Catholic Bishops, Baptist pastors, and same-sex marriage

Posted on December 13, 2011


It seems fairly likely that we in Scotland will see the extension of marriage to same-sex couples before the rest of the UK, probably in the next 2-3 years. The government has proposed this, and a consultation on the proposal has just closed. How should a Christian commentator respond to this idea? The theology here is actually quite interesting, if we can catch enough breath to step back from the polemics.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has gone on the offensive, suggesting that same-sex marriage is, roughly, a logical impossibility. Oddly enough, supporters of the government proposal have found this suggestion both offensive and unhappy, but it was both predictable and inevitable to anyone who understands Roman Catholic theology.

Catholic ethics assume – in part – a ‘natural law’ position. This is the idea that all people, if they are thinking clearly, have been granted enough information to come to right conclusions on certain issues. The over-riding sanctity of human life, including human life in utero, is assumed to be a position demonstrable by natural law, as is the nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman in faithful, lifelong, and exclusive sexual companionship.

For the Roman Catholic tradition, natural law also demands the inalienable rights of all human beings, economic justice, and various other things. When the Pope visited Britain last year, his speech in Westminster Hall was entirely predicated on a natural law tradition – as he put it, ‘[t]he Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason…’. On this basis, the Church and a secular state could and should share a commitment to human rights and justice and other things because both were pursuing the same natural law.

A more traditionally Reformed account of ethics is rather less happy with this. Christian life is necessarily gospel-shaped, and so is profoundly and irreconcilably odd, judged by the canons of any secular society. Christian marriage, to take the case in point, is (as Augustine taught) a profoundly ascetic practice, devoted mainly towards the disciplining of ‘natural’ desires in order to direct the lived life in ways that manifest the gospel and not alien values. (I have commented elsewhere on this blog on the possibility of extending such an understanding to gay and lesbian relationships.) In the extreme form of this view (made popular by Barth…) there is no ‘natural law’; there is the gospel, with its peremptory demands, and there are ways of life that are ignorant of the gospel, and so inevitably in some measure inimical to the gospel.

How, then, do we deal with a state proposal to extend the legal definition of ‘marriage’ to include same-sex couples? For someone who is (properly) Roman Catholic, they examine the given definitions and expositions of natural law, and note that they assert, inter alia, that ‘marriage’ is the union of one woman and one man. The idea of gay/lesbian couples ‘marrying,’ therefore, is not so much wrong as incomprehensible and impossible. This is not a denial of the human rights of gay/lesbian couples – as a matter of fact, in British/Scottish law, there is no human right granted by the marriage relationship that is not also granted by being in a civil partnership – so much as a belief that it is intrinsic to the definition of the word ‘marriage’ that those entering into the state are of opposite sex. ‘Same-sex marriage’ on this view is a phrase like ‘four-sided triangle’; not something that should not be done, but something that logically cannot be done. Thus, Archbishop Conti was being faithfully Catholic when he said, ‘Governments do not have the authority to say what marriage is or to change its nature or to decree that people of the same sex can marry.’

(Could a natural law argument that extended the meaning of marriage to embrace same-sex couples be offered? It is certainly not impossible, but the argument needs to be made with, in the case in point, deep attention to the Roman Catholic tradition: how is a position embraced within natural law? Can gay and/or lesbian relationships, under certain limitations (inter alia, presumably, permanence, faithfulness and exclusivity), be adequately and meaningfully narrated within this tradition? I see some major difficulties in constructing the argument, and also some potential ways around them, but, thus far, as far as I know, the argument has not been attempted.)

The Roman Catholic hierarchy of Scotland clearly generally believes that the natural law argument cannot be extended to same-sex relations; we could dismiss this as homophobia, or we could acknowledge that, within the tradition of moral reasoning they inhabit, no plausible argument for this extension has been made; inevitably, then, they are constrained to believe as they do. For Christian interpreters, charity might demand the latter approach, and suggest that anyone who desires to shift the position of the Church needs first to demonstrate philosophically that such an argument is sustainable. (I confess that I do not follow the Roman dogmatic tradition carefully; it may be that this argument has been made, sufficiently quietly that it has not entered into general academic consciousness; if so, it should be promoted assiduously by those who know of it.)

What should a Reformed response look like? Someone who does not believe in a natural law which demonstrates the appropriateness of indissoluble heterosexual monogamy to all right-thinking people can go one of two ways. She could claim special insight from revelation into the best way to order society, and attempt to impose that through gaining and exercising political power. This has been the way of the state churches, generally. Alternatively, she might go a Baptist/free church route: believing that Christian marriage is for Christians, she would ask the government to allow her congregation, and all other people, to follow their consciences, and to protect them in that.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the Protectorate in England declared marriage to be a civil act, conducted by a Justice of the Peace, not a minister. Further, in England and Wales, the oppressive Anglican regime insisted that only marriages conducted by its own clergy were valid up until 1836 (under Hardwicke’s act of 1753, there were exceptions for Jews and, curiously, Quakers) – Baptists (or Muslims…) who wanted to marry had to apply to the local Anglican parish priest. Since that date, English/Welsh law has recognised two forms of marriage: Anglican; and civil (all Scottish marriages are civil in this sense, formalised under the authority of the registrar). Ministers of other denominations were allowed to seek authorisation from the local registrar, and, having received it, to act as agents of the state in officiating at a civil ceremony (and all Scottish ministers formalising marriage act as agents of the state).

States, including the United Kingdom, clearly have assumed that they have the power to define what ‘marriage’ means in the past, and no doubt will do so again in the future; I suspect that – in Baptist terms – it was a mistake to entangle church and state in this area. Perhaps there was a moment of happy accident when the civil definition of marriage was somewhere close to the Christian ideal, but it was only ever going to be a moment; we should have foreseen that, in one direction or another, this closeness would disappear and we would find ourselves uncomfortably implicated in a civil practice of which we could not approve. I  further suspect that, had we been thinking clearly, one or another of the various alterations to the divorce laws should have been the decisive moment of separation for us…

Time was in England, Baptists and others would go to the local parish priest to sort the legal bit out, and then have (what they regarded as) a proper Christian marriage ceremony afterwards. To return to such a practice, substituting civil registrar for Anglican cleric, might be our best witness to our faith – and I suspect that this might be true regardless of the outcome of the current debate. In Scotland, after all, with have a marriage law which regards prenuptial agreements as enforceable (England & Wales have so far avoided this) how can a ‘marriage’ covenant containing the terms of its own possible dissolution be regarded as adequately Christian?

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