Sex, the Church, and the Cardinal

Oh dear. Yet again the Roman Catholic Church has managed to bring itself into disrepute over sex. One feels the need to mangle Oscar Wilde: that to make a right royal sexual cock-up once might be considered a misfortune, but to do it repeatedly, indeed constantly, looks like carelessness. Not that carelessness even begins to cover it. The Church has managed, at every turn, to substitute rules for principles, obfuscation for clarity, and lies for truthfulness.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s catastrophic fall from grace, in a display every bit as spectacular as that of any unannounced meteor over Russia, seems almost to have been designed to concentrate all the Church’s confusions and dishonesties over sex – and gay sex in particular – into one super-saturated droplet of self-destructive poison.

Christianity’s moral principles could, at root, be distilled into two precepts: that we should consider others’ needs before our own; and that what we want is frequently not good for us, and even less good for others. Or, to put it more biblically, we should love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves, and love God even more than we love ourselves. When applied to our sexual behaviour this means simply that we are not at liberty to indulge our sexual desires merely for our self-gratification, and that to do so is to put at risk our own health (in a holistic sense, not merely in the sense of disease) and that of our sexual partners. This is, in itself, quite a sufficiently counter-cultural position to take in a society that seems increasingly to want to sexualise everything, and to idolise (in its literal sense) the obtaining of sexual pleasure and satisfaction. It was never necessary for the Church to over-egg that pudding by adding prohibitions on particular sexual acts, or particular couplings – still less for it to relegate sexual activity itself to some sort of barely permissible pastime that can only be justified by the procreation of children.

But the Church has got itself into a right old mess. It’s created a male-only environment, and then been gobsmacked to discover that it has attracted a lot of gay men. It’s demonised homosexuality, and then looked aghast as its gay priests have found themselves obliged to conduct their sexual lives undercover and clothe their public lives in layers of hypocrisy. Having created a sexual underworld, it now discovers that its secrecy and denial have permitted it to be colonised by paedophiles and all kinds of other purveyors of sexual deviancy.

Seen in this light it’s hard to know if Cardinal O’Brien is more victim or more perpetrator. His hypocrisy in speaking out so vehemently against homosexuality whilst, apparently, indulging in that very activity in his private life, is indeed breathtaking. But at the same time, it seems to me, he has been as it were entrapped by an institution that has simultaneously both created a homosexual culture, and also denied the validity of homosexual expression. It can surely be no surprise that such contradictions have produced so much damage and human tragedy.

The cardinal’s sin isn’t really his hypocrisy, still less his homosexuality. It’s his lack of moral courage. Ultimately, I can’t condemn him. He is a victim, no less than those priests who so belatedly exposed him. Indeed, they are all victims of a Church that has got it all wrong about sex. And until it starts to get it right, there will be more sexual scandals, more cardinals exposed, more priests abused, and more victims in the pews.

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Once more unto the breach for gay marriage

Do please forgive me if I’m boring you, because I know I’ve written on this subject twice before. To be honest, even I don’t think that gay marriage is up there with environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation in the pantheon of things we should be most urgently fretting about, but the issue does seem to have an extraordinary ability to part people on all sides from any sense of proportion, or indeed, of any sense of sense.

For those who believe simply that gay marriage is an abomination in the eyes of Almighty God, and then leave it at that, I have some respect even if no scintilla of agreement. But the opponents of gay marriage seem far too embarrassed just to leave it at that, and instead feel constrained to make up all sorts of other spurious and, frankly, scaremongering additional objections. None of them, it seems to me, stand up to scrutiny.

So here’s a canter through some of the most often advanced additional reasons, beyond that of God’s personal displeasure, and why they make little or no sense.

