Richard Coles on Gay Marriage

The Reverend Richard Coles (who we interviewed over at the Twurch last year) has written an opinion piece for the Independent responding to Cardinal O’Brien’s “rant” (come on, let’s be honest folks) in the Telegraph on Sunday. It’s an interesting piece that deserves to be dissected because there are a number of assertions that need to be challenged.

What puzzles me most about Cardinal O’Brien’s comments concerning “gay marriage” in the Sunday Telegraph is that they suggest he lives in a world so radically disconnected from mine that we might as well be living in different centuries as well as denominations. I am not surprised that he should seek to defend the institution of marriage – on the contrary – nor am I surprised that he should seek to uphold the Church’s right to decide how it administers the sacraments.

I am surprised, however, that he uses words like “harmful” to describe civil partnerships and the moves to offer civil marriage to same-sex partners as “grotesque” and a form of “madness”. I am surprised because the Cardinal lives, in fact, in the same world as me, a world in which gay couples and colleagues and family and friends are not even unusual, let alone bizarre, a world which, since the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, has not fallen apart, but simply showed what we had long suspected: that gay people are not that different from everyone else, and gay relationships are not that different either.

Richard is right that Cardinal O’Brien overstates the case when he calls Civil Partnerships “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”. Whilst I would agree that in some cases they can be harmful spiritually (because to order one’s life against God’s will is by definition spiritually harmful), I can’t see the argument that they are harmful mentally or physically per se. Take for example a celibate gay couple who enter a Civil Partnership to provide each other non-sexual companionship and secure inheritance rights. I can’t see the mental or physical harm in that. What Richard Coles does here is effectively show (without saying it, or actually I think even realising he’s doing it) that for some conservatives the objection to same-sex partnerships is obsessively linked to assumptions around sexual behaviour.

But what’s interesting about what Richard Coles picks up from this section of Cardinal O’Brien’s piece is what he doesn’t refer to. In the same paragraph Cardinal O’Brien makes the very valid point that,

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership … warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

Quite true.

Richard continues,

This seems to be more and more widely understood, if surveys of social attitudes are anything to go by. I suspect Civil Partnerships have played a part in this, making it difficult for people to sustain a caricature of gay people as ‘disordered’ and “intrinsically evil”, as Roman Catholic teaching puts it, if what they encounter is not something sulphurous from the last days of Sodom, but two people celebrating their exclusive and faithful commitment to each other with a slice of cake and a glass of Prosecco thrown in.

This is where Richard Coles is sadly at his most disappointing, because he either (hopefully) unwittingly or wilfully grossly misrepresents that teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this issue. The Roman teaching is that it is homosexual acts which are disordered and intrinsically evil, not homosexual people. It is the classic behaviour / orientation split, and whilst Richard might reject such a split it behoves him if he wants to be taken seriously to represent accurately the position of those he opposes rather than caricaturing it to make a weak point.

The exact Roman position is,

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.

which is not at all what Richard Coles was arguing it was. The Roman Church isn’t saying that gay people per se are disordered, rather that this one aspect of their emotional life is disordered. That’s a huge technical difference.

I appreciate how difficult this emerging truth can be for some to deal with, not least religious groups with traditions which have long denigrated homosexuality and overlooked the God-given dignity of those who find themselves so oriented. I belong to one. I think I appreciate too how religious leaders feel threatened by aggressive secularism and seek to resist what they may interpret as its challenges. But it will get more and more difficult to sustain the former as we get more and more used to the reality of gay relationships; and as for the latter, I fear the Cardinal with this intervention has not halted the onward march of aggressive secularism, but strengthened it.

What do we mean by “emerging truth”? That gay relationships are good? That homosexual acts are not sinful? Interestingly, Richard Coles doesn’t actually engage at all with that theological issue, but this is typical for many in the church who take his position – the argument made is one that is primarily sociological and emotional. Perhaps that is a lesson for conservatives – if we think liberals are light-weight and dodging the issue if they won’t do the theology, why do we put up with those from our own camp who seem to want to make sociological and emotional issues the cornerstone of their own respective argument.

