Nationally and internationally, the Catholic church has been having a rough time. Its failure to root out paedophile priests and hand them over to the criminal justice system just about seemed to have blown over when, in Scotland, it became embroiled in the same-sex marriage issue.
Keen to strike the first blow, the church, in coalition with some strange bedfellows, succeeded in marshalling sufficient signed, anti-same-sex marriage postcards to the government that it could claim that 64%, a clear majority, of those who contributed to the government’s consultation process were opposed to the proposals. All credit to an effective PR machine, it was a good tactic. (The subsequent suggestion that 64% of the population oppose same-sex marriage is however an entirely invalid non-sequitur.)
After that everything went downhill. Bishop Tartaglia’s appallingly ill-informed comments about the death of David Cairns MP were bad enough. His woeful apology compounded the embarrassment: ‘I wish I had never alluded to Mr Cairns. I am very sorry for the offence it caused. I have made a sincere apology and hope that it is accepted’. No apology for the gross inaccuracies or even for the crass insensitivity, merely for the offence it caused. That faux pas had barely passed when Cardinal O’Brien’s presumptuous declaration that he was breaking off relations with the Scottish Government hit the headlines.
In the middle of this, several courageous and liberal Catholics, including Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, for whom Cairns was a former research assistant, and journalist Colette Douglas Home, have attempted to maintain a humane stand on the same-sex marriage issue. One of the most recent such liberal interventions, in the letters page of the Herald, was from a practising Catholic, Caroline Campbell, a Catholic head teacher. She appealed for a change of heart on the part of her church to loving same-sex relationships.
The rejoinder was swift and appeared under the name of Michael Ryan in the letters column of the Herald. Now this response was intriguing, not only because it provided a clear statement of Catholic orthodoxy, but did so by quoting directly from the Catholic church’s own catechism.
Many who dare criticise the Catholic church are told that they misrepresent or misquote or do not understand the position of the church they criticise. Given the source of Mr Ryan’s crystal clear arguments, no such counter charge may be brought on this occasion. Mr Ryan starts by stating that: ‘Catholics do not decide for themselves what to believe… (but) accept that the magisterium of the church is divinely appointed to teach the faith and that is how we know which teachings are true or not’.
That is an amazingly accurate, but today seldom propounded, statement of traditional Catholic teaching. The essence of it is that the church states the truth and it is not the proper role of faithful Catholics to question such truth but to accept it because the church has made its position clear.
He continues to quote the church’s catechism. ‘To the church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles… And to make judgements on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls’.
The warning to Ms Campbell is clear: hers not to reason why, hers but to accept and obey. That is a matter with which Ms Campbell and her conscience will no doubt deal. For the rest of us, it has a larger significance. The Catholic church has never accepted the separation of church and state. It continues to seek to impose its moral teaching, not only on its own adherents, a task entirely within its rights, but on society as a whole.
In Ireland the Catholic church argued against making contraception openly available and against the repeal of the constitutional bar on divorce. It forced its particular view of morality and the family on all non-Catholics in Ireland. Those who value civil liberties will look askance at a church which seeks to impose by law its moral values on the population as a whole.
The Scottish Government is right to judge the issue of same-sex marriage against the yardstick of equalities and to refuse to bow to religious pressure, in particular from an authoritarian church whose view of even its own membership is that ‘they do not decide for themselves what to believe’.
 
The above artilce was first published in Scottish Review on 4 September 2012: http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexWood14.shtml

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