This is a time for passionate language; Cardinal O’Brien and Dr Sentamu are right to speak as they do about gay ‘marriage’

Cardinal O'Brien has been accused of 'absurd and inflammatory rhetoric' (PA photo)

The controversy over gay “marriage” is increasingly becoming a defining struggle in the culture wars of our times. Those who are opposed to it believe that if legally enacted it would further destabilise both true marriage and – because, in the old cliché, marriage is one of the building-blocks of society – the whole of our social order too. Those who are in favour of it believe, in the words of the Times newspaper, that “so far from damaging marriage, expanding it to same-sex couples shores it up. Stable gay relationships are a part of national life. If marital law cannot accommodate them, the purpose of marriage will eventually be brought into question. Gay marriage will be a notable but still evolutionary social reform. And the marriage contract has changed historically to take account of shifting mores.”

It looks increasingly as though, in part at least, this question is emerging as a struggle between the religious and the secularisers – and (to complicate a complicated situation further), this latter category, of course, includes many who are secularising members of existing religious communities. It goes without saying that Muslims are against it: but so are Catholics (Cardinal O’Brien on Sunday) and Anglicans (Dr Sentamu, Archbishop of York) and even, in his usual nuanced way, Dr Rowan Williams. This isn’t, of course, a cut and dried division; Quakers, liberal Jews and others, are all for it. But the general trend is there, clearly enough.

The least that can be said is that this proposed innovation is not one which has general and whole-hearted support, and for that reason alone it should be opposed, not only by those who are against it but by those who are in favour of it in principle. The Times newspaper, I was sorry to see this morning, has a leader generally supporting it: but this includes a warning against precipitate action, preceded, however, by a crack at two Christian leaders opposed to it for their supposedly intemperate language:

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, yesterday branded the Government’s position a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has accused the Government of acting like a dictatorship. More temperately, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, maintains that changing the law to allow gay marriage would force unwanted change on the rest of the nation.

If the critics were to restrict their case to stressing the institution of marriage as a support for stable families and societies, they would be making an important contribution to debate. And, though Cardinal O’Brien and Dr Sentamu have chosen to embellish their argument with absurd and inflammatory invective, Dr Williams, a Christian leader of great intellectual gifts, raises an issue that should give pause to those who support change. Reforms to marital law need to be informed by a sense of history, lest they give rise to unintended and damaging consequences. Only in the past generation has the principle of same-sex marriage gained widespread support. It is not a frivolous criticism that the legitimacy of marriage and the social cohesion that it provides might be damaged if the law is rewritten without regard for how most people understand an historic institution.

The Times goes on to say that “the objection is misguided, even so” and continues in words I have quoted above. And there is that accusation of “absurd and inflammatory invective”; the implication being that those in favour of the change are civilised and reasonable and those strongly against it are extremists, even fanatics. This is the kind of accusation which despite the fact that I left the county of my birth as a young man, brings out all the Yorkshireman in me (you can take the lad out of Yorkshire but you can’t etc) and prompts me to rejoin that that was clearly written by some right mealy-mouthed southern smoothy-chop milksop (an American would no doubt add “pantywaist”).

Clear, strong language isn’t necessarily fanatical. Take Dr Sentamu’s accusation that to impose this legislation would be acting like a dictator. This is what he actually said, off the cuff but absolutely on the button: “Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can’t just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are. We’ve seen dictators do it in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time and then overnight the state believes it could go in a particular way.” Why is that “absurd”? How is that any different from what the Times more suavely accepted, that “It is not a frivolous criticism that the legitimacy of marriage and the social cohesion that it provides might be damaged if the law is rewritten without regard for how most people understand an historic institution”?

That’s just what Cardinal O’Brien argued, too: and it’s worthwhile to consider exactly why he did argue that gay marriage would be “a grotesque subversion of a universal human right”; note exactly where the language of human rights comes from here:

Can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?

Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.

Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.

“Tradition,” said Chesterton, “is the democracy of the dead.” Every generation has supposed itself to be wiser than all its predecessors; and succeeding generations have then rejected their immediate predecessors and as often as not either returned to what they swept aside or at least bitterly regretted that it is impossible to do so, since not every mistake can be reversed. Some blunders are very difficult to reject: a new institution of this kind, once established, is all but impossible to suppress, however dire have been the consequences of establishing it in the first place.

Gay “marriage” is quite simply against the grain of human history and human nature. How can it be denied that true marriage, that between a man and a woman, would be immeasurably emblematically weakened if this travesty were to be enacted into law? Cardinal O’Brien has been traduced for the strength of his feelings on this matter: but what kind of man would he be, what kind of Christian leader, having seen so clearly what a disaster the proposed legislation would visit on our society, if his feelings were more “moderate”, or his language less passionate? As a Catholic, I am proud of him: now, it is time for the Catholic position to be spelled out just as unambiguously south of the border.