The other day, feeling not so well, I went on a righteous rant against the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, and other idiots who think they have the right to limit women’s freedom to make their own reproductive decisions. It is vital that we see it in this light. Forget the intrinsic or sacred value of the foetus, which, the Roman Catholic Church claims, is equal to that of the “mother’s”. This is the usual religious smokescreen laid down so that we won’t notice what the church is really trying to do. It is trying its damnedest to control people, to make them dance to the Roman Catholic tune, suggesting that only the Roman Catholic Church really knows what is right and good. No one else really knows. That’s the bottom line for the pope and his coterie of conservative bishops, archbishops and cardinals around the world. They’re not prepared to discuss this. Their minds are made up. They know what the truth of morality really is, and the rest of the world should just bend to it and follow their direction. Most of all, women have no choice in the matter. They should just shut up. Women are, really, nothing but walking time bombs of emotional instability, and they should be made to shut up and produce babies. It doesn’t matter how they got pregnant. It doesn’t matter how much psychological trauma they undergo in the process. They may be pregnant by rape or sexual abuse. Pregnancy may lead to death, disability, breakdown, the termination of plans and projects and hope for the future. It simply doesn’t matter, and women should just shut up and bear children. That is their assigned lot in life. It’s simply a matter of natural law.
Zoe Williams has a hard-hitting piece in the Guardian today, where she points out how simply out of touch today the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is on the issue of abortion. It’s time to stop taking these people seriously, she suggests. It’s time simply to reject the mindless repetition of the old certainties. And she says something that really needed to be said:
The tendency with the abortion debate is to consider the anti-choice lobby as more sensitive, more governed by their consciences and anger than the pro-choice lobby. It’s true in some respects – the Roman Catholic church certainly has a tendency toward hysterical overstatement. And yet we pander too much to anti-abortionists, taking whatever scraps of reproductive rights they’ll throw us, stopping the fight as soon as our immediate pragmatic needs have been met.
Yes, and a thousand times yes. It’s the same with the anti-assisted dying movement too. The attempt is always being made to paint their opponents as crass and cruel, as baby-killers, murderers and representatives of a culture of death. How many times have I heard Peter Singer characterised as immoral, because he thinks that easing a defective baby out of life is better than simply allowing it to die of starvation and dehydration? John Lennox said precisely this in his debate with Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins rightly responded by saying that Singer is one of the most morally conscientious persons he knows. Lennox is like the pope. He no longer seems to know what is morally relevant in today’s world, because he lives so much in the past. Christians have to live in the past, almost by definition, because the writings that they consider authoritative were written, some perhaps four, some three, and others around two thousand years ago.
And remember it’s not only abortion and assisted dying: all this is tied up, at the same time, with the things the Catholic Church and the Church of England, and various other antediluvian fundamentalists – yes, I mean that: for all his learning, and sensitivity when he reads Dostoyevsky, Rowan Williams is a Christian ethical fundamentalist – are saying about the trend towards the legalisation of the marriage of gay and lesbian people. I struggled with these benighted people in the Anglican Church for years. It’s a part of the tradition. It’s contrary to natural law. It’s quite plainly unnatural and condemned by God, who established the family in the first place, and we have no business interfering with God’s purposes. There is a small shopping list of things that the Catholic Church and other fundamentalists keep pressing upon us, and practically everyone can list them off as though they constituted a children’s nursery rhyme. Here they are: abortion, assisted dying, gay marriage.
Each of these not only goes clean contrary to God’s purposes, but they are at the very heart of social order. Allow one of these, and things will simply fly apart. As John Haldane says in an article in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, allow gay and lesbian people to marry and we will have no principled reason — if erotic entitlement is what counts — to refuse every kind of “marriage”:
Disconnecting marriage from the union of one male and one female leaves no principled reason to restrict it to couples. If same-sex, what of multi-partner marriage in hetro-, homo-, or bi-sexual combinations? And what of the emerging claims of incestuous siblings for marriage rights? ["Against Erotic Entitlements"]
Haldane conveniently forgets that some societies have had (and still have) plural marriage (polygamy, polyandry) and sibling marriage (as in Pharonic Egypt), and, while there may be fringe groups claiming marriage rights for siblings or for polyamorous relationships, none of this need cause chaos. We may, it seems, for good reasons, restrict marriage in certain ways. There is no absolutely principled reason, based on what we know about human sexuality, to restrict committed relationships to one man and one woman alone, and the future may bring about other changes too, which may be done for principled reasons. But there is a principled reason not to disadvantage gay people, and to grant them the same legal protections that heterosexual people enjoy. The myth of society simply breaking down if we change some of our social institutions is not convincing. It may certainly upset the equilibrium of those who, like Haldane, are committed to traditional marriage, but a simple fear of the slippery slope to confusion and disaster are not enough to go on. Societies that legalise same-sex marriage are not logically compelled, as Haldane seems to think, to commit themselves to the legalisation of other, more experimental forms of relationship. For better or worse, these types of relationship are likely to exist in a small measure, but the model of bonded relationships between two people, whether hetero- or homosexual, for the sake of mutual support and the raising of children, does not logically imply that other forms of relationship need inevitably follow. There would have to be principled reasons for doing so, and Haldane is simply wrong to suggest that if we do not stop at one man-one woman marriage, we are committed to recognising all other claims to “erotic entitlement.”
