Thursday 23 February 2012

Gay Marriage, and the English Catholic Church: More Sanity From Vincent Nichols

Archbishop Vincent Nichols has once again demonstrated sanity and moderation on the place of the Catholic Church in modern society. While there are many loud, outraged voices raised in complaint in the US and in the UK over alleged assaults on religious freedom and of perceived persecution of Christians, Nichols has correctly pointed out that what is happening is not the "persecution" of Christians, but an attempt to separate the legal and cultural life of the country from its Christian roots. He is saying in other words, that what is happening is a removal from the Church of its previously privileged position. This may be deplorable, unfortunate, or welcome - but does not amount to persecution, any more than the removal of apartheid in South Africa represented the persecution of Whites.

The origins of complaints of persecution in the UK are in a series of high profile court judgements which have consistently found that religious freedom does not give Christians the right to contravene anti-discrimination laws. Recently, the volume has stepped up with complaints against the proposed introduction of marriage equality. (A former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has launched an on-line petition drive in opposition to gay marriage). Archbishop Nichols says that the Catholic Church in England and Wales is against the proposals - but will leave actual opposition to individual Catholics as individuals, but the Church "as a whole" will not join in the campaign.

After a fortnight which has seen the emergence of a "Christianist" backlash – most recently in evidence with an internet petition against gay marriage spearheaded by Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury – Nichols seems to be supporting the movement from a careful distance.

Catholics will be encouraged to sign the petition against gay marriage as individuals, but the church as a whole will not be part of Carey's campaign even though it opposes a change in the law.

This is in stark contrast to the position of Scottish and American bishops (and may explain why unlike Timothy Dolan, Nichols was not in Rome last week for a cardinal's red hat). It recognizes though, that while opposition to same - sex nuptials may be the logical implication of one part of current church teaching, it is one that is not accepted by the Church as a whole.  Research has shown that a clear majority of British Catholics in fact support marriage equality, and we know from our own experience that active opposition by the Church is deeply hurtful to LGBT Catholics. Nichols' refusal to get the Church actively involved in opposition is the logical result of following that other part of current church teaching that is conspicuously absent in the war on Catholic queer families in some other dioceses: that we deserve to be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity.

Nichols' own "respect, compassion and sensitivity" was further demonstrated in his response to a question about the Vatican language on homosexuality.

When asked how to interpret the notorious Vatican description of homosexuality as "a tendency towards an objective moral evil", Nichols gave me a carefully prepared talk on the roots of Catholic philosophy. "This is a philosophical construct," he said


He talked about the curious paradox that Catholic social teaching is gaining in influence and authority at the same time as Catholic sexual ethics seem discredited even among the faithful. Yet they are both, he said, derived from the same kind of reasoning and are an attempt to read out objective general truths about what is good for human beings, and then point our conduct towards them.

So, for example, the Catholic teaching about sex is based on the idea that it leads to babies, and this must be its highest good. The trouble is that when Catholic priests explain the purposes of sexuality they sound too often like a Martian at a football match.

Phrases like "abstract moral evil", he said, are not aimed at any individual. "One talks about objective moral evil, you might say today, that's racism. No matter what's intended or understood, that, objectively, is wrong. In a similar way, you can say, in every sphere of life there is objective moral evil. But that does not imply subjective moral guilt. That does not imply guilt on an individual."

via The Guardian.

This is a carefully phrased restatement of what he said in 2010, at the time of the Papal visit to London: that we must not judge the interior state on another's conscience, and in effect affirms yet another strand of Catholic teaching that is important for queer Catholics- the primacy of conscience.

However, try as he might to lessen the hurtfulness of current teaching, he is unable to get away from the hard fact remaining - that it rests on an assumption that the primary purpose of sex is mere procreation, and that "homosexuality" in the abstract is seen as an objective moral evil, is "intrinsically disordered".

Yet it is current church teaching itself that is disordered, and will not last. It is not based on anything more secure than the Church's own tradition, is not securely founded in scripture, and is in conflict with the findings of both biological and human sciences. It is rejected by an overwhelming majority of ordinary Catholics, and probably by a majority of professional Catholic theologians. Other Christian denominations, especially those whose leaders whose understanding of sexuality is grounded in personal experience as well as mere book learning, are moving rapidly in the direction of full LGBT inclusion in church. It is becoming clear that the Catholic Church's long tradition of hostility to homoerotic relationships is part of the distorting tradition about which Pope Benedict has written, and has warned us about. The writing is on the wall.

I am certain that a significant number of Catholic bishops know this, and that Vincent Nichols is one of them. The real challenge facing the leaders of the Church today is not facing up to the need to articulate a more realistic doctrine on sexual ethics, but finding a way to admit that for so long, they have been wrong.

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