Titus Oates of the National Secular Society is a very, very angry man. But then, isn’t he always? On the other hand, Ruthie Gledhill is over the moon, and well she should be as a religion correspondent, because it seems Pope Benedict only has to reiterate orthodox Catholic doctrine to generate a media shitstorm. Poor old Rowan Williams had to advocate the introduction of sharia law to get this kind of reaction.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen the kneejerk response from the English liberal left, who it seems only need to hear a word of Latin before the red mist descends and they go all seventeenth-century on us. There are lefty bloggers out there – naming no names – who I know to be decent, tolerant human beings as a rule, but whose line on Catholicism differs not a fierce amount from this guy. And some language being thrown about that, were it applied to another minority, could not inconceivably lead to collars being felt.
Let’s take the temperature down a little. We can usefully start by looking at what Benny said, rather than the spin the London media have put on it. To begin with, it’s important to remember that this was the public address marking the end of the five-day ad limina visit of the English and Welsh bishops, where they review the work of the last five years and map the way ahead. Usually such an address is a mixture of exhortation and backslapping; this one was notably short and blunt, with a remarkable shortage of backslapping. If this is what was said in public, one can only guess at what was said in private. (And that would be nothing compared to the rocket waiting for the Irish bishops when they get to Rome.)
The second thing you have to bear in mind is that, although the Pope sometimes directs remarks to secularists (he did this in the famous Subiaco Address just before his election), his main audience is closer to home, and most of what he says ties in to his project of revitalising Catholic identity. I hate to prick secularist egos – no, actually I don’t – but the Pope does not usually make speeches with the fragile sensibilities of Terry Sanderson or Evan Harris foremost in his mind. In an address to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the primary audience will be the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, and the secondary audience the Catholic clergy, religious and laity of England and Wales.
Finally, it is the Pope’s job to enunciate the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is an organic whole and not a pick ‘n’ mix. Although he is an authoritative figure, what he can actually say and do is constrained by both canon law and pre-existing Church teaching. For this reason you can’t have a liberal Pope – if B16 woke up tomorrow morning, had a rush of blood to the head and decided he wanted to reshape Catholic doctrine into a form acceptable to the Guardian and Channel 4 News, he wouldn’t be able to do it. (Which is why neither Catholic nor Orthodox Churches will ever ordain priestesses, no matter what Harriet Harman has to say on the matter.)
Right, so what was in the address? Emphases and interpolations are mine, of course.
Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.
This, in its entirety, is the controversial passage, and I’ll get back to it shortly. But you will notice that it is phrased vaguely and deliberately so. There is no specific reference to the Labour Party, Harriet Harman or the Equalities Bill; there is no specific reference to gay adoption; there’s actually no mention whatsoever of gay people in the entire address. The bishops will have known what specifically he meant, because it would have arisen from their discussions with him; but he’s more interested here in setting out a general framework.
I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended…
If the full saving message of Christ is to be presented effectively and convincingly to the world, the Catholic community in your country needs to speak with a united voice. This requires not only you, the Bishops, but also priests, teachers, catechists, writers – in short all who are engaged in the task of communicating the Gospel – to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, who guides the whole Church into the truth, gathers her into unity and inspires her with missionary zeal.
This is more important in terms of internal Catholic politics. The Pope is telling the English and Welsh hierarchy that their public interventions must be orthodox (they aren’t always), they must speak up strongly and convincingly (often they don’t) and that they must speak with a united voice (good luck with that). It backs up Vinnie Nichols’ leadership – Nichols is not part of the Eccleston Square mafia and, unusually in the English hierarchy, has taken the trouble to read and understand Ratzinger’s thought – but also sets out a benchmark for the Nichols regime. Vinnie may well be getting a red hat later in the year, so this matters for Church politics.
Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society. In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them…
This is a good summation of Benny’s view on the role of religion in the public sphere. He’s written and spoken on numerous occasions about the need to keep church and state from getting too closely entwined – to prevent either one becoming an arm of the other – but has no patience for the sort of liberal monism that seeks to exclude any religious voices from public debate.
Make it your concern, then, to draw on the considerable gifts of the lay faithful in England and Wales and see that they are equipped to hand on the faith to new generations comprehensively, accurately, and with a keen awareness that in so doing they are playing their part in the Church’s mission.
The idea of drawing on the gifts of the laity may well have sent a shiver through the bishops, some at least of whom regard the active laity with horror.
In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognize dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.
