(Reader Chris Morley has sent me by email extensive links and useful thoughts on the British bishops and gay marriage. When I suggested that he might write them up himelf, he took up the suggestion, and sent this useful contribution, for which I thank him most heartily):
Catholics need to follow their Informed Consciences using their common sense and life experience, rather than let themselves be bullied by Bishops huffing and puffing about the government’s plans to allow civil gay marriages.
Heterosexual marriages in Britain remain unharmed by the 40,000 civil partnerships formed in the last six years. Ten countries already have civil gay marriages which helps strengthen relationships and make society better integrated.
No churches or priests will be allowed or compelled to hold any civil gay marriages: these would only take place in registrar’s offices, hotels and the like, all conducted by Registrars.
However despite this benign reality, this Sunday all Catholic congregations in England and Wales will hear a Bishops’ pastoral letter condemning the government’s plans for civil gay marriages, from Westminster Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Southwark Bishop Peter Smith.
‘Madness’, like ‘legalising slavery’: Cardinal O’Brien
Last Sunday, the Scottish Cardinal O’Brien rather lost his head in the Sunday Telegraph, when he said civil gay marriage is ‘madness’, ‘a gross subversion of a universally accepted human right’, a ‘redefining of reality’ and that supporting this is like ‘legalising slavery’ and will ‘shame the UK in the eyes of the world’. This bullying and disrespectful over-the-top language persuades no-one, especially when the Catechism teaches all Catholics to treat gay people with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’.
The two London Bishops are more restrained but hardly persuasive. They use a lot of fine sounding phrases but look closely at their letter and they are wrong on facts, thin on logic, evidence and good sense.
Gay marriage is in the news and Catholic pulpits because the government will ask the public later this month for comments on their plans for gay civil marriage equality, following our six years with civil partnerships.
Bishops caught between a Rock and a Hard Place
Catholic Bishops find they are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is defending the Vatican’s strict teaching that homosexuality is ‘intrinsically evil’ and all gay Catholics must lead completely sexless lives without ever having a loving partner by their side. The hard place the Bishops are stuck up against is the reality that most Catholics already know lesbian and gay people, even if only through soap operas or as celebrities, and most Catholics can see gay people are ordinary human beings sharing the same desire to live as a loving couple like almost everyone else.
Opinion polls tell us most people in Britain, including Catholics, want marriage equality for gay people. Support for gay marriage has increased year by year in different polls: 54% in 2004, 55% in 2008, and 61% in 2009. A casual online poll in the Daily Telegraph accompanying an interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols in March 2012 saw 81% vote in favour of gay civil marriage equality. In 2010 the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found a clear majority of Catholics want to see gay marriage equality.
So the Bishops are trying to sell Catholics an anti-gay equality message that most Catholics reject and instinctively feel does not fit the loving and inclusive Gospel message of Jesus.
Following Informed Conscience first
Our Catechism instructs us that we must do what our individual Informed Conscience tells us, even if the Church teaches something else. Informed Conscience is already followed by the vast majority of heterosexual Catholics who make up their own minds and use contraception, because for them that is the right thing to do, despite what a Pope said back in 1968. Catholics realise the Church, Pope and Bishops are not infallible or always right on sexual matters; Catholic lay people have first hand life experience in sexual matters, unlike our not always celibate, sometimes child abusing, clergy. Are the Bishops right according to your conscience to reject civil marriage equality for all?
It’s bad because Bishops say so
The Bishops don’t properly explain their reasons or produce convincing evidence to back up their claims that allowing civil gay marriages will ‘gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. … There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for procreation and the education of children. … It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved.’ The Bishops’ letter is now on the Catholic Herald website and even Catholics who don’t want gay marriage complain that the Bishops’ letter is poor. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/03/06/full-text-english-and-welsh-bishops-letter-on-same-sex-marriage/
The Bishops tell us the purpose of marriage is for ‘procreation and the education of children’. Do they mean older or infertile couples aren’t properly married or shouldn’t marry? Where do adoption and fostering fit in? Some gay couples parent and raise their own children, others foster and adopt, often very well for some very demanding children. Limiting their view of marriage to just procreation and child raising is unkind to some heterosexuals and gay people alike.
They ignore one of the purposes and main reason most people marry, which is for the unity and mutual loving life-long exclusive support of each other. Why do the Bishops ignore this crucial part of marriage? What’s so different for gay couples also wanting to commit to a faithful loving life-long relationship? Don’t gay people deserve the support civil marrriage would offer to sustain their relationships in a sometimes hostile society?
