As an attempt to influence policy, it has been high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful. The Catholic authorities have surpassed themselves with letters read out in churches, archbishops in prime spots on radio and TV, mailshots to MPs and the efficient lobbying of parents and pupils through the Catholic schools’ network. In the run-up to this week’s House of Commons’ vote, no one can have missed the fact that Catholicism regards gay marriage as, at best, the theft of “our” sacrament, and, at worst, as the beginning of the end for our civilisation.
It drives me – and many Catholics I have spoken to lately – to despair. Are these really our Church’s priorities? Jesus, in the Gospels, utters not a single word about homosexuality. But as the nation confronts unprecedented austerity, rising inequalities in wealth, and debates over immigration, education and the alarming growth of an underclass there are passages aplenty from the Good Book that are directly relevant to what we collectively are going through. When are our leaders going to start making as big a song and dance about these?
I have listened carefully to the Church’s objections to gay marriage – the least I owe it as a mass-going member – but I still can’t see what the problem is. The official logic, that allowing gay marriage will somehow diminish every heterosexual marriage, including my own, is utterly lost on me. I’m keen on as many couples getting married as possible. So gay marriage is a cause for celebration. And if the clerics ever find it in their hearts to open the sacrament to same-sex couples, I find it hard to imagine a God who is anything other than delighted at this public affirmation of love and fidelity. Then there has been the procession of prominent Catholics speaking in all our names about consummation, adultery and the need for marriage to “remain open to procreation”. You’d think they were discussing a plumbing problem.
Where does this technical talk leave the heterosexual Catholic couple I met this week, both in their fifties, who are about to get married in church? No openness to procreation there. So presumably, in the Church’s eyes, theirs isn’t a marriage either. And yet it is about to happen in front of the altar in the presence of a priest.
This is the age-old problem of angels dancing on pinheads, celibate clerics spending their (sublimated?) energy on carefully calibrating what the non-celibate laity can do in their bedrooms. I had hoped that, as a Church, we were over all of this. There are positive signs. In the Catholic schools my children attend, those time-honoured messages, passed down to generations, that sex was dangerous if not downright bad, have been discarded in favour of something more nuanced and empowering.
Yet the one message that echoed this week is that to be Catholic is to be anti-gay. Once this whole dispute over gay marriage has subsided, that is the message that will endure. It will impact on Catholic effectiveness in promoting the often counter-cultural gospel values about social justice, the common good and the limits of consumerism and capitalism. The Catholic Church should be celebrated for its leadership on issues such as workers’ rights, climate change, rebalancing global trade. But who is going to be persuaded to listen to that now?
A stark choice faces the Catholic authorities. If they want to influence national debates by drawing on the social teaching of our Church, they need to start speaking up as forcefully as they have done in recent weeks against gay marriage in defence of the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalised. In the three, soon-to-be four years since his appointment as leader of the five million Catholics in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols has been all but invisible on the national stage on everything save gay marriage.
Out of touch
If he is looking for a role model, he might reflect on the example of Pope Benedict himself. When he visited Britain in 2010, many of us feared that he would switch off his hosts by lecturing on those traditional Catholic bugbears – contraception, abortion, sex before marriage, homosexuality, etc. But no, he said hardly a word about them, and in the process won the public round. At the same time as appealing – in Westminster Hall before Parliamentarians – for the voice of the churches to be heard and listened to in the public square, he was careful to highlight by his choice of places to visit those Catholic contributions to society that added to the common good (for example by going to an old people’s home run by nuns).
Perhaps he had listened to what British Catholics themselves believe. Contrary to the impression given in the past few weeks, we are not by and large a monolithic group of fundamentalists. In polls conducted in advance of Benedict’s visit, half of us wanted the celibacy rule for priests dropped; 62 per cent wished to see women given more authority in the Church, and only 6 per cent agreed with the Church in its absolute opposition to abortion in every case. Just 10 per cent agreed with the Vatican that homosexuality was “morally wrong”.
I grew up with the mantra that if you didn’t like the rules of Catholicism, you should leave the club. Today, hardliners use the phrase “à la carte Catholicism” in much the same way. It is a bizarre way to regard belief. The implication is that you don’t have to engage your brain; you just accept what you’re told by your leaders. What this week has shown is that those leaders are out of touch with ordinary Catholics. In this overheated campaign against gay marriage, they have not been speaking in all our names.
Peter Stanford is a former editor of the ‘Catholic Herald’