In Scotland, the battle lines are drawn on gay marriage. Opinion polls show that the voters want it, and all the major political parties have declared in favour. The government has announced a formal consultation process – and predictably, Cardinal Keith O’Brien has made clear his intention to throw the resources of the Catholic Church behind the forced against.
Cardinal O’Brien suggested that supporters of gay marriage wanted to “rewrite human nature” as he appealed to MSPs to oppose the proposed reform.
He said: “The Church esteems the institution of marriage as the most stable building block upon which any family can rest.
“The view of the Church is clear, no government can rewrite human nature; the family and marriage existed before the State and are built on the union between a man and woman.
“Any attempt to redefine marriage is a direct attack on a foundational building block of society and will be strenuously opposed.”
As with so much of the commentary coming from the Vatican claque, this is in part misinformed ignorance, and in part simply confused thinking.
The cardinal is correct that family and (informal) marriage existed before the State bestowed legal recognition. But civil marriage, in the form of state recognition, also existed before the Church took any interest in it. The Catholic interest in marriage, and its recognition as a sacrament, is a relatively late development in human history. Ignoring this is just confusion. Invoking “human nature”, with its implication that humans are naturally drawn to the opposite sex, is just wilful ignorance – and conflicts with the orthodox Catholic teaching that doctrine should take account of the findings of science and reason.Empirical evidence from the biological and social sciences consistently shows that a homoerotic attraction is entirely natural and enduring. Taking account of human nature as it is, and not as Catholic apologists fondly imagine it, should lead to support for same-sex marriage, not opposition.
Similarly, linking the existence of family and marriage before state recognition with its modern form as a union between a man and a woman displays woeful and misleading ignorance. Every society that I am aware of, in every age and every region, has some form of institution comparable to what we call marriage, in which individuals form households and raise children, but marriages “between a man and woman” are only one form of marriage among many. Other forms that are known include marriages between one man and several women ( a common pattern), or between one woman and several women; or where men and women live apart from each other, in all-male and all-female groups; or where males were expected to take male partners (as in ancient Crete), or formed same-sex partnerships while young, and married women later, or married women to produce and raise children, but formed emotional bonds with men.
Even where marriages are based on opposite-sex partnerships, there are divergences from Cardinal O’Brien’s conception. Catholic understanding of marriage presupposes that there exists mutual and informed consent, else the contract is deemed invalid and can be annulled. In many societies, in history and in some regions today, marriages were or are still arranged by the parents, or by the groom and the parents of the bride. (This is why it can be argued that Biblical marriages were between men – a groom, and the father of his intended bride).
The insistence on marriage as only between a man and a woman is not even fully consonant with the churches own tradition. As Boswell and others have shown, there once existed a tradition within both Eastern and Western rites of the church of liturgical rites for church blessing of same - sex unions, and from the earliest centuries to the nineteenth, there have been examples of same -sex couples buried in shared graves inside church buildings – just as many conventionally married couples have been. It is undoubtedly true that these early same-sex unions were not comparable to modern marriage – but then, nor were the early opposite-sex unions.
The modern opposition of the Catholic establishment to marriage equality has no foundation at all in any sound understanding of either human nature and sexuality, or of the history and social anthropology of marriage. As John Boswell and Mark Jordan have shown, it arises from a culturally and historically limited form of marriage, rooted in a homophobic religious ideology that was largely invented in medieval times. That in turn was a response to rising secular intolerance, and justified by flawed and selective misreadings of a handful of biblical texts.
In the modern world, we have a sounder understanding of both human nature, the history of marriage, and of the relevant scriptural passages than we once did. Fortunately for Scotland, the Catholic Church (that is, the as a whole, including all of us who collectively form the Body of Christ, not just the officially designated spokesmen) understand this. Most Catholics, in the UK, the US and elsewhere, know that the orthodox Vatican line is misguided, and support LGBT equality – including marriage equality.
Cardinal O’Brien is out of step with the Catholic Church. His attempts to impose misguided religious ideology on Scottish civil law must be resisted.