Telling us that gay marriage means ‘there would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female’ is just empty words when the existing heterosexual marriages will provide as much ‘complementarity’ as before.
Marriage is unchanging
The Bishops tell us that marriage is natural and unchanging but this is nonsense, as historians and people who have read the Bible know. Marriage began as a property transaction when the woman and a dowry were ‘given away’ by her father to the husband, these marriages were usually arranged and intended to produce ‘legitimate’ heirs. In Old Testament times many biblical men, including King David and King Solomon, had multiple wives and concubines – a harem. But polygamy later became wrong and a mortal sin. St Paul told the early Christians that it is better not to marry at all and to prepare for the (imminent) second coming. Marriage didn’t even become a sacrament until the 12th century. Only in the 19th century did the idea of a companionate marriage become common. Marriage means very different things in other countries and cultures – many Muslim countries allow polygamy. Remember that just a few decades ago in the Southern States of the USA and apartheid South Africa marriage between different races was completely illegal.
But the Bishops wrongly pretend the current view of marriage is natural and hasn’t changed and expect us to believe their delusion.
Catholics marriage rules for all
In our 21st century democracy the law on civil marriage must meet the needs of the rich variety of people who live here and have all sorts of beliefs or none. Despite this, the Bishops want our civil marriage law to stick with the Catholic traditions for religious marriage. ‘Catholic Bishops are right about marriage’ isn’t a good enough reason to stop legal reform in a democracy. This really won’t convince many Anglicans, Quakers, Sikhs, Reform Jews, Muslims, or people of no religion. It won’t persuade MPs either.
The Bishops’ letter plainly tells us they accept civil marriages between men and women. This can only mean they agree Parliament has the right to make and change the laws for civil marriage. Yet the Bishops want to impose their religious views on civil marriage for everyone else.
The Church rejects divorce but accepts it as part of the civil law of marriage and knows the State has the right to permit this. Divorce can be avoided by Catholics and Catholics who don’t approve of gay marriage have the same simple choice: avoid marrying someone of the same sex.
The Church is free to decide its own marriage rules based on the traditions of Christian marriage between men and women, but it has no right to decide civil marriage law for the whole of the rest of society.
Where’s the harm?
The Bishops warn us about damaging heterosexual marriage but precisely what harm is done to the world by gay marriages? Where is the Bishops’ evidence that our society has been harmed by six years of gay civil partnerships? Isn’t society stronger and better from giving official legal recognition and support for gay relationships? It’s a small step from civil partnerships to gay marriage, when many people already talk about civil partners as if they are married.
Ten countries already allow gay marriages, 7 of them in Europe, including relatively Catholic Spain and Portugal. Heterosexual marriage has survived unscathed everywhere. It will be fine here too. Catholic marriage is strong enough to survive gay people getting civil marriage equality, just as it has survived the introduction of civil partnerships.
Listen to your heads and hearts
It’s time for Catholics to listen to our heads and hearts and not be bluffed and blustered by our Bishops. Let our Informed Conscience guide us to what the loving Jesus of the Gospel would want for gay people.
Whether the Bishops like it or not, civil gay marriage is good for gay people and increasing equality strengthens the bonds in society.
Catholics don’t have to sign the anti-gay marriage petition as the Bishops ask. Catholics don’t have to write to the Equalities Minister to oppose the law change plans. Catholics might instead welcome the plans in good conscience.
There’s an Equal Marriage petition to show support for equality and gay civil marriage that Catholics can join – Coalition for Equal Marriage.
Terence adds, see this, from their website:
What C4EM means to you
March 9, 2012 | 8:27 pm | Conor
James and I have been receiving mail from supporters since day one. They’ve been bittersweet, sad, funny, energising, enlightening, and they’ve kept us going. We want to share some of them with you. Have something you’d like to share? email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Bishops’ Letter is in the Catholic Herald
In the comments there, even the Catholics opposed to gay marriage think the Bishops’ letter makes a poor case. You will also find comments from many Catholics who support civil gay marriage and think the Church has no business interfering in civil marriage.
Chris was raised Catholic, attended a junior seminary for five years, survived and emerged gay. He has 30 years experience in community social care, supporting vulnerable and excluded people both at the Citizens Advice Bureau and in leading HIV charities.
- Senior London Cleric: “Embrace Gay Marriage” (Contrast with Catholic Bishops)
- Gay marriage: “Torn asunder from reality” (Guardian Editorial)
- Gay Marriage, and the English Catholic Church: More Sanity From Vincent Nichols
- Religious Freedom: Baptists oppose gay-marriage ban
- The Maturation Of Marriage (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)