I wrote this in response to an open letter by two Catholic Archbishops, which was intended to be read out to all Catholic parishioners yesterday, urging them to refuse the Coalition Government’s plans for marriage equality.
Dear Brothers and Sisters (and anyone who isn’t defined by this gender binary) in humanity,
This week the Coalition Government is expected to present its consultation paper in the proposed change in the legal definition of marriage so as to open the institution of marriage to same gender partnerships.
Today I want to put before you the fair and balanced vision of marriage and the light it casts on the importance of marriage for our society.
The roots of the institution of marriage lie in our nature. Male, female, genderqueer, intersex, transgender and transsexual we have been created, and written into our nature is this pattern of self-determination to love whomever we want to love, and be able to demonstrate this love however we see fit. This pattern should, of course, be accepted as a celebration of difference within our humanity. The Catholic Church, however, sees marriage as an immutable institution, affirmed only by religious traditions. According to them, only Christian teaching can reveal its deepest meaning, and yet ‘neither the Church nor the State has the power to change [the] fundamental understanding of marriage itself. Neither is this simply a matter of public opinion’. I would ask, if it is not for the Church, the State or the people to decide what marriage should mean, then who exactly is it up to? Somebody or some group of people must have decided at some point in time to define marriage, otherwise it would not be in existence. Marriage did not spring into existential being solely in today’s terms, or indeed as it was a hundred years ago, or even five hundred years ago; it has been consistently redefined, yes, even by religions, so it seems utterly absurd to say that marriage as it stands today is the absolute definition. It has meant so many things to so many people, including gay couples, over the millennia, that to decide right now that enough is enough reeks of a stubborn denial of social evolution. Moreover, if it were really no one’s right to change the fundamental meaning of marriage, because it has always been between a man and a woman (which it hasn’t) then couching all of your arguments against changing it in religious terms distinctly undermines your reasoning.
Marriage, when ‘understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and for the creation and upbringing of children […] is an expression of our fundamental humanity’. As gay and lesbian couples do not have access to marriage, does this mean that we are not fundamentally human according to the Catholic Church? I am fairly sure that my DNA would prove me to be human. Marriage’s ‘status in law is the prudent fruit of experience, for the good of the spouses and the good of the family. In this way society esteems the married couple as the source and guardians of the next generation. As an institution marriage is at the foundation of our society.’ I don’t think anyone is arguing with this definition – in fact, this is precisely the reason why many gay and lesbian people want to get married. There are already families headed by same gender couples, a fact with which the Catholic Church may not agree, but which is nevertheless true, and all they want to be able to do is to provide for the good of their family in an equal manner to heterosexual couples.
‘There are many reasons why people get married. For most couples, there is an instinctive understanding that the stability of a marriage provides the best context for the flourishing of their relationship and for bringing up their children. Society recognises marriage as an important institution for these same reasons: to enhance stability in society and to respect and support parents in the crucial task of having children and bringing them up as well as possible.’ Again, I have no argument here, although again I ask, why shouldn’t gay people have an equal right to access to such an important institution?
‘The Church starts from this appreciation that marriage is a natural institution, and indeed the Church recognises civil marriage.’ If the Church recognises civil marriage, then why on earth are they making such a fuss? They have no mandate to decide the terms of a purely civil, and therefore secular marriage, so in reality, opening civil marriage to same gender couples has absolutely nothing to do with how the Catholic Church defines their religious version of marriage. The self-determination of various religions to allow or deny the marriage of same gender couples by members of their clergy, with the blessing of that particular church, synagogue, or indeed any other religious establishment, would be entirely protected by law, as demonstrated by the Alli Amendment to the Equality Act in 2011, which allowed willing religious denominations to celebrate civil partnerships in religious buildings. Indeed, as we can see from the list of supporters of the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s petition, there are many religious organisations who support this particular freedom of religion, including the Metropolitan Community Church of North London, Lesbian Gay Christians and our friends, Keshet UK and Liberal Judaism. Asking for marriage equality is not about forcing unwilling religions to do something with which they do not agree, and I am sure that the majority of gay couples would have shied away many moons ago from being part of a religion that so openly denounces their love as wrong and against god’s will. With this religious freedom in mind, the Catholic Church’s viewpoint and the Catechism should have absolutely no bearing on how marriage is defined by the civil courts, or indeed by other religions. The beliefs of Church that represents between nine to ten percent of the population of the UK (not all of whom, I suspect, feel the same way about this particular matter) do not have a mandate to interfere in parliamentary decisions
‘We know that at the heart of a good marriage is a relationship of astonishing power and richness, for the couple, their children, their wider circle of friends and relations and society.’ Is this something that gay people are incapable of achieving? Do gay people somehow not deserve have their relationships seen in this way? If so, then it is clear that the Catholic Church want to create a two-tier system of humanity, where people are discriminated against simply because of something that they cannot change about themselves – a form of segregation, if you will. The Church sees ‘marriage [as] a sharing in the mystery of God’s own life: the unending and perfect flow of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, and although this definition of marriage does not apply to everyone, if a same gender couple were to feel that this would apply to their marriage as well, it is not the right of the Catholic Church to deny them their feelings and beliefs.