  • That gay marriage will somehow make it impossible to bring children up properly in future. Aside from the rather obvious point that we don’t seem, as a society, to be doing a very good job of bringing up children properly now anyway, without gay marriage, this seems the strawriest of straw men. How exactly will the fact that some gay men and women are married impact on how I bring up my children in my heterosexual marriage? Will it be the embarrassment of having to explain these same-sex couples to my children during the supermarket run? If avoiding parental embarrassment were central to successful child-rearing, then sex education would disappear overnight. Insofar as this argument has any coherent basis, it generally seems to be something to do with making it more likely that the off-spring of unsuccessful heterosexual relationships will find themselves coerced into gay ones. Well, if that’s so bad, it happens now anyway. How will being coerced into a gay marriage be any more damaging than coercion into a gay civil partnership? The same argument applies to gay couples adopting. If it’s so wicked, why will it be more wicked if the couple is married?
  • That society is founded on marriage between a man and a woman, and to extend the concept to gay couples will knock society’s struts from under it. I happen to be a supporter of marriage (now – I haven’t always been) but if too few marriages are threatening society’s cohesion, I should have thought that adding more marriages would be a good thing. I fail entirely to see how permitting gay marriage would undermine heterosexual marriage. As a heterosexual married man, why would the sight of gay married men, for example, make me more likely to be unfaithful, or to abuse my wife? Were I to be tempted to gay unfaithfulness, then perhaps the knowledge that I was also threatening someone’s marriage might give me greater pause. Hang on, I’m starting to give this notion more credibility than it deserves. I’m not tempted to gay unfaithfulness largely because I’m not gay.
  • That it’s OK to have heterosexual marriage, and gay civil partnerships, but calling them all marriage will cause the heavens to fall. I rather doubt it. But the fear that it may do is based on an old misunderstanding – that equality between things is tantamount to saying that they are the same thing. That’s not true. To say that gay people and heterosexuals are equal in being married is not to suggest that gay relationships and heterosexual relationships have mysteriously become the same thing. A pound of carrots is equal to a pound of potatoes, but carrots are not potatoes. Gay and heterosexual marriages would be equal, but not the same.
  • That allowing gay marriage is simply a giving-in to selfish demands for the indulging and normalising of sexual perversion. This is the crux, actually. This is why the opponents of gay marriage are so vulnerable to the charge that they are simply homophobic. Once the legitimacy of gay sexual attraction is conceded, then all the other objections melt away. No less an authority on the subject of sexual desire than St Paul himself accepted that it is better to marry than to burn.

Thus there are only two real objections to gay marriage, and they are often merged together. God is implacably opposed to it, and/or homosexuality is a filthy perversion anyway. Either or both of those is an honest position to take. If you believe those things, say so and be damned. But don’t witter on about society, bringing up children, or changing what has always hitherto been understood as the nature of marriage. Just stick to your guns, and I’ll stick to mine.

Inter-racial adoption and gay children

Yesterday I ended up having an interesting, and somewhat robust, exchange on Twitter with Johann Hari, he of the Independent column, scourge of the Pope, radical atheist, gay activist, and thorn in the side of right-wingers everywhere. Although we have some very sharp differences of view – most especially on religion – I am normally very much in sympathy with his perspectives. I remember a particularly piquant dissection by him of the Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham and I couldn’t have roared him on with more enthusiasm if he’d been John Terry about to take his penalty against Manchester United in the 2008 Champions’ League final. Although, as on that occasion, I don’t always back the winner, of course.

In this instance, the subject of our disagreement had nothing to do with religion, but to do with inter-racial adoption. The Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, had been explaining the government’s updating of adoption guidelines to make inter-racial adoption easier, laying less emphasis on racial matching of adoptive parents and the children that they might adopt. Johann welcomed these changes and found “the idea that white adopted parents can’t understand black children bizarre. My parents were straight and loved me totally.” He went on to tweet “that I hate this idea we’re divided by chasms of race, sexuality etc. In fact we’re all pretty similar, and empathy can bridge the differences.” I wonder about two assumptions that underpin these sentiments, both of them controversial.

The first is that racism and homophobia (not an expression I would have coined myself since it implies that dominant heterosexual society acts out of fear rather than out of irrational hatred coupled with the power to impose that hatred) are equivalent in this context. Of course Johann is not arguing that racism and homophobia are the same, but they have sufficient “similarities” as he put it to be used as analogies when it comes to thinking about the ability of parents to reach out across the divisions of race and sexuality. The second is that “empathy can bridge the differences”.

What is wrong with these assumptions? I have the horrible feeling that I’m about to upset a lot of people whose opinions I respect, and whose sensibilities I have no wish to offend. But I simply don’t believe that the undoubted things that are common to racism and homophobia are sufficient to overcome the fundamental differences between them. Both lead to discrimination. Both lead to injustice. Both have elements of institutionalisation. Both are deeply, morally obnoxious. Both need to be challenged. Both have been taken up by fascists. But homophobia is not of itself routinely associated with social and economic disadvantage. Homosexuality is not inescapably visible across a street (and that is no reason why anyone should be pressured or obliged to avoid visible identification as gay.) And most importantly, homophobia has not resulted in the enforced migration of tens of millions, of their enslavement over hundreds of years, of the continuing economic oppression of whole continents. Of course there is such a thing as “gay culture”, but gay sub-cultures have always existed alongside heterosexual culture, and in some periods and in some places, have had higher, rather than lower, social status. Because all societies have always had gay members, there has always been a rapprochement to be arrived at. For sure, that rapprochement has often been at the expense of a bitter and disgraceful price for gay people, but there have been ebbs and flows throughout history. Racism in the modern western world comes from  specific social and economic events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion into the East.

So what? For this debate, I think these differences are critical. It is inevitable that gay children will by and large be brought up by straight parents simply because of arithmetic. It is normal in the statistical sense for this to be the case. And it is hard to see this as a “problem” that can be “solved”. What would such a solution look like? Being gay is, at least to some extent, a behavioural issue (sexual relations are surely a behaviour) in a way that being black is not. So I dare say that Johann is right when he says that heterosexual parents can use empathy to bridge the differences with their gay offspring. In a way, if empathy cannot bridge that gap, then nothing can. What else is there? No-one is suggesting that gay children are forcibly adopted by gay adoptive parents in order to experience a more sympathetic family milieu. None of this is true for black children being adopted by white parents. Gay children still have cultural ties to their straight parents. Black children do not have the same ties to their white adoptive parents.

