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ReligionThe Scottish Review

We are making progress to a kinder, more tolerant Scotland

By 13 March 2012No Comments

Brian Fitzpatrick’s thoughtful piece (8 March 2012) was a welcome rebuttal of the intemperate comments of Cardinal O’Brien. I liked his description of the broad Catholic consensus for ‘tolerance on social issues’. 
My hunch is that his description is likely accurate although it is a broad consensus with substantial exceptions. I listened with some amazement earlier this week to the description by an elderly Catholic lady on ‘Call Kaye’ of homosexuals as ‘evil’. Kaye Adams asked her if she actually meant what she had just said and paused to give an opportunity for reflection. The lady however repeated her assertion. The cardinal may be speaking ex-cathedra but he also articulates a powerful and dogmatic orthodoxy among his flock.
Where Brian Fitzpatrick’s piece leaves me puzzled, pleased but puzzled, is his statement that the cardinal’s outburst seemed to owe more ‘to another era’. The Catholic church’s claim, some would see it as its great strength, would be that its verities are timeless. If Brian Fitzpatrick wants the Catholic church to move with the times, he will be sorely disappointed. It has failed decisively to move on other key issues which he and I have debated in past editions of Scottish Review.
It was interesting that on the same day as Brian Fitzpatrick acknowledged the reasonable desire of gay couples to affirm their lifetime love and commitment, different conclusions were being drawn by another Catholic columnist.
Christina Odone writes with panache from a rather unusual Catholic perspective for the Daily Telegraph. (She is a believing Catholic married to a divorcee. She therefore could not marry in church and cannot take communion. She describes her own situation as painful but not unfair: she ‘knew the rules’.)
Odone admits to a position – she welcomed the introduction of civil partnerships – which might not please the orthodox within her church. She did so because she recognised the legitimate desire of many gay couples, in strong and loving relationships, to cement that relationship with a public declaration of their intended permanency. She saw civil partnerships as a means of avoiding the unfairness which applied to gay couples over matters such as pensions and wills but she insists that marriage is different, a step too far.
She starts her column by arguing that as a sacrament marriage is different from civil partnerships. (Historically of course, marriage, in Presbyterian Scotland has, since the Reformation, been a civil contract and not a sacrament.) She has no doubt – and she may be right – that the inevitable consequence of the legalisation of gay marriage is that a powerful force will be generated to demand that religious institutions do not discriminate against homosexuals by refusing to marry them. The sacrament itself would be in danger. She certainly sees any attempts by the state to legislate on religious practice and belief as dangerous and unacceptable.
Odone asks if marriage is a sacrament or a civil contract and by posing that question hits the very dilemma which Brian Fitzpatrick and liberal Catholics seek to dodge. Is marriage merely a useful and effective social construct, as Odone puts it, to ‘rein in our instincts and institutionalise our love’, or is it also a God-given institution?
If marriage is God-given, does it come with rules which are beyond human tampering? There is of course an argument that marriage is God-given but there is no need to accept the strictures from divine texts written two and more millennia ago as requiring literal interpretation today. That seems to be Brian Fitzpatrick’s position with his references to positions more appropriate for ‘another era’. There are therefore some Christians who will contemplate gay marriage.
The Catholic church, with its tradition of papal and priestly authority cannot make such dramatic u-turns. Nor is the hierarchy of such a church, with a long history of repression on matters sexual, open to liberalism, pragmatism or fashion on how it treats its own gay members or the gay community at large. Brian Fitzpatrick and his open and tolerant approach are welcome and may even among Catholics represent a new majority (I am not certain but it may) but he will not change his church’s thinking.
Not only is gay marriage soon likely to become legal in Scotland, but it will represent no great movement from the traditional Scottish view of marriage as a civil contract.
The traditionalists might however take some crumbs of comfort if they cared to reflect that perhaps the demand for same-sex marriage is precisely an endorsement of the value of marriage as an institution. For the rest of us, including it seems clear the more thoughtful members of the Catholic church, change is coming and it represents some progress towards a kinder and more tolerant Scotland.
The above article was first published in Scottish review on 13 March 2012:
It was written in response to an article by Brian Fitzpatrick:

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