Debates are widespread in the media lately concerning proposals by the governments in both Edinburgh and London to extend the right to marry to gay people.
I heard Scotland’s – and indeed Britain’s – most senior Roman Catholic clergyman, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, speak on Radio Five Live about the issue this morning. His words were the most bizarre and illogical demonstration of ignorance I’ve heard on the topic for some time.
He kicks off by saying that civil partnerships are available to gay people. On this he is right. But let’s not forget his church spoke out against these civil partnerships at the time of their introduction, and so to suddenly appear to be holding them up as a reason not to be doing something else seems opportunistic and contradictory. And while civil partnerships offer most of the legal protection of marriage, and are a welcome improvement on the lack of recognition of gay relationships that existed before, they really aren’t enough.
When civil partnerships were introduced I was rather against the proposal, because it fell short of marriage and thus prevented lifelong gay couples – particularly Christian ones – to enjoy what the Christian understanding of marriage brings. Even the name being different (“civil partnership” as opposed to “marriage”) makes it out to be something lesser, inferior, a second-rate compensation. So I am glad that there are now plans afoot by both the Scottish and UK governments to permit gay marriage.
Much of the church (though less than you’d think, in my view) has been up in arms about this. Not least the Roman Catholic church – whose clergy, let’s remember, are not permitted to experience this relationship which they claim to understand well and which they seek to deny to others.
Cardinal O’Brien said in the interview that “marriage is a universal human right and recognised as such” – yet it’s hardly universal if he wants to exclude gays from enjoying that human right.
He also tries to appeal to “nature”:
“Natural law would define marriage such as I have said. [It is] not natural, because homosexuality is no way in which one can procreate children.”
Okay, so the cardinal wants to talk about what’s natural. Well, that’s open to all sorts of differences of opinion, but there’s a sinister element to this line of thinking. If we think about natural law, the survival of the fittest is one of the most basic elements to it. The animals that don’t get ripped apart and that find a mate are the ones that survive and whose bloodline form the future. Is the cardinal condoning “survival of the fittest” violence and possibly even unconsensual sex? Of course he’s not, I wouldn’t believe for a second that he would, but that’s the logical destination to his “natural law” line of thinking, so it’s a careless argument to adopt.
However, let’s be generous to the cardinal for a moment and accept hypothetically that if something is unnatural it should not be permitted. On that basis, here’s a proposition for you: swimming is an unnatural thing for human beings.
Think about it. We’re not designed for swimming. Our bodies are the wrong shape, our hands and feet are not big enough, we carry too little body fat for buoyancy and warmth, we have too much body hair for good ergonomics (well, some of us do!), our respiratory system is totally unsuited to the task, and importantly we are not equipped with gills and therefore cannot breathe in water.
Fair enough of course, because we are a land-based species: swimming for us is unnatural. So should it be banned alongside all those other “unnatural” things like flying, homosexuality, or even the use of bionic limbs? Seemingly yes, if we deem as legally impermissible anything which is regarded as unnatural practice.
So if an opponent of gay marriage wants to talk about what’s “natural”, it’s a very dangerous route to go down.
The argument I most want to explore, however, is the cardinal’s biggest mistake. He says:
“Marriage has always been recognised as a union of one man and one woman, living together in love for one another and for the procreation and education of children.”
That’s a helpful and concise definition to work with. But it’s also factually incorrect in all sorts of ways. Let’s take it bit by bit:
“Marriage has always been recognised as a union of one man and one woman…“. No it hasn’t. Many cultures and legal jurisdictions permit and indeed encourage children to marry. It’s not uncommon in some parts of the world for older men to marry young girls. Also, some authorities throughout history have barred mixed-race marriages (Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa spring to mind). Some countries permit polygamy, which in patriarchal societies is usually the marriage of one man to more than one woman. Regardless of how abhorrent you might regard these practices, they can be within their own jurisdictions entirely legal. So whether you like it or not, marriage has already been, and currently is, more complicated than just a man and a woman.