It is this threat, the threat that our societies will simply break down into disorder and chaos, that lies behind the Roman Catholic opposition to abortion and assisted dying as well. The heart of the fear underlying this opposition is that social order is exceptionally fragile, and given to quite simple forms of breakdown and disintegration. I do not mean to suggest that social order is not fragile, for in many ways it is. Remove the restraining influences of law and order, and societies can revert with surprising rapidity to Hobbes’ state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short. But they do not do so simply because we change our laws, and regulate behaviour and relationships in new ways. What some people see as a perversion of God’s purposes, as Roman Catholics, many other Christians, and Muslims regard homosexual relationships, can also be relationships of love and stability. Children brought up in homes where both partners are of the same sex are not noticeably different or more dysfunctional than children brought up in families where there is both a mother and a father, and they are no more likely to be gay than their contemporaries.
Recall, if you will, that due to the open society in which we live, where women have demanded and are still in the process of achieving equality with men, and have more or less the same opportunities as men, marriage relationships tend to be less stable, and many children are being brought up by only one parent, we already have a much greater variety of family structure than was normal a few decades ago. What is family differs remarkably from home to home, and there is no necessary relationship between heterosexual partnership and stability. Roman Catholics may regret this, but the right to divorce and remarriage when marriage relationships fail, as they often do, is now widely recognised as a right, and this is not likely to change radically in the future. There are already families in which both partners are of the same sex. Where these partners cannot marry, they are deprived of many opportunities which their heterosexual contemporaries take for granted, and children in such contexts suffer disadvantages which children from “traditional” families do not.
Gay marriage is a recognition that society, mainly due to its religious past, made a grave mistake about the nature of homosexuality (as well as sexuality in general). Once thought to be a depraved form of sexual perversion and a behavioural pathology, homosexuality is now widely recognised as a normal expression of human sexuality. To continue to hold outdated views on this matter, as the Roman Catholic Church, Islam, and many other religious people insist on doing, is simply to betray one’s ignorance. It is not so much, as Haldane suggests, that it is merely a matter of erotic entitlement that is at issue here. Instead, societies, basing themselves upon what we can now know about homosexuality, and not simply on dogmas from the past, have developed a new recognition of how badly misunderstood homosexuality has been, and are trying to make up for past failures and injustices. This does not, as Haldane thinks, necessarily include all other forms of erotic combinations. If Haldane wishes to found his sexual morality on natural law, then he must be prepared to recognise that we now know more about human sexuality than we once knew.
If Haldane is not prepared to recognise new knowledge and understanding, then in what sense is his morality based on rational principles? And this points out the deep problem at the heart of Roman Catholic morality; for the trouble with the Roman Catholic doctrine of natural law morality is that it is based, almost entirely, on what was considered natural centuries ago, when the Bible was written, or when the church’s moral code was in the process of development. So when the pope declares, as he does in his Christmas message this year, that the moral law is
inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity,
he is appealing to a moral code that is simply parachuted from the past into a very different present. It is simply asinine to suppose that the morality of Thomas Aquinas can simply be lifted holus bolus from the thirteenth century to serve the purposes of the twenty-first century. The world has changed several times since Aquinas wrote his Summas. To suggest that his conclusions, or the conclusions of the Holy Inquisition (the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), should be normative for everyone, for all law, and for all action, is simply unacceptable today. The theocratic challenge issued by the Roman Catholic Church, through its pontiff, spreading a message that he thinks is one of peace, is really a peremptory demand that governments submit to the pope’s judgement, and we need to reject this demand in the strongest possible fashion. We should notice that this is what he has done, and we should say that it is not satisfactory for a church to be dictating terms to nations, that his conception of reason and natural law is a matter of faith and doctrine, and is not simply accessible to human reason and common to all humanity.
It is true, of course, that the Roman Catholic Church is trying to make up for lost time. It is very conscious that the church did not act as the conscience of the nations during the Second World War, when it allowed to pass, almost without comment, the systematic slaughter of European Jewry. It protested the Nazi T4 “euthanasia” programme, and even managed to get it stopped, but, knowing about the slaughter of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Gays and other “undesirables” in industrial killing factories, the wartime pope maintained a stony silence. Now that it is losing control it has chosen to speak up, and make demands upon governments to govern according to the Vatican’s moral vision, one that is not only tarnished badly by its past, but is simply unable to comprehend the modern world, which it still regards with disdain. Pope Ratzinger, like his predecessor, is not unlike Pope Mastai-Ferretti (Pius IX), the anti-modernist pope, who, in reaction to the unification of Italy and the loss of the papal states, retreated into the Vatican and thundered his opposition to all things modern. His “Syallabus of Errors” still has a mesmeric hold on the Vatican, despite the failed attempt to bring the church up to date (aggiornamento) at the Second Vatican Council.
Pope Ratzinger, a close cousin (in thought, at least) of the nineteenth century pope, rails against contemporary “relativism” and atheism, and has continued his predecessor’s programme of conservative retrenchment through the appointment of carefully selected conservative bishops, which has made the church’s message less relevant than ever. Ratzinger is simply out of touch. We need to spell this out for him and his herd of episcopal sheep. We need to make it clear to him that we will not be dictated to by a dysfunctional, archaic absolute monarchy run by male celibates. The pope has outlived his usefulness. It is time for him to recede into the past. Hans Küng has called upon Roman Catholics to revolt against the authoritarian rule of the pope. A Guardian report tells us that Küng
is appealing to priests and churchgoers to confront the Catholic hierarchy, which he says is corrupt, lacking credibility and apathetic to the real concerns of the church’s members.
This is not likely to happen, but as one Ratzinger declaration follows another, the need for such a revolution becomes more and more apparent. For the pope is now issuing challenges to governments and legislators. Not content to rule over the faithful, many of whom do not share his concerns, he seeks to pressgang the rest of the world into following his dictates. I think it is high time that the position of the Roman Catholic Church as a state with diplomatic privileges in many nations should be revisited and revised. A state that makes legislative demands on other states, without any international consultation, is one that needs to have its credentials revoked. I don’t know how this could be done, but I believe it is high time that such an effort was made.