THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
STATE CANNOT DEFINE MARRIAGE
Cardinal Keith O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh, with a few ill-chosen words in an otherwise rational argument about gay marriage, has done a disservice to the cause he is trying to support. In a Sunday Telegraph article last weekend he said of the advocates of gay marriage, “their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.” Later he calls the Government’s stance “staggeringly arrogant”, and says of its promise that Churches would not be forced to conduct gay marriages: “Would such worthless assurances calm our fury?”
The result of such language is that it invites an equally intemperate response. Thus is the debate framed as a bitter struggle between Christianity and the gay community, which is both unfortunate and untrue, and also as religion versus secularism, which offers even more hostages to fortune. This does not help to concentrate attention on the underlying issues, which are serious.
The response of the Bishops of England and Wales, expressed in a pastoral letter by Archbishops Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Peter Smith of Southwark, was noticeably calmer, though it could have done more to defuse the polarisation fomented by Cardinal O’Brien by expressing an understanding of why some gay men and women seek the right to marry. They are not trying to damage either Christianity or marriage, but regard marriage as a valuable institution of which they want to be part, and a means of expression of their love.
The core of the debate is about whether Parliament or Government has the right to redefine an ancient social institution. The Government says the Churches do not “own” marriage, and they can opt out of the redefinition if they want to. Clearly the Conservative Party is engaged in redefining itself in the process,
not as the supporter of throne and altar which is its tradition, but as a liberal and progressive movement up to date with the latest moral fashion – indeed, more New Labour than New Labour. Is support for gay marriage therefore being used as a cynical exercise in political rebranding?
Redefining marriage will affect not just those few homosexual men and women who want it for themselves but all those married now, and all those who marry in the future. They will be affected by the fact that if the Churches do not own marriage, clearly the State is saying that it now does. This is the sort of statism that the Tories used to fight against tooth and nail. It makes marriage merely a contingent political construct which may be radically changed one day, abolished the next.
Yet if there were no states at all, there would still be marriage. It is not entirely determined by religious belief but partly by custom, partly by human nature. It is defined, if by anyone, by all the people who are married now or have been in the past.
There is a parallel between the minority of homosexuals who want the right to marry, and the few sick people who want a right to die – the euthanasia issue. Within an individualistic philosophy of autonomous self-determination, it is difficult to gainsay either argument. But that puts the interests of a few people immediately affected ahead of the very large number for whom the effect is slow and gradual but cumulative and ultimately damaging.
They have rights too. Who speaks for the people who do not want their relationship with their husband or wife redefined in law? Who speaks for the patients who wish to go on trusting their doctors and nurses? The Churches can, if they find the right tone. It would be a reasonable and civilised voice, anxious to upset nobody, pleading for things to be left well alone. It should not be a discordant trumpet call to battle.
FAIRNESS MUST COME FIRST
With the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer due to visit Washington next week for talks with President Barack Obama, the key members of the Coalition Government – David
Cameron and George Osborne, together with their Lib Dem counterparts, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander – have spent the last few days negotiating and finalising the 21 March Budget.
when it is a few years hence, can be guilty of short-termism. They want to dream up vote-winning policies. Judging the current public mood at a time of austerity has led this Government – and Labour in opposition too – to focus on fairness. With people facing tough economic times caused in part by the recklessness of financiers and the spending of previous governments, voters will have little time for politicians who do not spread the burden of economic pain.
Their main focus has been how to stimulate economic recovery, which means major arguments about the best way to achieve growth while also ensuring that money keeps coming in to pay for services and repay government debt. The Government has two seemingly conflicting goals: to keep the pound in people’s pockets, and to pluck it out for its own coffers. Which is why there has been heated speculation about a cut in the 50p tax rate, a change to universal child benefit, restricting it to the lower paid, and the possible introduction of a mansion tax.
This makes for a noticeable sea change in political rhetoric. Sir John Major, when in power, said little about fairness, arguing instead that if the rich were allowed to keep their money, wealth would trickle down from the affluent to the poor. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were too wary of the wrath of newspaper proprietors to raise the top tax rate for the highest earners until the end days of the Brown premiership, while their closest adviser, Peter Mandelson, advocated being relaxed about the very rich.
Some Conservatives have argued that all the Government needs to do to encourage growth by tax cuts is to limit public spending further. The Chancellor has apparently indicated that he will not countenance it, knowing that what can be interpreted as benefiting the top earners would be deeply damaging in the present climate.
All politicians, with half an eye on the next election even
Now the political message coming from all parties is about fairness. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has told the Prime Minister in a leaked letter that the Government lacks a compelling vision for the country. But fairness, if that means solidarity with those most vulnerable in the current economic climate, and a more equitable sharing of the age of austerity’s financial burden, is certainly a start.
2 | THE TABLET | 10 March 2012