The liberalisation of attitudes to homosexuality won't make a difference to the vast majority of people
Back in the spring the Tablet published an editorial in which it spoke of the need for the Church to make peace with the gay world; the article is not online (as far as I can see) though its substance has been reproduced by various commentators. It certainly would be good if the Church could discuss matters of sexual morality with people in a way that generated not heat, but light. There is a real need for sensible thinking on sexual morality in society. Very soon, if trends continue, most British children will be born illegitimate. In some parts of the country the majority are illegitimate already. Indeed, I used to work in a town where most of the mothers I encountered had never been married, and who had children by multiple partners, and where a sizeable number of children were growing up in households where they were not living with their biological fathers. Does this matter? Yes it does, is my guess, and the way in which much research points. But we will soon know the results of this new form of family arrangements, if we wait a generation or two.
But to get back to the question of making peace with the “gay world”. It is good that Ed West of this paper went to speak to Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, and that the paper carried the extensive interview which you can read here. The headline itself is encouraging.
Much of what Mr Summerskill says is revealing, and though the interview is polite and friendly in tone, it makes clear that the disagreements between Stonewall and the Church are not really surface disagreements but rather much more serious disagreements of fundamental outlook.
For example, consider this: “For a gay Roman Catholic, there is no acknowledgment that there is a community of interest within the Church.” Saying this, Mr Summerskill then goes on to criticise the handling of the Soho Masses. But what does a ‘community of interest’ mean? I can understand how there can be such communities in a political party, but in the Church there is only one interest, and that is the salvation of our souls. That is the only community of interest that matters. True there are various groups, various people banding together for charitable or spiritual purposes, but none of these can or should have an agenda that is not shared by the universal Church. In fact to start up a community of interest in the Church with an agenda that could not be shared by the universal Church is to step on to the road to schism.
So, Mr Summerskill is essentially right when he says we do not acknowledge a community of interest; but we do acknowledge Catholics, whoever they are, as part of the universal community of the Church, part of the one family of God.
This is, of course, the real problem that the Church faces: how do we proclaim in a credible way the good news of the Gospel to all men and women, an “all” that has no exceptions? For if we say that the Gospel is good news for heterosexuals only, then we are in trouble – for we are saying that the Gospel is not universal good news. This very important point has been made by the author James P Hanigan in his Homosexuality: The Test Case for Christian Social Ethics, which is by far and away the best book on the subject I have read. (That it was published as long ago as 1988 shows how the debate on the subject has stalled.)
There is much that Mr Summerskill says that I would also like to pick up on, but I will focus on one point alone for the present. He says: “I’m not aware that any senior cleric has said anything about William and Kate, or Charles and Camilla. There is an unhealthy obsession with homosexuality.”
This is true, and there are several good points to be made here. When a couple live in sin (that is the reference to the Royals above), the Church will never condemn them by name, though it will condemn the practice of living in sin itself. There is a reason for this. Consider politician X, with whom I was at university. He has been married twice, he has had innumerable affairs, he has procured at least two abortions, and he is quite simply a very immoral man. Yet I do not name him, because that would be, to use an overworked adjective correctly for once, unfair. His sins are between him and God, or between him and his confessor, if he has one. We do not pillory sinners, particularly sexual sinners, indeed especially sexual sinners. This is because sexual acts are by their very nature private. For this reason, even though I have no real sympathy for Bill Clinton as a person, I feel that his exposure during the Monica saga was wrong, for him, and for her too.
Incidentally, I think it is true that no cleric should ever criticise a homosexual person for their private conduct either. On certain occasions this has happened, and the reaction has been catastrophic, and for good, even Catholic, reasons. If someone dies, it is best not mention their sexual activities in any way whatever. That’s the job of their confessor in the private forum of the confessional which is guarded by a seal of strictest secrecy.
There is an unhealthy obsession with homosexuality, says Ben Summerskill. Well, yes. Certain groups outside the Church take the view that homosexuality is the issue of our age. It is doubtful to say the least that this is the case, and the Church needs to be wary of an agenda that has the enthusiastic support of people like the Westboro Baptist Church who do not deserve the name of church at all, indeed they besmirch it by their astonishing lack of charity.
The truth of the matter is, and here I may well agree with Mr Summerskill, is that the liberalisation of attitudes to homosexuality, while very important to homosexual people, will probably not make a difference to the vast majority of the population. Even if Stonewall gets all the things it wants on its wish list (and they have indeed made astonishing progress of late), does this mean that things are going to change for the overwhelming majority who are not homosexual and who are not very bothered about homosexuality?
Some years ago I had to review a very bad book written by an American Episcopal bishop whose name it is best not to mention. He spoke of the struggle of homosexuals for equality as being on the same level as, and in alliance with, the struggle for female equality, and the struggle for Civil Rights by African-Americans. This struck me as being self-evidently not true. The Civil Rights movement changed America profoundly. The campaign for homosexual equality is rather different in scope. It is not of the same political and social significance.