The Catholic Church's untenable stand on gay marriage undermines its entire corpus of moral teaching.
So what are we to make of Cardinal Keith O'Brien's outburst, We cannot afford to indulge this madness, in the Telegraph over the weekend against the government's proposals to open civil marriage to gay couples? After the outrage has subsided I am left with a feeling of plain bafflement.
The implication of the Cardinal's words is that traditional values in British society are Christian ones, and that it is the duty of Christians to defend them against more modern modern attitudes. One of the early critics of the Cardinal's article argued that he was crying wolf; since he had similarly objected to civil partnerships for gays, and as this had not led to the predicted collapse in civilisation, we should ignore his objections this time. But Cardinal O'Brien takes this episode as part of his justification: he had warned that civil partnerships were just the thin end of the wedge - and, just as he predicted, the debate has now moved on to the sacred ground of marriage. Where will it all end? He suggested such outrages as marriage covering more than two people, as a sort of reductio ad absurdam.
But such thinking just shows how much he is out of touch with most of the general public. Two things have changed. First people have come to accept that there is nothing harmful in gay relationships, and that such relationships stem primarily from how people are made, and not from their perverted choices. This change is particularly striking amongst the young, as this Economist article shows. The second change is that people no longer think that marriage is primarily about having children: it is about lifelong partnership and companionship, driven by love rather than the need to keep the population going. Put these two things together and objections to gay marriage melt away.
And it's not as if these issues challenge any fundamental Christian principles. It is true that the Old Testament comes out pretty strongly against gay relationships, though their prohibition doesn't merit inclusion in the Ten Commandments. But Christians, from Jesus Christ onwards, have always taken a flexible attitude to Old Testament teachings. If Christians may eat bacon, why can't they have gay relationships? we nust fall back on higher principles than simply referring to ancient texts.
And on the question of sex, marriage and the family, the Church's past flexibility is striking. In New Testament times the primary focus of Christians was the urgency of the Second Coming. Sexual relationships of any kind were regarded as a distraction. In the gospels where Jesus makes it plain that the Christian calling may well conflict with family ties, and where this happened family comes second - as he himself had shown through his difficult relationship with his mother. But now compatibility with family values are a central claim of practically all Christian denominations, with the implication that no conflict exists between family and Christianity.
And the Catholic Church has been here before. Their stand against contraception is widely ignored in even fervently Catholic countries like Poland. Opposition to gay relationships and gay marriage is headed in the same direction.
According to its leaders, one of the main attractions of the Catholic Church is its clear laying down of moral principles, in a world where values are undermined by relativism. And indeed there are important moral weaknesses in the world at large - such as when individuals come up against the state or anonymous organisations (looters and benefit cheats at one end of the social scale, company directors avoiding tax and voting themselves unwarranted salaries at the other). It's not that the Church avoids these moral issues, it's that its untenable stand on issues such as contraception and gay relationships encourages a pick'n mix approach to its teachings even amongst its loyal followers. And its credibility in the wider world is shot through. And that's even before we have talked about the moral failings of certain Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy's first response when it found out.
It is safe to assume that the Cardinal is a man of faith, and feels that his actions are guided through prayer and are the will of God. He must follow his calling, and political calculation and what the majority think do not come into it. So why is God sending him and his Church up such a blind alley? The ways of God are indeed mysterious.