Perhaps the way to handle such an argument is to stick our hands up in the air and say, “Yes, some people in the church have denigrated homosexuals and overlooked the dignity of such people. This isn’t news”. We can then move on and say, “But does accepting people’s intrinsic worth mean that you have to automatically approve of everything they do, that you have to accept that those things are not sinful or be labelled a bigot?” Surely these are two separate issues, the innate worth of every human being made in the Imago Dei and yet at the same time the universality of the Fall and our corruption?


26 Comments on “Richard Coles on Gay Marriage

  1. As I have said before, I think
    that those who oppose calling gay relationships marriages have a very good
    case. But those who are now campaigning most vociferously against gay marriage
    are – by and large, if not in every case – the same people who fought tooth and
    nail against the introduction of civil partnerships, and who howled with rage
    at perfectly reasonable legislation making it illegal to deprive people of
    their livelihood just because they were gay. Were it otherwise, perhaps they
    would be listened to more sympathetically now.

    One correction, Peter. It is not
    just homosexual acts that the Vatican has described as disordered. The 1986 CDF
    Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons asserts that “Although the
    particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or
    less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the
    inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.” (#3)

  2. Ever since I became involved in the discussions on this issue over 8 years ago, I have always maintained that it is A sin and not THE sin of all time! (as it is so often made to sound by some) and that it is really no different from any other sin, like thievery or gossip.  Do we not welcome and accept the intrinsic worth of those individuals, but NOT their sin?  Of course we do!  When we single out someone for exclusion because of their sin, we are not being Christian.  All sinners need to be shown God’s love and acceptance, but that does not require approval and acceptance of the sin.  It is indeed possible to separate the two and we need to do more of that if we are to be faithful to the Cross and what it offers us.

    •  Yes, I look forward to some ‘bibliccal’ campaigns aimed at rolling back the decriminalisation of “gossips”. Or not so much.

      • I’ve heard a number of sermons on ‘not gossiping’ in my time. I’ve never heard homosexuality as a sin mentioned more than a couple of times. Some of that I think is because I have always been in evangelical and/or charismatic churches (ECC) where the fact that homosexuality is a sin is taken as a given. But I think that it also reflects a genuine attitude amongst many ECC pastors that homosexuality is a pastoral issue that requires compassion and understanding in counselling the person. Based on my discussions with pastors, most ECC pastors find that they are asked for counsel by church members struggling with homosexual temptations.

        • Hi Philip, I used legal language for a reason.  If the conservative Christian really wants the world to take them seriously when they say that “homosexuality is a sin like any other” then they need to address the issue of why, for some sins, the fact that they *are* sins is deemed (in a non-theocractic society no less!) to be reason enough for them to be discouraged/precluded whereas other sins ( I imagine even Santorum recognises that criminialising heterosexual fornication and adultery would lead to half the GOP being locked up!) are not treated in this way. This is not alarmism. It is a matter of historical fact that conservative Churches (e.g. the Church of Scotland up here) opposed the legalisation of homosexuality for the same ‘biblical’ reasons not being used to oppose gay marriage.

          • Not sure if I’m quite following your reasoning on this, Cerebusboy, but (assuming we’re talking about modern, secularized societies) why couldn’t a conservative answer: a) we (legally) tolerate all sorts of private sexually immoral behaviour precisely because it is private (and what people do within their own home is (pretty much) up to them; b) we don’t want legally to recognize same sex marriage because it is encouraging (in the public sphere) a relationship which (at best) is socially neutral and (at worst) is harmful; and c) we don’t want legally to ban gossip because it would be impossible to police..?
            Of course, there’s more to be said on why some immoral actions should be illegal and some shouldn’t, but the classic liberal test of private/public behaviour which you find in J S Mill and the commonsense test of ‘impractical to legislate for’ would seem to do most of the work here.

            •  Hello, Lazarus. 