Indeed not. It’s easy to mock the “Stand Up For Vatican II” crowd, but there is a difference between the Magisterium of the Church on the one hand, and what some trendy liberal says is his personal interpretation of Catholicism on the other. The ideas of the trendy liberal may be more personally congenial to you or me, but that’s why old Joe is the Pope and we aren’t.
There’s some stuff in there about the example of Newman – B16 is a big Newman fan and a beatification is expected in September – before we get to this zinger:
I would ask you to be generous in implementing the provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, so as to assist those groups of Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. I am convinced that, if given a warm and open-hearted welcome, such groups will be a blessing for the entire Church.
Benny needs to say this, because he knows there are some in the English hierarchy who regard Anglicanorum Coetibus as a big giant pain in the hole, and would not be inclined to be generous in its implementation. Bluntly, there are two ecumenical projects going on. The English hierarchy are committed to the ARCIC process of having pleasant cups of tea with Anglican bishops and pretending they don’t have serious disagreements; the Pope has a project of bringing traditionally-minded Christians into full communion with Rome where they aren’t already. B16 is supportive of the English hierarchy’s work; the converse is not necessarily true.
That’s an overview. Now, what of the three sentences that have got everyone so het up?
There is the reference to natural law, but the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of lex naturalis, which is barely understood outside of Catholic circles these days (and not very well in them), is a very wide-ranging area indeed, encompassing the broad sweep of Catholic moral and ethical thought. This needs explaining to people who see the phrase “natural law”, read it as “gays”, and then accuse the Pope of being obsessed with homosexuality (and equally to those who really do have a morbid obsession with homosexuality, and will cherrypick what seems congenial from Benny’s comments). The Church’s various peace and justice campaigns come under the natural law rubric; so does its developing teaching on the environment; and the threat of legal euthanasia is something that’s very much in the news. Sexual ethics come into this, surely, but they aren’t the sum total.
Let us now get onto the whole question of sexuality, and I want to have a little dialogue with this quite fair-minded piece from Dave Osler. I want to say at the outset that Catholic teaching on the matter is not the same as Protestant fundamentalist teaching of the Iris Robinson variety, which is based on cherrypicking quotes from Leviticus. The problem with the Catholic natural law approach is not that it’s irrational – if anything it’s too rational, in that it doesn’t lend itself easily to making exceptions for sexual minorities. And, even though things have moved forward in recent decades – see the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar or Angelo Scola on gender – Church teaching does remain within the same basic framework.
That said, I think Dave may be under a slight misapprehension, perhaps referring back to the sin of Onan, as to just how restrictive Catholic sexual ethics actually are. He may be surprised to learn, for instance, that oral or anal penetration are not proscribed as foreplay, just as long as they don’t substitute for the main event. And sex is not merely about procreation but is also about the oneness of the couple – this is why Ratzinger’s critique of libertinism is based on the idea that sex outside a loving relationship, purely for the purposes of physical gratification, is ultimately empty and not truly erotic. Having said that, openness to the possibility of procreation is still regarded as vital, which is why homosexual acts – which deny the possibility of procreation – fall foul of the lex naturalis concept.
Moving on from this, although Catholic teaching continues to described homosexual acts as “objectively disordered”, the relevant CDF documents modify this in a more tolerant direction by stating, for instance, that:
It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.
Which can lend itself to generous interpretation, such as the expansive and humane approach taken by the impeccably orthodox Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Québec in reaching out to those who have been hurt by the Church in the past. There is a further formal statement in the CDF documents condemning unjust discrimination against gay people, which is obviously open to interpretation. The possibility is allowed that discrimination in certain narrow areas – such as military recruitment, adoption services or the legal recognition of marriage – may be justified in terms of the common good, but also allows space for argument on these grounds.
Now, to the question of British politics. A lot of the problem comes down to the inherent problem in liberal rights theory that it’s never been satisfactorily worked out what you do when two sets of rights conflict. For a lot of the liberal left, this isn’t really a problem – the rights of gay people (our kind of people) should take precedence over those of Catholics (not our sort of people). This, incidentally, is not only the position of gay advocacy groups – which is entirely justified from their point of view – but was actually written into law by New Labour on the introduction of the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
Now, my view is that you have to work out a modus vivendi, and I like Dave’s quip that:
Common sense alone dictates that the League Against Cruel Sports has no duty to be an equal opportunities employer in respect of illegal cock fighting aficionados. If you apply to be a Conservative parliamentary candidate and then inform the selection meeting that you are an anarcho-syndicalist, you do not have grounds subsequently to bring a discrimination case.
Peter Tatchell – a man with whom I usually agree on much – has been widely quoted taking the Pope to task on this one. But my guess is that he wouldn’t hire an overt homophobe for an admin job at OutRage!
