Monday, 20 August 2012

Cardinal O’Brien: time to practice what you preach

So Keith Patrick O’Brien isn’t talking to Alex Salmond, or at least not formally, because the First Minister intends to press ahead with plans to legalise equal marriage and the Cardinal doesn’t like not being listened to. Well I’m glad he knows what that feels like. As a gay Catholic I certainly do.

This is another manifestation of a rift which I referred to in my recent blog following the Archbishop of Glasgow’s outrageous remarks on the death of the late David Cairns, subsequently reinforced by the Catholic media office spokesperson Peter Kearney’s assertion that being gay leads to early death. Those remarks were so offensive and hurtful to David’s partner and family that I’d prefer not to mention them, let alone draw attention to them. But it’s necessary to because they expose the deep rooted prejudice and ignorance which lie at the heart of the Catholic establishment’s opposition to equal marriage. And that’s why it’s hard to take what Keith Patrick O’Brien and Peter Kearney say with anything other than a pinch of salt.

The Catholic establishment is snubbing Salmond because it’s upset that it isn’t being listened to. It also advances the very weak argument that apparently two thirds of those who responded to the Scottish Government’s recent consultation were opposed to gay marriage. This sounds like a petulant child that can’t get its own way and gets its friends to join in the shouting. The thing about petulant children is that they have to grow up. They have to accept that ‘I want never gets’. The world doesn’t come to you just because you stamp your feet. Welcome to modern democratic life Cardinal O’Brien.
As any of us with any experience knows, sometimes consultation goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. It might actually be more helpful to focus on the consensus which does exist. There were very few respondents who considered that religious bodies or celebrants should be required to undertake ceremonies which they were not comfortable with. And although approaching the basic proposals from very different starting points, many respondents were united in their insistence that Scotland must remain a country in which freedom of religious conscience is treated with the utmost respect.
But just to be clear, public consultation isn’t a referendum or a vote. Rather it’s an opportunity for public input on matters of policy. It’s more qualitative than quantitative, because its real value is to understand the range of perspectives held by the public, both individually and expressed through collective institutions, and the arguments which inform those perspectives. Its value in quantitative terms is negligible because it’s not designed to be representative. And it isn’t designed to be binding. However, the unavoidable truth is that research shows that attitudes in Scotland are changing: the Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows that support for same sex marriage increased from 41% in 2002 to 61% in 2010.

My interest in this debate is on the record. I’m a gay Catholic who strongly supports gay marriage. I didn’t, however, respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation. Sometimes, perhaps not surprisingly, consultation will attract a higher proportion of opponents than supporters because, entirely reasonably, such opportunities to make voices heard are exploited by those who wish to lobby decision makers. I had a choice about whether to respond to the consultation. I chose not to, not because I didn’t have a point of view or because I didn’t care, but because in truth I had a lot of other things on. And perhaps more importantly, on the basis of what I’d heard, I trusted the Scottish Government to do the right thing.

But there’s a contradiction at play here. I didn’t respond to the Catholic church’s consultation on gay marriage either because there hasn’t been any. Ordinary Catholics haven’t been asked for their views. They’ve simply been asked to shore up the establishment’s perspective. On one level I won’t lose too much sleep about this because had we been asked for our views I suspect I’d have been in a minority. But nonetheless the plain fact is, and the church establishment knows it, that there’s no shortage of opposition, or at least ambivalence, to their point of view amongst Catholics. Some of it is from gay Catholics like me, some from straight supporters of gay marriage, and some simply from those who think the church could make better use of its influence in a Scotland facing real social problems like poverty. Fair play to the Church of Scotland on this one. At least it’s openly debated this issue in the full glare of media scrutiny.

There are some obvious lessons for the Catholic establishment in all of this. First, not talking to people just because you disagree with them isn’t very grown up. Second, participating in consultation in a modern democracy can’t guarantee that things will go your way. Third, if you really believe in the value of consultation and open debate, then let’s have some in the church itself. Fourth, it’s time to stop running away with the idea that Catholics have only one point of view on this issue. And finally, if you do want anyone to take you remotely seriously on the issue of gay marriage, ditch the bigotry.

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