On gay marriage, we have much to learn from France

A number of papers report the letter in last Saturday’s Tablet by the retired Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti — a detailed and precisely-argued case against gay marriage on the grounds that, while sins are not necessarily crimes, it was wrong “to attempt through the law, by equating homosexual unions with heterosexual marriage, to render moral what is in itself morally defective.” Both the Letter, and the reaction to it, reinforce the frame which has dominated the debate over the Churches and gay marriage.Protestors hold placards and balloons during a demonstration against a draft law to allow same-sex marriage in Paris

Whatever the Archbishop’s intended meaning, critics hit back that most people do not regard gay people as “morally defective” — which of course Archbishop Conti never said they were — and that he appeared to be suggesting that homosexuality should be outlawed. Again, this is not something the letter advocated; and as a recent post here details, the Church favours the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. What was read and heard in that letter — however unfair and unjust — was an attempt to use the law to impose ‘Catholic’ morality on a group of people who do not share the Church’s view, a morality, what is more, which appears to start from the idea of gay people as ‘defective’.

The angry misunderstanding is sad but predictable. Whenever those who argue against same-sex marriage (SSM) refer to homosexuality, they reinforce the frame successfully established by SSM advocates, including the Government: that those who oppose SSM do so because they disapprove of homosexuality (“because the Bible tells them to”) and because they care nothing for the civil rights of gay people. Having established their credentials as antediluvian theocrats, their views can be safely dismissed without right-minded people objecting.

Cardinal-Vingt-Trois2Across the channel, however, the Church in France has very successfully avoided this frame. They have kept the focus where is should be – on a defence of the conjugal meaning of marriage, and on the welfare of children. Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris (pictured) sparked the campaign against SSM in France last summer when he prayed that “children and young people cease to be the object of the desires and conflicts of adults, in order to enjoy fully the love of a mother and a father”. His point, of course, was that the rights of children were being trodden on in the rush to redefine marriage — sacrificed, in fact, on the altar of equality. It was a perfect reframe: it identified the hidden victims.

After the minister whose name is on the proposed Taubira law to allow gay marriage and gay adoption accused the cardinal of bringing religion into politics, he said simply: “It is question that concerns man; this is enough”. This is not ‘about’ religion’; it is ‘about’ humankind.

By the autumn, a broad civil alliance against SSM had formed, capable of bringing at least 100,000 onto the streets on 17 November. The movement, under the universal banner of ‘Manif Pour Tous’, is led by what Le Figaro calls “an unusual casting” — la socialo, la catho et l’homo: a Catholic newspaper satirist, Frigide Bardot, a socialist (Laurence Tcheng) as well as Xavier Bongibault, a gay atheist and founder of ‘Plus gay sans mariage’ (the three are pictured here). castoing insolite

The heterogenous, pluralist alliance of believers, non-believers, gay and straight people, of both left and right, has been brought together by a shared human desire to preserve the good of marriage for the benefit, above all, of children. It is a rally ‘for marriage’ and ‘against homophobia’.

The French Church has played a vital leadership role in the campaign — not least in organising the turnout — but its message has blended with that of a broad civil alliance. La Manif Pour Tous is organising  this Sunday in Paris its biggest rally yet (details here). Reuters predicts as many as half a million taking to the streets.

British opponents of SSM also have much to learn from a document written by France’s Chief Rabbi which was described by Pope Benedict XVI before Christmas in his address to the Curia as “a very detailed and profoundly moving study”. Gilles Bernheim’s study, said Pope Benedict, showed how “the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper …  it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question.”Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim - Scholar - Large

Rabbi Gilles Bernheim’s essay — a summary of which we are preparing  — begins by nailing the problem.

What a great many citizens see in the demand for gay marriage is only the next step in the democratic struggle against inequality and discriminations – the continuous struggle to end racism. In the end, we are asked to go along with with the systematic revision of one of the foundations of our society for the sake of equality, open-mindedness, modernity and social conformism. Such a revision, in fact, seems to be already accepted by the majority of our fellow citizens – or so the polls say – and for it to become law does not seem to require a debate which reflects the high stakes involved.

I think, on the contrary, that it is of the utmost importance to clarify what is truly at stake when sexual differences are negated.We can have a public debate on these issues  – as opposed to principles, such as equality, which flatter their self-appointed heralds, but which do not pass the test of a real analysis, when they are invoked to legalize gay marriage, homoparental families and adoption.

My point in this essay is to read behind the lines of the proponents of this law, to examine their arguments and shed light on the negative side-effects of their demands. I want to help to bring about a true debate in the public square: this topic is intended for something better than the self-satisfied, self-righteous jury which is supposed to keep the issue safe and warm until the law can be voted, caricaturing disparagingly those who might seek to question their plans and motivations.

In the UK, the latest word is that the ‘Equal Marriage’ Bill will come before Parliament for its first vote (Second Reading) on 28 January. Is it too much to hope that those who oppose this Bill achieve, in a matter of weeks, something of what the French have managed —  to construct a rainbow alliance, broad in its composition; and to focus the debate away from homosexuality and equality and onto the “high stakes” involved?

***’La Manif Pour Tous’ is inviting supporters of traditional marriage to make their feelings known in London this Sunday at the same time as the Paris rally. Meet in front of the French embassy, 58 Knightsbridge, from midday. 

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