Catholic priests are right to express fears over Government marriage plans

(AP photo)

I just read this quote from the Caelum et Terra blog: “It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, “God in search of Man: a Philosophy of Judaism.”

There is a lot of truth in this. It is too easy to blame “modern society” for the collapse of religious belief in this country. We should look in the mirror and ask ourselves the question “If I were arrested today for being a Christian, what proofs would be found to convict me?”

Tim Stanley said much the same thing in his article, “Christians need to find some old-time zeal” in the Telegraph on Wednesday. After describing the de-Christianisation within Britain today, he concludes: “In our new consumer-driven, postmodern order, Christians have to compete with people pushing other religions or no religion at all. We no longer enjoy a privileged status in the popular imagination. And while it’s easy to blame politicians and courts for this, responsibility ultimately lies with the true believers. The only thing that will renew British Christianity is to drop all the lazy presumptions that Britain is basically Christian, and start again from scratch.”

“To start again from scratch”: I think we are only just beginning to wake up to this truth.

One thing in Stanley’s article I disagree with: when he comments, “Although the Government insists that no church will be compelled to carry out gay marriages, more than 1000 Catholic priests wrote a letter to this newspaper last week protesting that equalities legislation makes a nonsense of this guarantee and that attempts to legalise gay marriage amount to a renewal of historic persecution against Catholics. I, too, am a Catholic – and the idea that the wedding of Adam and Steve can be likened to Cromwell’s rampage across Ireland strikes me as hysterical. But it reflects a wider panic among religious conservatives – the fear that a metropolitan political establishment is conspiring against us.”

I demur for several reasons: equality legislation will certainly undermine the Government’s supposed “guarantee.” Even if the Church wins in the courts when future cases are brought against her, there will be a long, slow war of attrition against those of all faiths and none who believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman. For instance, the Government has said that teachers must continue to uphold marriage: but if the word “marriage” is redefined they will be breaking the law if they don’t uphold the new definition; they won’t be able to uphold the old understanding and the new one at the same time.

Stanley describes the letter of the 1000 priests – including eight bishops and four abbots – as “hysterical.” I would rather describe it as good sense and right judgement. Are the more than 600,000 signatories to the Coalition for Marriage petition (C4M) also “hysterical”? Perhaps the letter reflects justified forebodings at such a fundamental change to the natural order of relationships and is not about “panic” or “fear” or “religious conservatism”. “Marriage” should never have been used as a political issue in this way and it is not “conservative” for Christians and others to champion it. These 1000 priests are not zealots and religious extremists; they are decent, God-fearing men, alongside all the other people who signed the C4M document, who rightly see that there will be far-reaching implications to a change of definition which will, in the course of time, amount to a form of persecution.

You don’t have to refer to Cromwell to realise that persecution need not be bloody or violent; it can simply be quiet, boring, relentless and implacable, fought through the courts and leaving mental and emotional stress and pain in its wake. That is what opponents of a re-definition of marriage will face if the Government forces through this legislation and I am not remotely “hysterical” in pointing this out. So far only individuals have been challenged, such as Christian B+B owners, a Christian registrar, a Christian marriage counsellor, a Christian psychotherapist. If the definition of marriage is changed by law, the whole of society, whether married or unmarried, priest or lay person, will be affected by it.

But to return to Stanley’s main point: there is no use being aggrieved or wringing one’s hands over this approaching confrontation. Those who want to defend marriage must indeed start again from scratch: acknowledge our own lukewarm support for marriage in the past; our tacit acceptance of a widespread contraceptive mentality; our tolerance of cohabitation as an acceptable alternative; and our placid illusion that the comfortable Christian status quo would last forever.