The gentle anger of Britain’s Catholic leaders at the state-sponsored overthrow of marriage

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in a letter in Tuesday’s Telegraph makes some important points about the Government’s attempt to redefine marriage: Image

1. That marriage is “an institution of central importance for the welfare of society as a whole, to believers and unbelievers alike”. This is not, in short, something that only Christians (should) care about. 

2. What the Government is attempting is a redefinition of marriage to become merely “a contract between individuals irrespective of their sex, without regard either to its procreative function or to the complementarity of the relationship between man and woman”. This is both “an abuse of language” as well as an abuse of the state’s role: “The state has the right to oversee the administration and legal aspects of marriage, but it has never been accepted that the state can dictate to individuals and society itself what marriage should mean to us.”

3. David Cameron, who claimed in the run-up to the election to want to defend and promote marriage, is doing the opposite. First, he is weakening marriage “by diminishing its implications and its significance” through the new definition above; second, nothing has been heard of the “tax breaks for married couples” which the Conservative manifesto promised. Yet “nothing has been heard of the latter proposal, and instead of action to strengthen marriage we have the proposal to abandon the traditional understanding of marriage on the basis of a “consultation” which explicitly excluded the possibility of a negative result.” 

In short, says the Cardinal, “it is difficult not to wonder how far the Prime Minister is someone whose steadiness of purpose can be relied on.”

The Cardinal’s strongly-worded comments follow a statement by the English Catholic Church’s two leading bishops, Archbishops Nichols and Smith, who on 11 December criticised the Government’s authoritarian and chaotic handling of the forthcoming Bill. Noting that “the meaning of marriage matters”, and that the meaning was derived from its nature as the “foundation of the family”, the archbishops said the Government had “ignored” the 600,000 + who have signed the Campaign for Marriage petition and said the process of bringing the forthcoming Bill — expected end January 2013 — was “shambolic”. They go on to urge people to write to their MPs. “It is not too late to stop this Bill”, they point out. 

Meanwhile, Fr Stephen Wang, Dean of Studies at London’s Allen Hall seminary, and Imagechaplain to Catholic Voices, considers how the same-sex marriage proposal does not extend rights but removes them. The new definition of marriage, he points out, means telling a man and a woman planning to marry that their sexual difference is irrelevant to the institution they are entering. “A right has been taken away,” he notes. 

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The point is well made. The Government seeks to extend the right to marry to gay couples;  yet what they are allowing gay couples to enter is, by that extension, no longer marriage, but something akin to civil partnership. Thus is marriage weakened, and not, as the Government tries to claim, strengthened. 

This is much more than about language. Fr Stephen goes on:

Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

He concludes: 

The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

This is the key battleground over the next month — to make the case for the distinctiveness of marriage, while demonstrating that it is not “equality” that is advanced by this move, but the elimination of vital distinctions. 

A new video produced by the Iona Institute in Dublin makes the case for this distinctiveness simply and compellingly. Image

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