by Kevin Meagher
In case anyone failed to notice, Cardinal Keith O’Brien does not mince his words. The leader of the Scottish Catholic church (and until the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nicholls is given his biretta, the UK’s highest-ranking Catholic), believes the concept of gay marriage is an attempt to “redefine reality,” a “madness” and “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”.
Wow, all that came from a single paragraph in his piece in the Sunday Telegraph, setting out his position fairly unequivocally ahead of an imminent government consultation on extending civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples.
But aren’t the rights of a gay couple already well-enshrined in the civil partnership legislation, as the cardinal also points out? Why, then, the push to rebrand it as marriage?
Ah, but this is an issue about parity of esteem, comes the response. Love and commitment – regardless of sexuality – deserves respect and equality. So is this a rather overblown argument about the definition of a single word? On the face of it, yes, but, as ever, what lies behind this rumpus is more significant.
This is just the latest skirmish is a much wider conflagration between faith and politics which is now raging. It is a cold war too, fought using proxies; this time it is gay marriage, next time it will be something else. The fighting is often disproportionately fierce, and, like the Little Endians and Big Endians in Gulliver’s Travels, fought over seemingly esoteric issues.
If Cardinal O’Brien is so het up about gay marriage speaking in “apocalyptic” tones, as the Conservative MP Margot James put it the other day, must not the same criticism of melodrama and a lack of proportion be laid at the door of the National Secular Society and its peevish legal challenge to council prayers last month? Or its earlier campaign against hospital chaplains? Or the perennial sniping about so-called “faith schools” (church schools, by and large) which seems to obsess so many on the liberal-left?
This is the cardinal’s real target and Keith O’Brien is a blood and guts tank commander in this wider war. He could, and should, have chosen his words and tactics more carefully in this instance. But this is not a one-sided conflict. Yes, he clearly sees gay marriage as an erosion of this country’s christian heritage, but he also sees, closer to home, threats to the pastoral role of his own church, its voice in the public realm and even its continued provision of frontline services.
So he seeks to ride out and meet his opponents: so-called secularists (who, let’s face it, are really atheists) who are utterly fixated with trying to salami-slice mainstream religious voices from public life, issue-by-issue. Cardinal O’Brien would be on firmer ground this week if he had been clearer about the nature of his underlying critique.
Yet the rights of the religious to have a voice in matters temporal and seek to shape public policy should be a cause true liberals uphold. If Greenpeace, Save the Children and Jamie Oliver are entitled to sound off about issues of concern, why not a cardinal too?
Keith O’Brien raised precisely this issue last week (to, it has to be said, considerably less fanfare) when he paid tribute to Shabaz Bhatti the slain Pakistani minister for minority affairs who bravely defended religious plurality and was an outspoken critic of the Pakistani state’s medieval blasphemy laws. He was murdered for his trouble last year. “The call of religious freedom was one he made his own” said O’Brien in tribute. This is the nub of the cardinal’s concern: the rights of religious to hold to their beliefs unencumbered by an encroaching state.
Whether under communism, fascism or now liberalism, the same demand is made: Religion must be a purely private affair. To Cardinal O’Brien this is “state-imposed orthodoxy” – a product of our assuming a political culture which seeks to legislate into every nook and cranny, riding roughshod over useful areas of ambiguity and codifying every dot and comma of human interaction.
The lawyers, of course, are having a field day; (possibly something to do with our legislature being stuffed with them). This shift, often subtle, often not, is a move away from co-existence to compliance, backed up by the force of law and an army of noisy protagonists eager to enforce it.
This is no small matter for catholic clergy who were once put to death for practicing their faith in this country. It took until 1829 to get the Catholic Relief Act passed and the Catholic Church is a minority affair in the UK to this day. It has no bishops sitting in the House of Lords, nor does it have any special constitutional privileges, a point many of my muddled atheist friends seem not to fully understand when mouthing ill-informed pieties about secularisation.
In understanding Keith O’Brien the man, the Scottish context is important too. 58 per cent of religious hate crimes in Scotland are against catholics. As Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Cardinal O’Brien sees his flock under physical as well as intellectual attack and is a doughty fighter in their defence. As, indeed, he is a champion of social justice (he thinks the replacement of Trident is “immoral”). And, yes, a hardliner when it comes to extending gay rights. Confused? To many of his denouncers on the left this calculus simply does not compute. How can you be part old Labour, part social conservative culture warrior?
What can I say? Religion and politics are complicated. They do not neatly intersect. The liberal-left needs to understand this and stop picking fights with people who, on so many other issues, are obvious allies; while the cardinal would do well to refocus his ire on his real opponents. He should perhaps note that early evidence shows the dissolution rate of civil partnerships is lower than that of heterosexual marriages. In this respect, the commitment shown by thousands of gay and lesbian couples adds to the common good.
But O’Brien is right to argue for the space to disagree – freedom of conscience – without being pushed into pressure group-sponsored conformity. That he does so uncompromisingly shows there is little goodwill to call upon. The scars of earlier battles have not healed, notably the row about gay adoption from a few years ago. The provision that adoption agencies must no longer discriminate against gay couples led to the closure of long-established catholic-run agencies who felt the reform contravened their doctrines. The net result was agencies which had been widely respected for specialising in finding homes for children in profoundly difficult circumstances simply shut-up shop.
This issue still rankles in catholic quarters. Again, a relative fringe matter provoked a needlessly full-on row. Figures about the number of gay couples seeking to adopt Down’s Syndrome babies are not readily to hand, but my guess is that the agencies would not have been particularly troubled. So was there really a need to push the debate into corners and write all this into law?
The plain fact is that the gay rights agenda has more or less run its course. There has been a transformation in attitudes towards gay and lesbian people and a broad acceptance of their status and the often difficult circumstances of their early lives. This is all to be applauded.
Much of this has been achieved with great dignity and common sense by campaigners over a long period of years. But, as ever, nuance is lost. Catholic teaching too upholds the “dignity of the human person” and readily extends this to gay people, not that this always comes across in these noisy rows.
But Keith O’Brien’s call for religious liberty should also be upheld. Everyone – even testy cardinals – is entitled to a point of view and the freedom to articulate it. The liberal-left’s commitment to genuine liberty and diversity is under the spotlight here too. Respect and tolerance is a two-way street.
Ultimately, the stoking of a cultural war is disastrous for the left. With the economy in ruin and international tensions mounting on everything from Iran to the Falklands there are other battles that campaigners and clergy alike would do better to focus their attentions on. Everyone needs to back off.
Whatever happened to agreeing to disagree?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.