               I think your interpretation of a) and b) are tilting towards the contradictory. Tolerance does not involve people pretending that they are something they are not; if they did, then logically there wouldn’t be anything that people would have to “tolerate” would there? Isn’t the right of privacy per se ultimately an “encouragement” of “sexually immoral” behaviour?  And of course the Vatican (for example) may well be right when they say that pornography (or whatever) is evil, but mere flat assertions are unlikely to convince a secular world. What evidence do you have that same sex unions are at best neutral? Let us recall that pro-gay labour won three elections in a row and that David Cameron, in order to make the Tory Party electable, had to apologise for Section 28, make the conservative party (relatively speaking) pro-gay and appear on the cover of Attitude. The amount of people who have “benefited” from civil partnerships (for example) is not restricted to those who themselves had them; I think polls would suggest that your average UK citizen has “benefited” from living in a society that is more tolerant, open and relaxed about sexuality. And of course the fact that civil partnerships very much did not lead to Sodom and Gommorrah doesn’t do much for the veracity of the current apocalyptic predictions being made for the anti-gay lobby.  And I think it’s worth stressing that the average man in the street, even if he does have a stereotypical unreconstructed straight boy aversion to man-on-man action, would still much rather than a liberal (in every sense!) democracy than an “error has no rights” RC-approved theocracy

               As for c): I remember reading (in an Evangelical Dictionary of Theology no less) the quotation that sending homosexuals to jail was like sending alcoholics to a brewery.  The failure of anti-gay laws to curb expressions of homosexuality suggests that it is in some ways analogous (both in the ludicrousness of such a law and its unlikelihood of success) to banning gossip. What percentage of the total homosexual acts in the UK were actually discovered, let alone led to prosecution? I’d imagine that it was hardly a majority. 


              • Let’s assume (because we are!) that we are living in a society with a variety of beliefs and a variety of ways of acting out those beliefs. Much though I’d like to discourage all sorts of things, as a political reality, I can’t.

                So your question (as I understood it) was, within such a society, a) why should someone (let’s say a ‘traditionalist’) campaign against same sex marriage but b) not campaign in favour of the criminalization of homosexual activity?

                The traditional liberal answer here is (roughly) that what harms only (or at least predominantly)the individual and consenting adults in private is no business of the state. As a principle, that’s not a bad one for the sort of society we have. Hence, no campaign for the criminalization of homosexuality. Altering a public institution such as marriage is a very different issue because the traditionalist believes it will harm people beyond the consenting participants. There of course we will simply disagree for the moment on whether there is actual harm caused to the fabric of society; but it is enough that, for someone who believes that there is,  there is a principled reason for a) rejecting same sex marriage but b) not campaigning for the criminalization of homosexual activity. (And then you can add practical questions of enforceability to reinforce the point.)

  3. “The exact Roman position is,Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”Nonetheless for all that it is still poisonous.

    • It’s only poisonous if you find it objectionable. Very many people with that inclination would themselves be happy to accept it as “an objective disorder”. Plenty of us have no issue with being honest about our brokenness.

      •  Surely the point of Romans “the good that I would I do not” is that it applies to *all*  of humanity? As such, taking a concept that indicts heterosexuals too and turning it into a medicalising descriptor of gay people is consistent with bias and prejudice in the most literal sense of those words. 

        • Not so, because in this particular case Pope John Paul II is highlighting one way in which some humans are disordered. That’s hardly bigotry because his encyclicals (including this one) engage with many other ways human beings distort the Imago Dei (or have had it distorted within them through no fault of their own – eg paedophilia)

          •  In that case, is the Church not guilty of, at the very least, a failure to sufficiently communicate that homosexuals are disordered just as heterosexuals are i.e. with an inbuilt tendency towards evil? The text quoted is hardly a retreat from a privileging of homosexuality per se as uniquely or at least distinctly disordered. 

            I think grouping homosexuality alongside paedophilia as a specific tendency-towards-evil supports my interpretation, especially since paedophilia is literally a disorder outwith theological contexts (being listed in the DSM-IV) in a way that (though the Vatican may wish it were) homosexuality is not. That’s hardly a reflection of the Pauline position that we all have sinful temptations, some straight and some gay. And I used “bias” or “prejudice” quite deliberately, as they have a specific useful meaning quite distinct from the obvious emotionalism in phrases like “bigot”. 

            • Some people in the church are guilty of that. Some are also guilty of conflating those people with others who try to articulate a more sophisticated position.