But finally, the problem of inter-racial adoption is political, not developmental. It is political because, whether we like it or not, Britain is still a deeply racist country, and white British people are still largely ignorant about black history and black culture. It is political because race is inextricably bound up with economics and deprivation. It is political because relative to their numbers, disproportionately many black people in this country are disproportionately poor. These things cannot be overcome with empathy. You might think that getting adopted by rich white parents might be the simplest way out of these problems. But that would be to sell those children’s heritage down the river, and is effectively buying off their racial identity. You might as well offer gay kids money to act straight.

I do not believe that inter-racial adoption is morally wrong, and I know that it is often the least worst option for many children otherwise languishing in a damaging care system. But it is problematic, and trying to avoid it is not just political correctness getting things out of proportion. It is trying to ensure that at least black children are sustained in families that share their history, and their relationships to British society. When, and as, they grow up black kids need all the racial support they can get to deal with the racism that they will inevitably confront.

Idiocy and illiberalism – an unpleasant mixture

On 2nd May The Telegraph published a report in which it described the arrest of a Cumbrian preacher for telling a passer-by that homosexuality is a sin. I’d like to place it on the public record that I think the arrested man, Mr Dale McAlpine, is a fool whose version of Christianity I find both idiotic and repugnant. Why therefore am I so disturbed by this incident, and why am I not able to feel quiet satisfaction that views with which I so fundamentally disagree are being effectively suppressed by the likes of the very diligent Police Community Support Officer who reported Mr McAlpine to his real police colleagues so that they could then effect the subsequent arrest?

I can disabuse you of one explanation right now. It has nothing to do with Christian solidarity. I have recently in this very blog expressed my clear position that not only is it intolerable to expect religious exemptions from the law of the land, the refusal to grant such exemptions cannot conceivably be described as discrimination against the religious. So I am absolutely not arguing that because Mr McAlpine’s particular stupidity is blamed by him on his dubious biblical exegesis, he should be allowed to behave in a way that someone not similarly deranged would be prevented from doing. No, my concern is for the encroachment on all our civil liberties that this case exemplifies, and for the drift towards a state-determined morality that might have more appropriately graced the dystopia of Orwell or Huxley.

Mr McAlpine was charged under Sections 5 (1) and (6) of the Public Order Act which, according to the Telegraph report, “outlaws the unreasonable use of abusive language likely to cause distress”. I believe that it is sinful to use the financial system to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, and subsequently to use that wealth to place massive bets that when lost throw innocent citizens into unemployment and penury. The sin is that of greed, an old-fashioned one, and also one that successive governments have tried hard to encourage us all to indulge. We may not have needed much encouragement, but that’s neither here nor there. The vast majority of the citizenry of this country no longer perceive their own behaviour as greedy, and even if they do, do not find it especially sinful. So if I should preach in the public square that greed is sinful, that most of us are guilty of it, and that some are very much more guilty than others, and if I should go further and name individuals or categories, such as bankers, that I accuse in particular, might I not cause them distress? If I add some abusive spice, and say that in my opinion Mr Fred Goodwin is a sinful fucker and total bastard, should I be arrested under this Act? Would I be? If I were to have the misfortune to preach in this fiery and distressing way within the earshot of a PCSO who is also a member of the British Bankers’ Association, would it be right for that officer to use his partiality as an added incentive for bringing me before the beak? No, it would not. The PCSO in the McAlpine case turned out to be the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender liaison officer. Isn’t there just a tiny conflict of interest here? And, if the Telegraph report is to be believed, Mr McAlpine did not use the kind of invective that I included in my fantasy sermon a couple of sentences back. All he did was to say in public that it was his (in my judgement entirely erroneous) belief that homosexuality is a sin.

Telling someone that they are sinful is not causing them distress, especially as it is very unlikely that they believe in the concept of sin anyway. And so what if it does? How on earth can it be a crime to distress someone? If Mr McAlpine had preached that it was a damn fine idea to string up every gay person from the nearest lamppost or to set fire to their houses, preferably with them inside, that would be a different matter. Incitement to hatred, and to act on that hatred violently, is rightly a crime. Telling someone something they don’t want to hear, or which undermines their self-esteem, is not.

Let me repeat my Twitter comment on this sorry episode. Mr McAlpine is an idiot. The law which prevents him from displaying his idiocy in public is an ass. The preposterous notion that causing offence should be a crime needs demolishing forthwith. It undermines our most basic claim to live in a free society. Those who only notice this when they agree with the offence in question should be ashamed of themselves.