“…living together in love…” Well, you hear of marriages of convenience, for instance for immigration reasons. Sure, this might not be a practice to be encouraged, but if both parties freely choose to get married in those circumstances, then there are exceptions to this supposed rule that it’s about living together in love. And what about couples who for whatever practical reasons are forced to live apart rather than together? Clearly in Cardinal O’Brien’s view they are not properly married.
“...for the procreation and education of children.” The absurdity of this statement should be self-evident. The cardinal owes an apology to all childless and childfree married couples, especially those who find they are unable to procreate despite a desire to. What a heartless implication, that such a marriage is less valid than one with children.
Two other statements he makes are equally unfounded.
Firstly, “One cannot change the definition of what marriage is,” he goes on, “because you cannot just make one word mean something else.” Yes, cardinal, you can. Just flick through various eras’ copies of dictionaries and you’ll find plenty examples. “Gay” has a meaning today it didn’t in the past.
Secondly, he argues, “Marriage has always been defined as one man and one woman and we cannot just change that.” – well, yes we can. Marriage is defined by law. If we choose to raise the age of consent so children cannot marry, we can do so. If we choose to legislate to bar forced marriage, then, yes, we can “just change that”. It’s a matter of public policy and law, a matter of – in this country at least – an act of parliament. There have been changes to the laws governing the issues surrounding marriage, too – for instance where and how marriage services can take place, the rights of married people, and the laws around divorce.
Marriage is actually a constantly – if slowly – evolving thing. It does, clearly, change. And therefore we can legally change it again to include homosexual couples. If lawmakers deem it desirable, then we absolutely can “just change that”. The cardinal may not like it, but such a move would unquestionably be a constitutionally faultless process.
And here, I think, we get to the core of the point: the difference between civic and ecclesiastical law, or in other words the difference between public legality and private morality.
The cardinal wants to define marriage in one way, and within the realms of his authority he is perfectly entitled to do so. Every explanation I’ve heard of proprosals for gay marriage in this country includes the right for any church organisation not to conduct or recognise gay marriages if they do not want to. They might be criticised for that, but if they genuinely feel such unions do not count as marriage then they should not be forced to conduct such ceremonies.
On this, the cardinal should be assured. If the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland wants never to permit or conduct a gay marriage, then they never need do so.
The law, then, only really affects those beyond their membership (and it would be a very stupid prospective couple that would seek to be married in a church that opposed their intended marriage). And why should those outwith a church have their proposed right to marriage criticised? How dare the church tell people who aren’t its members what to do? Cardinal O’Brien has no more right to tell a non-Catholic couple whether they can or cannot marry, than any random gay couple has the right to tell him what he can have for his breakfast.
As I’ve often previously alluded in this blog, the freedom of belief and worship in this country does not come hand in hand with a freedom to impose the consequences of those beliefs and worship on those who do not choose to be a part of it.
If there are to be sound arguments presented by elements within the church (or indeed by anyone else) against gay marriage, then it’s not enough to say that marriage cannot be changed, because it can. It’s not enough to call it unnatural, because even if it was then let’s ban swimming too. And above all, it’s not justified for the church to tell those outwith its flock what to do.
If there are any arguments that don’t fit the above flawed lines of reasoning, then I very much look forward to hearing them.
To conclude, my final remark on the matter lies with this magnificent comment, widely circulated since it was posted, on a Guardian article about gay marriage:
“I’ve been forced to explain homosexuality to my kids (aged 3 and 4) because their uncle is gay. This incredibly difficult and traumatic experience went as follows:
Child: Why does Uncle Bob go everywhere with Pete?
Me: Because they’re in love, just like Mummy and Daddy are.
Child: Oh. Can I have a biscuit?
We’re all scarred for life. Scarred, I tell you.”
I think Cardinal Keith O’Brien has been an ignorant and bigoted fool for his comments, but a kinder judgement would be that he’s simply making a fuss about nothing. He should go and have a biscuit instead.