John Heard: We must not allow ourselves to be characterised as bigots for marriage

03 Jun 2009

By The Record

‘A serious and courageous cultural dialogue about marriage’ – Evangelium Vitae.


Walk as children of light…and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness. – (Eph 5:8, 10-1)

By John Heard

Those who defend marriage and the family are quickly discerning that we face new challenges. The “gay marriage” debate threatens to outrun our best instincts.
Whereas in the past the threat came mainly from without – from activist courts, say, such as the Supreme Court in California that briefly allowed “gay marriage” – new gaps have appeared inside the marriage camp. These threaten to leave holes in the rhetoric of life, and cause new fissures to open up between marriage defenders and the voting public.
After a period of significant advance – the same court in California just handed down a judgement affirming the democratic outcome of Proposition 8, and the ALP National Conference in July will confirm that no major political party in Australia supports “gay marriage” – there is time now for consolidation.
Certainly, if those who seek to defend marriage and the family learn nothing from the recent history of legislative action, judicial turmoil and cultural angst, we will fail in future struggles.
It is timely, then, to consider some key lessons.
First, those who oppose “gay marriage’ for religious reasons, or because of serious philosophical convictions, cannot simply state their faith, or describe their convictions, and then leave the debate. While it is true that Christians make up the majority of the voting public in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and any fact of widespread aspiration – of deeply held, tremendously meaningful shared values – should be impressive in any properly democratic society, Christians and others will not prevail in an explicitly secular context, on any issue, let alone on debates concerning heavily secularised legal institutions such as marriage, while deploying merely religious arguments. This first lesson leads into the second.
Legal marriage is, in most jurisdictions, something other than the Sacrament of Matrimony. While some might challenge the historical movements, the cultural changes and legal upheavals that have resulted in certain civil marriage schemes, one will not win the current “gay marriage” argument by pretending that the law is other than it is (and has been) for some time.
Third, the historical experience of the English-speaking peoples has been such that, for the most part (Britain’s Established Church is an historical anomaly) we celebrate the doctrine of the separation of Church and state.
Just as it would be unwise to ignore the constant teaching of the Popes on the same issue (that there can be no temporal justice without proper reference to and harmony with the eternal law), it is crazy for those who defend marriage and the family to ignore the popular force of the doctrine.
Certainly Christians have reason to believe that, in some (but not all) historical cases, the separation of Church and State has been a good thing. It has, after all, sometimes operated so as to protect the Church from an overweening State, whether an heretical ruler bent on humiliating the Popes, or the various forms of totalising atheism that roiled the Twentieth Century. English Catholics in particular have good historical cause to lament too much political interference in matters of doctrine.
Christians who seek to defend marriage must recognise then (the fourth lesson), that a pluralistic, explicitly secular nation demands a peculiar sort of politics. While we must not pollute our ethical perspective, and we cannot equivocate on matters of faith and morals, we must continue to formulate and apply extra-religious arguments (eg, facts from social science, sound logic, evidence from the natural sciences) to make ourselves relevant to, and heard within the context of, a web of secular institutions – marriage included.
Simply being Christians, or any other sort of conscientious objectors to “gay marriage”, simply being in the majority or part of an historically important bloc, will not always help the case for marriage.
Those who seek to defend marriage and the family in the secular context must appeal to so-called universal norms, then, adopting the language of international human rights, the rhetoric of common sense – and we must always speak of freedom.
This is because, and it is the fifth point, those who seek to impose “gay marriage” often mistake it for a civil rights issue. In the same way, then, that the courts imposed desegregation in the “Jim Crow” South – and were justified, indeed virtuous, loving, and correct – in doing so (for the sake of human rights, recognising the dignity of those who were called slaves, serving the enduring call of freedom) those who credit the arguments for “gay marriage” think they are the right side of history.
As the Abolitionist Theodore Parker stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.
This is the sort of rhetoric that the most successful homoactivists deploy.
Christians who, by our common beliefs and shared values, are (1) called to defend fundamental human rights, (2) recognise everywhere the dignity of all human beings from conception until natural death, and (3) have something uniquely redemptive to say about human freedom, should not shrink from this language. It is, after all, properly ours.
This is the sixth lesson.
Those who seek to defend marriage and the family serve the common good. Our movement is defined by a humanism of breathtaking depth, and we venerate an idea of flourishing that is singularly beautiful. Catholics must not forget this fact.
We must not allow ourselves to be characterised as bigots, and we must not act like bigots. We must resist efforts to restrict our freedom of religion with legislative penalties.
We must wage the good fight and, where we lose for the moment, we must demand conscience clauses to protect employees, professionals, pastors and others from coercion.
Good people everywhere must speak joyfully of marriage, and defend the happy home, avoiding all bitterness and spite. Because, finally, “you catch more flies with honey”. The proverb is pragmatic, but the seventh and final lesson is also instructive for another reason.
Christianity is a love religion. Catholics worship the God Who is Love. We profess Christ nailed to a tree, for love. Any properly formed, any reasonably argued, any freedom-defending intervention on behalf of marriage and the family must be made lovingly.
Those who seek to influence the “gay marriage” debate in any other way will fail, and we will deserve our failure.