              •  I don’t think nuance is the get-out-of-jail-free card you appear to think it is. It is of course true that, for example, positing homosexuality per se being more like paedophilia than it is heterosexuality is not the same thing as *conflating* homosexuality and paedophilia, but you don’t have to be Peter Tatchell to regard the former as objectionable too.

      • We should feel sorry for them  – and deplore that they should be encouraged to justify self hatred in that way – but many commentators (and not only Peter Tatchell - I refer you to the It Gets Better campaign think the Church has no business categorising a sizeable minority of humanity with such language. Cardinal Hume tried to mitigate its impact because he saw the harm it did when Ratzinger’s office first published it, by referring to it as “technical language”. You are free to accept your inferiority if you wish but you should realise the actual harm this kind of “theological” notion can do to many young people battling with zero self-esteem and the evil and bigoted attitudes that such statements may inadvertently encourage. 

          • Thank you William. Cardinal Hume was dismayed when Ratzinger first issued this statement – “It is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” – and according his biographer Anthony Howard he wrote a letter explaining why it was objectionable. Whether the letter was sent is uncertain; the late Cardinal’s papers had a proof-copy only and no indication that a reply was received. 

            (I am hunting for my copy of the biography so I can give a page reference and will do so when I lay my hand on it.)

  4. On the specific wording of the Cardinal’s criticisms, ‘
    harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved’, it does depend on the (reasonable) assumption that the prime function of civil partnerships was to support sexually actively homosexual couples. Given this a) it’s a reasonable general point that civil partnerships are harmful to those involved, just as it’s a reasonable general point that marriage is beneficial to those involved (even if, in both cases, there are some specific cases which are exceptions); and b) unless you posit a very sharp separation between body, mind and soul (which I think is implausible certainly from a Catholic point of view), it’s again not unreasonable to claim that the harm extends to the body and mind and not just the spirit. (So sinful action abuses your body even if great chunks of flesh don’t exactly fall off!)

    •  b) Isn’t there quite a difference between concepts of (for example) bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit and actual, physical medical harm? It’s very slippery for the Church to invoke the latter when they mean the former. And assuming that homosexuality per se is intrinsically harmful is not “reasonable” (that homosexuality’s tiny minority of people with AIDS and/or mental illness is higher than heterosexuality’s tiny minority of people with AIDS and/or mental illness is hardly convincing; you can’t use an unrepresentative minority to claim that a particular institute/behaviour is generally harmful, let alone intrinsically so)

      • Did the Cardinal use the words, ‘actual, physical medical harm’? Just because the modern world operates with a flawed understanding of the relationship between mind/body (an uneasy mixture of a folk psychology which is a form of dualism plus an official, scientific  materialist reductionism) and a crude materialist notion of harm (‘if it ain’t bleeding, it’s fine’)  there’s no need to expect the Cardinal to buy into it. Any Thomist would say that an immoral action is one that harms the hylomorphic compound that is a human being (ie human beings are entities that are made of a unity of form (which is the soul) and matter). More straightforwardly, an immoral action impairs the flourishing of human beings, and human beings are both body and soul compounded. (And that general idea is, I think, one that’s readily translatable into scriptural terms which emphasize the essentially bodily nature of human beings: hence the resurrection, hence the incarnation.)

        If, as you suggest, on current figures, the Cardinal’s views on harm to sexually active gay people may even be justified in cruder terms (eg they die earlier) that would be further evidence of the underlying metaphysical point, but not the essential point itself.

  5. An excellent (as usual) article by Andrew Brown points out the inconsistencies in Cardinal O’Brien’s diatribes.

    “So, in a spirit of fairness, I want to see if there is anything to salvage from the wreck. Could there be a Catholic position on gay marriage that didn’t look as if it were driven by homophobia?One answer is suggested by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who runs the Catholic church in England and Wales………
    Nichols went out of his way to mention the similarities between remarried Catholics and gay ones. Neither can really be married, in Catholic teaching. Nor should either group have sex, according to the Vatican. This will come as bad news to prominent Catholics such as Cristina Odone (married to a divorced man) and Clifford Longley (on his second wife). Yet both of these journalists are quite rightly regarded as adornments to the English Catholic church.”

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