By the same token, if you want to work for the Catholic Church, your potential bosses might reasonably expect you to uphold the teachings of Catholicism.
I largely agree with this, but then I’m a pluralist rather than a liberal. There’s a sort of illiberal liberalism in Anglophone political culture that I really don’t like – the sort of liberal monism that the late Francis Canavan criticised, with its view that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the job lot of liberal nostrums should have to shut up, in the name of liberalism. I think a lot of it goes back to Locke, whose appeal for religious toleration was specifically on behalf of the nonconforming Protestant sects, and who opposed toleration for Catholicism on the grounds that you couldn’t tolerate the intolerant. (If you think you hear echoes of Geert Wilders, you are not far wrong. British politics was dominated for over 300 years by the Catholic Problem, and the present-day Muslim Problem is old wine in new bottles.)
You start out with basic liberal good intentions, but if liberals don’t get a grip on their busybody instincts, you end up with a situation like you had in Holland back in 2005 when the Dutch courts tried to ban state funding to the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, a small Calvinist political party, on the grounds that it refused to allow women to become members of the party, and indeed had done since it was founded in 1918. (The court case eventually failed, but the SGP was cajoled into changing its membership rules.) The liberal who states that “there is no right to be reactionary” is a liberal with no sense of irony. The well-intentioned busybodying of New Labour around moral issues is not distinguished by much irony.
Whatever misgivings the Catholic bishops may have on the matter, the gay adoption battle has been fought and lost. But it was a battle that never needed to be fought in the first place. Removing the legal bar on gay adoption was the right thing to do, but the actual number of gay adoptions is so small that, taken in conjunction with the Catholic adoption agencies only catering for a smallish minority of children, the religious opt-out could easily have been left in place without infringing in the slightest on the access of gay couples to the many other agencies in the field. (And, whisper it, it wasn’t entirely unknown for the Catholic agencies to place children with a gay person who would adopt as the sole parent, leaving the partner out of the formal process – the sticking point was the insistence that they formally place children with gay couples.) Now, the Catholic adoption agencies have either ceased to offer adoption services, or have adopted a New Labour-approved gay-friendly policy and pretend to have nothing to do with Catholicism.
You’ve got a similar thing with the Equalities Bill – a blockbuster piece of legislation aiming to solve everything from homophobic hate crimes to equal pay to boys’ educational underachievement – although the usually lackadaisical C of E are doing the heavy lifting on that one. The substance of the argument is a bit abstruse, with Lady Harman insisting that the status quo will remain (much to the chagrin of the militant secularists of the NSS variety, who have a disturbing relish for the state bossing religious people about), while Church lawyers are warning that some loose wording could bog them down in litigation for years to come. But that is by the by.
Is it the case that, for instance, the ranks of teachers at Catholic schools contain remarried divorcees, people cohabiting with unmarried partners and (yes) active homosexuals? Yes, much as it may shock some of the crustier Catholic Herald readers, there are loads of them. Effectively, this is dealt with by a policy which Bill Clinton might dub “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the gay teacher can hold down a job at the Catholic primary, but she may be best advised not to go dancing on a float at Pride. Sure, there’s hypocrisy built in, but it’s a system that works reasonably well. It might be a reasonable expectation of someone working in a faith-based organisation that they not go around publicly flouting the ethos of that faith.
The thing that most bothers your Catholic in the street, as opposed to the bureaucrat in the CES, is the perception of an aggressive anti-religious bent in New Labour, and this is something that goes way beyond whether gay adoption could have been handled better. You have, for example, Mary Honeyball MEP declaiming on how the Labour Party shouldn’t allow Catholics to hold ministerial office if they actually believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church. You had Alan Johnson’s abortive plan to force faith schools to take a quota of pupils from non-religious families. You’ve had Barry Sheerman MP saying that faith schools are tolerable as long as they don’t take the faith bit very seriously. Now we have one Stephen Hughes, an MEP for the North East I’m told, who is making a bid for the Nancy Pelosi/Patrick Kennedy “I’m a Catholic, and as such I disagree with everything the Church says” franchise.
You know, it is open to Gordon Brown, or Jack Straw, or Dougie Alexander at any time to state that these are not the views of the Labour Party. But they’ve been reluctant to do so for some unaccountable reason. The majority of Catholics in Britain are Labour voters, and this doesn’t go unnoticed. If a message is going out that the Labour Party doesn’t want your support – well, it’s just as well nobody on the Tory or Lib Dem benches (the SNP is another matter) can make a convincing pitch, or you may well be tempted to take your custom elsewhere.