Saturday, 29 March 2014

A failure of understanding

Tina Beattie, in the Grauniad 'Comment is Free' has written a remarkable piece, under the heading:
Should Catholics accept gay marriage?
Austen Ivereigh and Tina Beattie debate the morality and legitimacy of proposals to legalise same-sex marriage in the UK
Her part of the argument is headed: Tina Beattie: 'Yes, society will benefit from same sex-marriage'
I recognise that the headlines may well have been written subsequently by a sub-editor, so will not comment on those. However, I will comment on the rest of the piece, which, I assume, is the work of her own hand (and mind...)

I have never been able to understand the argument that same-sex marriage threatens marriage as we know it. (Well that is a startling admission. To enter a public debate without having understood the opposing point of view is an odd thing for an academic to do.  Let me summarise: Catholics believe that Marriage is ordained by God as the union of one man and one woman, exclusively for life, for the procreation of children and mutual love and support in their upbringing.   We further believe that Christ raised Christian marriage to be a sacrament. We believe that sex is sacred, and reserved for a man and a wife. 'Same-sex marriage' requires a re-defining of marriage to be solely about love and commitment: it thus weakens societal understanding of marriage and therefore anybody's ability to contract a valid marriage, and also legitimises and makes respectable actions which are, according to the Church, gravely sinful, and therefore spiritually damaging to those who engage in them.) Marriage is far more threatened by a consumerist culture in which the demand for instant gratification is worth the sacrifice of any relationship or responsibility which involves commitment and struggle, and by an ethos of sexual libertarianism which so easily mutates into predatory and exploitative relationships involving young and vulnerable people, and which fosters unrealistically high expectations of sexual performance among adults who ought to know better. (This may be true: however, it is completely irrelevant. To say something else is a worse threat is not to say that the original subject is not a threat. This is almost Belloc's 'Always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse!')
In this context, society stands to benefit from any move towards a deeper understanding of the value of "lifelong fidelity and commitment" between two people, whether of the same sex or of different sexes, as a basic building block for community and family life. (Err... no. If the Church which she professes to belong to is right, society cannot benefit from legitimising and giving a veneer of respectability to a pseudo-marriage which sanctions sinful behaviour.)  And let's be honest – the gay subculture is such that there may be relatively few men in particular who want to agree to "forsake all others" and opt for lifelong monogamy, which is implicit in the understanding of marriage informing the current debate. (Another 'Always keep a-hold of Nurse' argument.)
When evangelical preacher Steve Chalke recently argued in favour of same-sex Christian marriage, one gay person complained about the "enforced monogamy" that this entailed. This is only one of many complex and messy issues that surrounds the proposed change, but life is complex and messy. Christianity recognises that, and at its best it seeks to nurture the most favourable social conditions for human flourishing and for care for the vulnerable within the muddle and mess of our human fallibility. (No. Christianity seeks to lead people to the redeeming love of Christ. Christ bestows the grace of personal repentance and renewal, and these result in the most favourable social conditions for human flourishing; but unless we seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, we will not gain those other blessings.)
Religions are organic and slow-growing worlds of meaning. (No, they are not. Notice how the habit of re-definition spreads...)   They are not progressive, democratic organisations, and a truly democratic and free society must respect their internal dynamics and values, even if from a secular, rights-based perspective these are at odds with prevailing cultural norms. So it is right that religious communities and institutions are guaranteed protection from any attempt to use the law to impose same-sex marriage upon them. (Well, that's a relief: finally something we can agree about.)
Reading the government response to last year's consultation published in 2012, every possible endeavour has been made to take account of religious and other objections, and to ensure legal protection for religious communities, only allowing them to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if their official governing bodies authorise this. (Whilst we are on the subject of the Government's consultation, it is worth noting that the procedure by which this legislation was introduced was quite abnormal and lacking in due process: nothing in any manifesto, no green or white papers. Funny how she gives the government a free pass on this, when she is so hostile to it in other respects [see below]...) Fears have been expressed about whether faith schools will be forced to teach that same-sex marriage is equal to heterosexual marriage, but on a wide range of sexual and reproductive issues, Catholic schools already promote the church's teachings which challenge existing legal and social norms in wider society, for example with regard to remarriage after divorce, contraception, abortion and extra-marital sex. It is not clear why same-sex marriage should be any different. (I think she is wrong here [and note in passing that she dissents on some of these issues too, so is perhaps not best placed to say how well schools are actually discharging their mandate in this regard], but we will have to wait and see. However, absence of coercion of our schools does not make this legislation acceptable to Catholics.)
In the government's response to the consultation, marriage is defined in terms that are deeply rooted in traditional Christian values, such as the claim that "marriage in the 21st century is an inclusive, not exclusive, institution. It is available to all those over 16 who are prepared to make vows of lifelong fidelity and commitment." (Deeply rooted in Christian values? I find no reference to 'Male and female he created them' or 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh' or openness to life, or 'a symbol of Christ's love for His Church'...) At a time when the Christian understanding of marriage is being undermined, not by same-sex relationships but by heterosexual relationships which often fall far short of these ideals, I believe the government is trying to make a public affirmation of the ways in which the dignity and commitment of the Christian understanding of marriage (but it is not!) offers a model for human love and fidelity that is still the best society can aspire to. (Always keep a-hold of Nurse...)
I have now spent many months reading and reflecting on the arguments and discussing this with gay and straight friends, with those opposed and with those in favour. I have come to believe that same-sex marriage would be good for society and for the individuals involved. (Because?... There is simply no argument given for this assertion.  All she has said is that despite these months of reading, reflection and discussing, she has still failed to understand, let alone refute, the argument.)
And I'd like us to get that out of the way and hold this profoundly inegalitarian government to account for its much greater abuses and violations with regard to the destruction of the welfare state and the fabric of care and social responsibility upon which every family – gay or straight – depends for its wellbeing. (Hang on to Nurse!)
• Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University (But why?)

1 comment:

Ttony said...

I read this, and I read Mark's comments here, and I wonder where the Catholic voice is, and where it has been for the last year.

There is a case to be made for circling the waggons, and there is a case to be made for assertively claiming our place in a society that doesn't want us, but there is no Catholic case to be made for half agreeing with what is wholly wrong.