens to the Pope anyway?”), confusion among teachers and pastors and even Bishops, a desire to ft in with the ways of the world, and not appear “right wing” or eccentric.
So where do we go from here? The Sexual Orientation Regulations were pushed through into law by a prominent Catholic, Secretary of State Ruth Kelly. She is a member of Opus Dei (I checked with their official spokesman at their London office). If Opus Dei tried to expel her, there would be an outcry: look at this terrible group, ganging up against a defenceless woman and interfering in the freedom of someone in public life to do whatever she believes is right!
Who will come to the defence of another public woman, standing in a classroom or some other public place, stating what she believes is right? Because if you’re prepared to do so, contact me. I’d like to go on defending marriage, and it would be useful to reflect about the best manner in which to do so.