Once again, Cardinal Keith O’Brien and the Scottish bishops are whipping up opposition to the plans for marriage equality in Scotland, with a strongly worded pastoral letter which was to be read in all parishes yesterday – declared by the bishops to be “National Marriage Sunday”. He also announced the creation of a National Commission for Marriage and the Family, “a body which will be charged with promoting the true nature of marriage, it will develop an online presence and produce materials and organise events which will help Catholic families to support and sustain marriage”. In an earlier intervention, O’Brien warned Alex Salmond and his government of a powerful Catholic backlash if he went ahead with his proposals for gay marriage. I greatly fear that the cardinal is correct: there will indeed be a powerful Catholic backlash. It will not be against the Scottish government, however, but against the authority of the Church and its bishops.
The Scottish bishops, and their counterparts in Minnesota, are among the most strident in their opposition to gay marriage, but they are far from alone. The bishops of England and Wales, of Maryland and Washington, of France, and of Australia and New Zealand, have all been organizing against pending marriage initiatives. They will lose all of these campaigns, if not in the immediately short term, then in the not too distant future. In 2009, the Bishop of Portland poured money into the campaign against equality in Maine. His efforts contributed to overturning the gay marriage legislation, but only temporarily. All indications are that the law will be re-instated at the ballot box in November. Tellingly, the Catholic Church in Maine is far less prominent in this particular struggle this time around, no doubt conscious of the deep divisions it created in the church the last time around.
Around the world, progress to LGBT equality and inclusion in the Church is steady. It is only eleven years since the Netherlands was the first country to introduce full marriage for same - sex couples, but already that has extended to an additional twelve countries, and five states (plus DC) of the US. Three more states could be added in November, and Finland, France and Colombia should join the list next year. Scotland and the full UK will follow soon after. New Zealand will begin debating legislation this week, and three Australian territories (Tasmania, South Australia and ACT) are proceeding with their own marriage plans, while the federal parliament dithers. In Mexico, the states of Coahuila and Quintana Roo are debating same-sex marriage bills for their areas, to join Mexico City. Later, gay marriage or civil marriage will come to a constantly expanding list of still more countries and territories.
Wherever research evidence exists, it suggests that unlike the bishops, many Catholics (in many areas, most Catholics) support LGBT equality, in ever increasing numbers – especially the youngest age groups. In say, ten years, when gay marriage will be well – established fact in all the jurisdictions I have listed, and families headed by male or female married couples no longer remarkable, how will the bishops deal with the situation? By then, many local churches will be conducting gay weddings, or have openly gay or lesbian ministers officiating at all weddings – just as the Lutheran church in Sweden, Iceland and Denmark, and some Episcopal/ Anglican dioceses, and the Unitarian and United Churches already do in North America. The longer the bishops maintain their implacable opposition, the more ludicrous it will seem to others (especially as those denominations that are moving towards accepting gay marriage and gay clergy are those in which decisions are taken by people with real – life experience of what marriage really is about, as opposed to the Catholic bishops entirely theoretical understanding from book knowledge).
The backlash already exists. In England, Chris Morley wrote a few months ago about the angry response from pupils when the English bishops’ letter on gay marriage was read in schools. At the “Next Steps” workshop in June, I met a woman (let’s call her Margaret) who is not gay herself, but has an adult gay son. As a Scot, she had been so angered by Cardinal O’Brien’s earlier offensive rhetoric, that she vowed to commit herself to working for LGBT equality. She has become a regular and active participant in the Soho Masses, and joined our group in the rain for London’s World Pride procession. She has cancelled her previous standing order for her local parish, diverting the money instead to gay charities. There will be many more LGBT Catholics, their families and friends who have been similarly angered by the bishops’ stance. Perhaps not many will respond as strongly as Margaret has done, by attempting to work for change within the Church. Some will simply shrug their shoulders and get on with life as before, simply ignoring the bishops – but there will be many others for whom this will be the final straw, leading them to leave the church for more welcoming congregations, or to abandon the Christian faith entirely.
The bishops will no doubt maintain that it is more important to proclaim the truth than simply move with public opinion – but in this instance, just what is “the truth”? In the broader field of sexual ethics, it is now abundantly clear that it is emphatically not found in Vatican documents and the Catechism. Humanae Vitae has been widely rejected by Catholic couples, with no evidence whatsoever that it has achieved the necessary reception by the Church as a whole to be accepted as valid doctrine. By this rejection of the proposition that every genital act must be open to procreation, the entire structure of Vatican sexual doctrine is called into question. The evidence from research is that in many countries, most Catholics simply do not believe that homosexuality is even a moral issue. It also seems that a substantial proportion of Catholic moral theologians (and certainly a majority of those not controlled directly by the Vatican) agree that the entire doctrine needs substantial revision, with the emphasis moving from an obsession with genital acts, to a focus on the quality of the relationships.
Such a revision of moral theology, which will surely come, will undermine one of the foundations of the current opposition to change in the marriage laws, that marriage is necessarily for the purpose of procreation. The church is also bound by its own teaching to pay proper attention to the findings of the natural and human sciences (an obligation hitherto ignored in sexual matters, but which sooner or later will have to be addressed). That too will undermine the bishops’ understanding of marriage.
It may well be that there is a valid case for drawing a distinction in the sacrament of matrimony, between same – sex and opposite – sex couples. But as even Catholic theologians and some bishops are moving towards an acceptance that there is value in loving and committed same – sex relationships, just as so many Protestant denominations are doing, Catholics should be giving serious thought to how we are to recognize that value, within the faith community. Instead of simply responding to moves to equality in civil marriage with outright condemnation, we should be engaging in serious discussions and listening to the people most affected by the change - to LGBT couples themselves. When Protestants have done so, they have frequently found to their surprise that our relationships are remarkably similar in quality to their own marriages – and led to a change of heart on regulations governing gay and lesbian clergy, on blessing same – sex unions, and even on support for full gay marriage.
Catholic bishops do not have the advantage of personal experience of marriage, or of any openly acknowledged loving sexual relationships. That simply makes it more important that they listen to those that do. The Scottish bishops’ letter claims that the new National Commission for Marriage and the Family will prepare materials and events for “Catholic families” to sustain and support marriage. That should include provision for input for queer families – but will not do so.
Eventually, the Catholic Church will have to acknowledge that it has been wrong on homoerotic relationships. The longer it takes to do so, the more difficult it will be.
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