The Soho Masses are now to be discontinued; and the ordinariate has its ‘cathedral’; all we need now is to clarify Catholic teaching on civil unions

Archbishop Nichols (Photo: Mazur/

Two of the obstacles to the greatly-to-be-hoped-for appearance, some time soon, of the name of Archbishop Vincent Nichols in the Bollettino della Santa Sede, as one of those to be given his long-anticipated red hat at the next consistory – presumably along with such luminaries as Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop Müller, the new prefect of the CDF (who recently, we understand, had a somewhat tense private conversation, one on one, with Archbishop Nichols in Rome) have now been removed, by the suppression of the notorious Soho Masses and by the very welcome allocation of the church in which they have been taking place to the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

The Holy Father has for some time been greatly displeased both by the continued scandal of Masses celebrated especially for a congregation which has repeatedly made clear its contempt for the teaching authority of the Holy See, and also for the English Church’s lack of support for the ordinariate, a body which has just as consistently demonstrated its entire loyalty to the Holy Father. So Archbishop Nichols’s announcement last week that, while the Soho Masses will come to an end (with pastoral care of the community continuing at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in Mayfair), and that in Lent Our Lady of the Assumption church will be “dedicated to the life” of the ordinariate, was a very welcome two-for-the-price-of-one double whammy. “I hope,” he obligingly said, “that the use of this beautiful church, in which the young John Henry Newman first attended Mass, will enable Catholics in the ordinariate to prosper and to offer to others the particular gifts of the ordinariate.” Entirely proper sentiments, and a lot better late than never.

That leaves one issue still to be dealt with, which Rome is unlikely to allow to go by default: Archbishop Nichols’s alleged continuing support for civil partnerships (despite the clear condemnation of them by the CDF), a topic which brings us to another interesting recent story, the latest chapter in the continuing story of Anglican disarray: the Church of England has now dropped its prohibition of gay clergy in civil partnerships becoming bishops. The announcement, from the Church’s House of Bishops, would allow gay clergy to become bishops if they promise to be celibate.

This has pleased nobody, it seems: gay clergy say they don’t want to be celibate, and Conservative evangelicals say they will fight the whole thing in the general synod and elsewhere; some say they would physically prevent any gay bishop from even entering their churches.

My readers may remember that I have already argued, in the case of Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Alban’s (to whose personal integrity I can personally attest) that since he had declared his commitment to celibacy, there could be no objection, even though he has declared himself to be homosexual by inclination, to his appointment to the Anglican episcopate, since the C of E officially supports same-sex civil unions, and that the evangelical objections to the ordination of all those attracted to the same sex, whether celibate or not, were theologically illiterate. So you would expect me to support this latest decision (as far as I can support anything done by the C of E) as being at least consistent with its own assumptions about life, the universe and everything.

But I’m not sure, on reflection, that that necessarily follows (or, indeed, that my defence of Dr John was entirely sound). It looks dangerously like saying that civil partnerships are all right for other people but not for Catholics. But that’s not what the Church says.

What it says is that such partnerships are wrong in themselves, and particularly if they involve the right to adopt children:

“As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood. Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development. This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle, recognised also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case.”

And that, too, is what the Catholic Church in England has always argued: and if we don’t believe that, how come we closed down our adoption agencies rather than countenance facilitating adoption by gay couples? So, before the CDF finally says that Archbishop Nichols’s red hat can now go ahead (which we would all of course like to see) that’s one issue that has to be cleared up. Asked to clarify his position, he is on record as saying: “Clearly, respect must be shown to those who in the situation in England use a civil partnership to bring stability to a relationship”; he then said that while “equality is very important and there should be no unjust discrimination”, that “commitment plus equality do not equal marriage”. This was because “the key distinction between civil partnerships and marriage is that the former do not “in law contain a required element of sexual relationships”.

Well up to a point, Lord Copper. Marriage involves sex but civil partnerships don’t? Does anyone really believe that is so, in most cases? But wait: the archbishop did believe for a long time that those attending the Soho Masses were all celibate. I begin to see… All the same, the Catholic Church’s position on same-sex unions is absolutely clear. We just need to get that cleared up; then all will be well. But the matter mustn’t simply be left in the air. There are moments when ambiguity and uncertainty can do untold harm: and this is one of them. It is not permissible for Catholics to oppose gay marriage while (in order to avoid accusations of homophobia) saying that civil unions, as at present understood, are just fine. They’re not: not just for Catholics but for anyone; and especially for the children those in such unions have the right to adopt.