The mysterious ways of God and the Catholic Church

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.

5 thoughts on “The mysterious ways of God and the Catholic Church”

  1. I must take issue with you on this, though not because I disagree with gay marriage. I consider myself a Christian (C of E) and do not find any objection in my personal version of Christianity.

    You say that the cardinal is “out of touch with most of the general public”. Well he might be, but his job is to be in touch with God. The catholic church is not democratic, and they agree with the Muslims in thinking that democracy is the broad and pleasant road to perdition.

    One of the temptations of sin is not only to do it, but to deny that what we are doing is sinful. We probably all know someone who, when giving up smoking, can talk themselves out of it within 24 hours, lighting up with a sense of self-justification. So, there is a need for moral leadership, and agreement from the general population cannot necessarily be the standard. So I believe the cardinal is right to stick his neck out.

    Then comes the argument of how the Cardinal comes to his conclusions. From this writing, and others on this blog, I gather that you are not a Catholic. But still you go ahead and prove pretty much that he is a bad christian. I gather from your stance that you are a non-christian who considers his understanding of christianity to be better than most christians – am I right?

    I think you are taking the liberal ethical position, that people should be allowed to do whatever they want if they don’t impinge on the freedom of others. My objection to the argument is not the principle itself, but that it should be calmly assumed to be the only principle on which to base ethical judgement. It may well be the only principle for humanists, but Christians have other choices.

    Jonathan Haidt (socioligist) does a very interesting study of differences in between republican and democrat values in USA. He did a survey based on reactions to a story about a brother and sister who have consensual sex, with contraception. Many people feel strongly that this is wrong, a number of these reluctantly admit that they have no grounds for objection, based on liberal ethics. Others stubbornly maintain that it is simply wrong.

    For all the difficulty in justification, the Cardinal may simply be right. He is certainly right to come forward with what he believes. We need to understand him better, not logical arguments, but in the spirit of prayer and faith. If you are a christian, pray to God that you come to understand the wisdom of his utterances (if there is any); If you are not a Christian, consider he has a faith which you have not, and on the strength of that is entitled to justification on different grounds.

  2. I think you have rather misunderstood the article Richard.

    I do acknowledge in the last para that the Cardinal will not accept my line of reasoning, and in fact will consider it nonsense. But that leaves the Catholic Church in a very difficult place, looked from my detached political standpoint.

    But it’s more than that. The Cardinal’s article was not directed at Catholics, but at everyone. He is not arguing against gay marriage on the grounds that it is against the will of God, but because it is bad for society as a whole. And I can say that is wrong in my belief, and that his arguments start from a totally set of premises than those accepted by most people in British society (though Jamaica might be different…).

    But I’m afraid it goes further even than that. I have heard the Pope appeal to non Catholics to turn to it on the basis of its clarity of moral values. It is not that God leads us to moral values, but that moral values lead us to God. But this really doesn’t work, not because the argument is inherently wrong, but because Catholic values (as expressed by the Cardinal and the Pope anyway) are wrong.

    An interesting issue leads on from this. How far do religions that claim a basis in divine revelation adapt to the values and understanding of society around them, and how much do they stick to their core values? Islam is struggling with this no less than the Catholic Church.

    I don’t expect many people to share my own view on this, and I did not consider it directly relevant to the article. It is that Christianity is “principles based” system and not a “rules based” one, to copy regulatory jargon. Those principles are set out clearly and beautifully in the Sermon on the Mount, at once more flexible than traditional rules and more demanding. The interpretation, the ethical rules that we follow, depend on our current understanding of the world around us, built on top of these principles. Our understanding of what being gay is has moved on, as has our understanding of the purpose of marriage, so our rules should move with it. But this is not how practising Christians seem to see it, which is why I’m not one of them, and count myself as an agnostic.

  3. It’s not that we misunderstand each other, it is that all of us (you, me, the Cardinal) have different convictions. The problems come when convictions are stated as if they are established facts. The cardinal kicked this off, and it quite reasonably irritated you, then you responded in kind. Your convictions are most in line with the zeitgeist, but should we not differentiate between commonly held convictions and established facts?

    It would appear that personal conviction is too weak a term, for while we admit that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, we all feel that our convictions should be widely shared, even when they’re not. The truth is that convictions can be shared, they can be infectious. Unfortunately the cardinals way of sharing his is almost guaranteed to put the backs up of those who don’t immediately agree with him.

    There have been, and still are, many holy and spiritual catholics. These are people we should look up to, in my opinion, more than most politicians, not because they are cleverer and more in touch with public opinion, but because they are closer to an ideal that I think we all, Christian or not, admire on some level. Maybe their convictions are part of their secret?

    But can one change one’s convictions, on purpose as it where? When we test the truth of a proposition, we simply see if it is compatible with the beliefs we already hold. So, how would change in belief be possible? I believe the role of logical deduction in this is negligible. People become christians not because they think the New Testament is logical and reasonable. Religion is an affair of the heart, and a change of heart is what is necessary for conversion.

    That we are able to defend ourselves to our satisfaction from each others convictions is not the point. The point is, can we relate usefully to each other from our different outlooks?

    1. I fear that distinguishing between established facts and commonly held convictions is a bit harder than you imply. The idea of an “established fact” is a bit of a problem: there are only degrees of evidence leading to different degrees of belief. In this case I feel that being gay is a matter of who you are – mainly characteristics you are born with…and that this is an established fact. I’m pretty sure that Keith O’Brien doesn’t accept this, and says that is just a commonly held conviction!

      But I agree with you about Catholics. I look up to many. I haven’t met either Cardinal O’Brien or the Pope – or even seen them in the flesh, so I should be careful about dismissing them. But I somehow expect them to be more “holy” – to have a greater sense of personal humility, and not lecture the world on right and wrong. That makes scandals like the child abuse one very damaging to the Church. The late Cardinal Basil Hume got the balance right. I would have been listening more respectfully to what he had to say! I don’t don’t think he would have dismissed the advocates of gay marriage as being mad – gravely and sadly mistaken, perhaps, but not mad!

  4. I agree with you, it is my writing that was unclear. In my reality, if people ‘distinguish between commonly held convictions and established facts’ they will always realise they are in possession of the former rather than the latter. My gripe is directed against those who come to the opposite conclusion.

    I am glad you have met admirable Catholics. I think we must not dismiss the possibility that their convictions are part of what make them admirable. I agree that when the pontiffs pontificate it is most offputting.

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