Cardinal O’Brien, launching his campaign against Scottish gay marriage, is talking through his red hat.

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.” 

 – News.

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.

Related Posts:

How “Natural Law” Supports Gay Marriage, Gay Adoption.

Church “Bullying” & the Great Persecution: Some Historical Context.

Prejudice, Discrimination Are NOT Catholic Values

Yes, It Moves: The Catholic Church No Longer Revolves Around the Vatican

 New Books Explore Homosexuality and the Church

 Cohabitation, and the Church’s Redefinition of Marriage

 The Catholic Laity/Bishops Disconnect on Sexuality, Homosexuality

 Confused English Bishops, and the Catholic “Redefinition” of Marriage.

 Same Sex Lovers in Church History


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5 comments for “Cardinal O’Brien, launching his campaign against Scottish gay marriage, is talking through his red hat.

  1. Mercredi
    September 8, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Brilliant post.
    I’m really glad to hear the Scottish people in general welcome same-sex marriage :)
    Pity about the Cardinal, but it’s not exactly unexpected… I do hope though that those in power understand how inaccurate his ideas about the traditions and history of marriage, as well as about “human nature”, are. 

    Also, if you don’t mind, I have a quick question about John Boswell. I’ve read one of his books (not sure if he’s written more), the one about same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe. I was just wondering what your opinions on his book’s authority are. I’ve heard a few claims that his research is a load of rubbish, or that he simply misunderstood the true meaning of those ceremonies, etc etc. I understand these opinions too do not come from an un-biased source however; they’ve all come from anti-same-sex marriage Catholics, but I found his book to be very convincing. 

    Sorry for the long post, but thank you so much for this website! :) 

    • September 8, 2011 at 11:59 am

      Thanks for your interest and kind words, Mercredi.

      Your question about Boswell is an important one, as he is definitely a controversial figure, especially with his book on same-sex unions, which is the one you have read. In my view, some of the objections are based on a simple misreading of what he actually wrote: Boswell himself is careful to insist that the rite he describes is not one of marriage – which is why he calls the book “Same-sex unions”, and not “same-sex marriage”, and also why I point out that opposite-sex unions of the comparable time are also not the same as modern marriage. It is probably true even so that Boswell overemphasises the similarities of these unions with marriage – but the fact that the rite existed is now generally accepted. The important point is that the nature of marriage has been constantly changing (“redefined”) in all periods, and varies from one culture to another around the world.

      His earlier book, “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” has also been criticized for his anachronistic use of the modern word “gay” in describing historical periods when it really is not appropriate, and for a rather too rosy interpretation of the church response to homosexuality before the Inquisition, but it remains a fundamentally important contribution to the history of homosexuality and the church. Some secular gay activists object to his alleged “whitewashing” of the church, some conservative Christians object to his conclusions that homosexuality is compatible with Christian belief and tradition – but the book is crammed with important historical details, which have not been significantly disputed.

      The key feature of Boswell’s work is that before his books appeared, the subject hardly featured in academic work. In the thirty odd years since, there has been a flood of other works dealing with it, and none have been able to ignore his facts – even where they have disagreed with his interpretations.

      For general readers, a more practical difficulty is that they are not easy to read – bristling with footnotes – but they are well worth persevering with.

  2. Martinjp
    September 8, 2011 at 11:36 am

    There is an interesting string on the Thinking Anglicans site, responding to the news that the Dean of the Church of reland Cathedral at Leighlin, Co. Carlow, had anounced his civil partnership status. One comment said: “My sorrow is that Tom Gordon is defining his
    partnership as ‘not a marriage’. I can see prudential reasons for this –
    but …” Another correspondent replied: “When D. and I asked to have our gay relationship blessed in our
    church ten years ago the archdeacon gave permission, but said that in
    the liturgy we create we “must not be seen to ape the marriage service”.

    Looking back I think that was a real gift to us. Rather than adopting
    a given set of meanings and liturgical traditions from the marriage
    service we had to ask ourselves what is a gay same sex relationship, and
    what are we doing in church. We came up with the idea of a covenant and

    Same sex relationships are equal to marriage, but different. Like
    marriage they should be celebrated and marked in church with Christian
    liturgy. That church liturgy should be the act that creates the legally
    valid bond, just as a marriage service does, rather than the simple
    blessing of a previous register office marriage/civil partnership.

    But same sex covenants are not marriages. They have their own history
    and their own liturgical tradition. To conflate them with marriage
    would be to miss out on so much.

    Those of us who reject the concept of ‘same-sex marriage’ would heartily endorse S’s comments.

    PS – Mercredi might like to read Alan Bray’s ‘The Friend’ for some critical appreciation of Boswell’s work, as well as Mark Jordan’s ‘Blessing Same-Sex Unions’ both published by University of Chicago Press.

    • Mercredi
      September 8, 2011 at 10:21 pm

      Thanks for the tips! :) 

  3. Mark Davenport
    July 3, 2013 at 3:29 am

    Just reading this now. Food for thought for sure. Guess Cardinal O’Brien isn’t a spokesman for “traditional marriage” anymore, now is he?

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