Last Saturday the results of the Irish referendum came through, as predicted: a clear victory for those who campaigned to make marriage a legal right for couples of the same sex. Many reasons for this result have now been debated: that it was a vote to punish the Church for the decades-long scandal of clerical sexual abuse; that it reflected the total ignorance of so many young Irish Catholics about their faith and in particular, about the sacrament of marriage; that the Yes campaign was helped by huge financial support from sympathisers in the US; that the Irish hierarchy’s defence of marriage was weak, divided and muted – and so on.
Whatever the reasons, the result has to be seen as a decisive blow to the institution of marriage as it has been understood and upheld all over the world for millennia. But what was most worrying in the surveys and interviews in the media that I read was the complete absence of any serious argument, reason or reflection. The Yes campaign presented itself as an emotional juggernaut: we have been persecuted in the past; we now demand our rights; we want equality; Christianity is meant to be about love; Jesus would agree with us; if you disagree with us you are a cold-hearted bigot etc.
The question I asked myself after watching the Irish debacle was: in a society where emotion reigns supreme, how can Christians make a case for the natural law in public today? I have been reading a book that raises this very question: Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture by the highly respected American journalist and blogger, Sheila Liaugminas. The author argues on the basis of the inalienable dignity of human beings and what such dignity means for unborn children, for the elderly, for married love between men and women and for conscience.
I asked Sheila how Christians can continue to conduct a dialogue in the public area over “essential principles” when western society now endorses a relativist morality? She is adamant that we must “attempt civil discourse constantly, bringing clarity and charity to the public conversation about fundamental truths that apply to all humanity, centred on human dignity. We must speak and act respectfully and be unwavering in our consistent recourse to reason and demonstrable facts. Engage critical thinking skills; see how beliefs are based on false premises and challenge the premises when they are flawed.”
She suggests finding common ground at first, where we can agree, such as “killing an innocent person. Be grounded in facts. On abortion, for instance, what we now have that we didn’t have at the time of Roe v Wade in America, is more than 40 years’ understanding of the ravages of abortion to women, men, families and society.”
How, I ask her, can Christians exercise their right of conscience in a society which won’t recognise those rights (as in the recent Ashers bakery case in Northern Ireland)? Sheila is clear: “People cannot be forced to carry out actions that violate their conscience, actions that require them to give material assistance to what they believe is a grave moral offence.” An admirer of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King (whose speeches on civil rights she discusses in her book), she adds, “He quoted Augustine and Aquinas in saying ‘an unjust law is no law at all'”. Sheila believes we must ask for a “respectful clarification of what law protects or requires (as in protection of conscience rights)”. She is clear that “if law requires compliance in what may violate conscience, we have to seek alternatives, even if that means other employment.”
It might also mean taking legal measures, if no other recourse protects your rights. Shelia points out that in the US, the threat to religious liberty and laws protecting that freedom imposed by the federal HHS mandate “has led to over 100 lawsuits by individuals, employers, businesses, institutions and religious orders.”
My final question, in the light of the Irish referendum, is on marriage: how should we now conduct this debate – given the hostility of the Yes campaigners towards those defending natural marriage? Sheila responds, “The objectively true fact is that civilisation has recognised in law that marriage is between a man and a woman until very recently. The claim now that tolerance demands acceptance of the redefinition of marriage is itself intolerant. We must charitably but firmly engage and encourage robust public debates on marriage, family and society – as Pope Francis has done, but with little media coverage on these particular addresses.”
Sheila’s conclusion is eloquent and heartening: “No matter what the issue Christians must not, cannot, be cowed into silence about the truths of human life and dignity, for the good of ‘all God’s children’. In times of great confusion, people need to hear and see witnesses to truth, beauty, love and goodness more urgently that in times when first principles informed and guided the dominant culture.”
She reminds me that “there are wonderful groups, organisations, movements and other initiatives spanning the globe, doing humanitarian work every day. But we need more united voices speaking more frequently with conviction, courage and clarity, about true freedom, human rights and the promotion of human dignity – in order to continue to be on what has proven to be the right side of history.”