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Catholics debate: what Rees-Mogg got right and wrong

Jacob Rees-Mogg outside Parliament (Getty)

Since Jacob Rees-Mogg’s interview on Good Morning Britain two days ago, many Catholics have acclaimed his courage in standing up for the unborn and refusing to endorse same-sex marriage. But there have been some criticisms of his performance too. Here are a few highlights from the discussion.

Bishop Philip Egan praised Rees-Mogg’s “wonderful witness”, while Bishop Mark Davies admired Rees-Mogg for “fearlessly” standing by “those Christian convictions on which our society was built.”

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson recalled in his Telegraph column that when he was younger, “I’d be told about various Catholics in high places – as if their example showed that young Catholics can aim high. It never occurred to me that we couldn’t: this kind of discrimination died out a long time ago. But I’m not sure what a young Christian (or Muslim) listening to the Rees-Mogg furore would think about their prospects now. Might religion seriously damage your career or social standing?”

Blogger Mark Lambert argued that the Conservative MP had shown Catholics how to engage with society. “Rees-Mogg is unapologetic and shows great strength and intelligence in defending his beliefs. This is surely what we want to see in our politicians? He brilliantly explains the dichotomy between the law of the land and the teaching of the Church. He is taking the ideological battle out into the culture, not appeasing or accommodating, as so many try – and fail – to do.”

The interview, said Fr Ed Tomlinson, “was embarrassing; it was men against boys in terms of intellectual understanding.” Rees-Mogg’s careful reasoning put the interviewers’ “groupthink” to shame. Nevertheless, “The demonisation of Christianity we witness should alarm us all. For history teaches dehumanisation of any minority is a step on the road to persecution. So thank God for the courage of Jacob Rees-Mogg who, unlike [Tim] Farron, refuses to apologise for his faith.”

At the Catholic Herald, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith wondered if Rees-Mogg’s interview might actually help him politically. “Jacob Rees-Mogg can with conviction present himself as an alternative to the socially liberal Toryism of people like [Justine] Greening. In this he has one huge advantage: he is intelligent, sincere and coherent.”

But some Catholics were concerned by the way Rees-Mogg expressed himself. Joseph Shaw, while giving Rees-Mogg his support, was concerned that Rees-Mogg implied opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage were purely matters of faith, rather than reasonable positions even non-Christians should hold. The MP’s appeal to his religion “plays right into the hands” of those who claim Catholic teaching is unreasoning bigotry which should be driven from the public square.

Moreover, said Shaw, Rees-Mogg implied that abortion and marriage were different issues, because marriage is a more private matter. Shaw objected: “The implication that we can let homosexual couples who wish to ‘marry’ get on with it, whereas we can’t let abortionists and their clients get on with abortion, suggests that marriage is not a public institution with implications for other married couples, children, and society as a whole.” In a follow-up post, Shaw offered some suggestions about how to answer the difficult questions.

At Premier Christianity, the Catholic writer Peter D Williams shared some of Shaw’s concerns. While praising Rees-Mogg’s “firm confidence and gentle compassion”, Williams pointed out that some of his answers could have been improved. On gay sex, for instance, Rees-Mogg would only say “that Catholic teaching says we should not judge anyone. This isn’t a good interpretation of the pericope adulterae – which is not about not judging people and actions, but not doing so in hypocrisy – let alone a defence of the Christian doctrine.”

The canon lawyer Ed Condon observed that Rees-Mogg could have added nuance to his answer about marriage. Although non-Christian marriages aren’t sacramental, Condon told the Catholic Herald, they are “no less indissoluble, no less real, no less truly and wholly marriage.”

Indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman is not a uniquely Catholic institution, Condon said, but something common to all mankind: it comes under what Roman jurists called the “ius gentium”, or “law of all peoples”. This is traditionally held to be “the law which natural reason establishes in all people.”

Nevertheless, Rees-Mogg’s interview was “heartening”, said Condon. “As he was shamelessly badgered by the presenters, who clearly wanted a soundbite of him “opposing” or “condemning” gay people, he refused to concede them a negative verb.” Perhaps the best thing Rees-Mogg did “was to demonstrate that it is possible to have one’s beliefs held up to incredulous scrutiny and yet remain unfailingly polite, positive, and uncompromising. In that, he’s an example to all sides.”