‘[T]he love of husband and wife is creative of new life. It is open, in its essence, to welcoming new life, ready to love and nurture that life to its fullness, not only here on earth but also into eternity.’ For some, ‘the daily effort that marriage requires, the many ways in which family living breaks and reshapes us, is a sharing in the mission of Christ, that of making visible in the world the creative and forgiving love of God.’ However, not everyone believes that their life is a sharing in the mission of Christ, nor is love solely responsible for the creation of new life, otherwise gay people, alongside older couples or infertile couples, should be able to procreate just as easily as straight, fertile couples. All love between consenting adults is the same, after all. However, this is obviously not the case, and so both straight and gay couples have access to other means of conceiving or bringing up children, such as adoption, surrogacy or sperm or egg donation. If the sole aim of marriage is to beget children (which of course, it isn’t) and gay couples already have means of doing so, then it can hardly be used as an argument against marriage equality.
Indeed, at the root of this is the belief that gay and lesbian people shouldn’t be allowed to bring up children; if we must delve into the argument that they should not be allowed to bring up children because they cannot provide for their children in the same manner as straight couples, this point of view has been so often refuted that it barely seems necessary to justify the inverse for any right-thinking person. However, needs must: because there is zero chance of accidental babies in a monogamous gay couple (aside from where one of the partners is transgender, but as the law sees marriage as between legal genders rather than biological sexes, I shall continue to write in these particular terms) they are absolutely more likely to have fully considered the financial and moral implications of bringing a child into this world, moreover, they would have had to prove this when signing up to an adoption agency or applying to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. There is also no creditable evidence that children brought up by parents of the same gender are any more or less psychologically, mentally or physically developed than those brought up by straight parents. The only limiting factor in gay couples deciding to have children tends to be whether the child would be bullied or made to feel lesser simply from the fact that their parents are of the same gender, and that, as an argument to why gay people shouldn’t bring up children, is utterly ridiculous and cyclical.
‘Marriage is also a crucial witness in our society, contributing to its stability, its capacity for compassion and forgiveness and its future, in a way that no other institution can.’ Surely if marriage is a way of stabilising our society, then one would want as many people as possible becoming part of it. Indeed, it is here where the Catholic Church becomes so hypocritical; for if marriage is so important, then why not ban divorce? Jesus never said anything about gay people, but he did denounce divorce, so why is this group of Christians not desirous of a ban on divorcees worshiping in their churches? They have necessarily evolved on the divorce issue, so it seems odd to draw the line at evolving on the issue of marriage equality.
‘In putting before you these thoughts about why marriage is so important, we also want to recognise the experience of those who have suffered the pain of bereavement or relationship breakdown and their contribution to the Church and society. Many provide a remarkable example of courage and fidelity. Many strive to make the best out of difficult and complex situations.’ Again, are gay people incapable of being and doing these things? From this we can infer that the Catholic Church believes this to be true, once again creating a hierarchy of the validity of heterosexual and same gender relationships. I would also hasten to add that growing up gay, and being brave enough to come out, to lead one’s life on one’s own terms in the face of hostility and hatred, sometimes from those whom you love the most, is a rather spectacular example of courage and fidelity when making the best out of a complex and difficult situation.
Changing the legal definition of marriage would not be a profoundly radical step. Its consequences amount to gay and lesbian couples gettting married. In countries where same gender marriage has been legal for over ten years, such as Canada and the Netherlands, there has not been a decline in moral standards, no god has come down to smite the inhabitants, the only consequence is that gay people are now equal in the eyes of the law. Hardly radical. Marriage has helped, and would continue to inform social and cultural values, and a change in the law would barely affect society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. It will not suddenly deny heterosexual couples the right or ability to procreate and educate their children, people will not suddenly become literally blind to gender or be unable to envisage that men and women complement each other. Yet men and men, and women and women can also complement each other, so shouldn’t they also have access to the institution of marriage? Moreover, if the real sticking point is the proposed change of wording from “a man and a woman” to “two people” then how about it is changed to “a man and a woman, two men, or two women”? The ‘complementarity of male and female’ is still stated, but marriage law is also thereby made inclusive. If wording is all that worries the Catholic Church, then consider the crisis averted!
I also hate to bring out this old chestnut again, but if marriage is intended for the ‘procreation and education of children’, then should marriage also be banned for infertile couples, couples who do not want to have children, or couples past child-bearing age? Obviously not, and this spurious and roundly baseless argument could never stand as a defence for keeping marriage as a purely heterosexual institution.
We have a duty to all people today, and to those who come after us, to ensure that our society is a fair and equal one, where differences is celebrated and affirmed by the state, and yes, even by religions. Future generations will look back on our present day “equal but separate” system of recognition of same gender relationships, and wonder what all the fuss was about.
With every blessing,