The problem with same-sex marriage legislation is that it wishes to bring into reality something that cannot exist

People often ask the sort of question that goes like this: “Why don’t the bishops speak out about X?” where X is the great topic of the day. Well, they often do (not everyone listens) and they have certainly done so about the question of the proposed legalisation of homosexual marriage. Cardinal Keith O’Brien has spoken, and if you have not yet read what he has said, you can read it here.

Cardinal O’Brien is the senior Catholic in Great Britain, so you cannot get a more authoritative statement than this.

What struck me about the Cardinal’s article is the way he homes in on the philosophical underpinning of the proposed change to the law. He calls it an attempt to “redefine reality”, and so it is. Marriage as currently understood was not invented by any government, but precedes the invention of government; it is surely the oldest human institution there is; now a government, ours, is proposing to change the meaning of marriage. The government seems to believe that it has the power to redefine marriage – but how can it?

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What this opens up, or rather should open up, for the present age is not really interested in metaphysical matters, is the question of the relationship between the human will and the world we live in. Certain things lie beyond our powers. I may not wish to die, I may deny that death exists, I may call it something else, but I will surely die. Death is a reality that no human decree can stay; so is old age; so are the basic laws of economics, or the laws of physics. No one, not even parliament, can decree that up shall henceforth be down, and down up.

A parliament could legislate that we should all drive on the left hand side, or the right hand side, as appropriate. Some countries have changed from one side to the other: but what side of the road you drive on is purely a matter of convention, human convention. Is what marriage is also purely conventional, in other words, whatever we decide it shall be? Our parliamentarians seem to think so, but on this matter they surely cannot be right. Even after any such proposed legislation becomes law, reality will be the same, nothing will have changed.

Natural law precedes human positive law, as some would put it. Human positive law cannot change natural law.

Incidentally, I am not particularly interested in the possible effects such legislation might have. My objections to such legislation are not consequentialist, but rather essentialist. It is not that I think that such legislation will have bad effects, though it may well do (who can predict the future?), it is rather that I think that such legislation wishes to bring into reality something that cannot of its nature exist.

One last point: Cardinal O’Brien’s article has aroused a predictable reaction. He wants to keep the status quo, as do I. He is accused by many commentators of being motivated by hatred. I see no evidence for this. As for myself, I do not hate anyone.

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