Catholicism and Gay Marriage

Today an organisation that presided over a global epidemic of institutional child sex abuse issued a condemnation of gay marriage. Because that might undermine family life.

I had a brief rant about it on Facebook which led to some angry responses from Catholics on my friends list, who claimed that the Church’s authority was not being listened to, and this was responsible for a decline in morals.

It would be tempting to simply respond to such suggestions with a raised middle finger, but it did set off a few thoughts in my mind, partly with regard to my own experiences as a former Catholic. So I’m going to engage in a bit of reflection on religious belief and church authority.

Scroll back in time a couple of decades, and I was a good Catholic boy – served on the altar, attended a Catholic school, Mass every Sunday. But something was troubling me, and it wasn’t just the usual conflicts between religious strictures and teenage hormones. During the Sunday Mass, I kept getting plagued by the thought that I just wasn’t getting it. No matter how hard I tried, how dutifully I served, I wasn’t feeling any sense of a relationship with the Divine. At least, not in the rituals of the Mass. It was as though God wasn’t there in the Church with me.

At the time, I was plagued with guilt over it. Surely I must be doing something wrong? Not to feel the presence of God in the Sacraments? Was I a bad person, not to be able to sense how holy all this was?

A couple of months ago, I was reminded of this confusion when I set foot in a Catholic church for the first time in years to attend a requiem. The sense of spiritual ossification was palpable. A priest recited the scriptures in a dreary monotone to a small, mostly elderly, frequently bored-looking congregation, there to be reminded of their place by the Mother Church. Without any adolescent angst to befuddle me, it really didn’t seem so surprising that I’d previously felt utterly uninspired. The church was the yearning for a higher spiritual truth, shrivelled and then beaten down into a set of rules to obey and a hierarchical authority to take instruction from. Any personal relationship with the Divine was simply secondary to this.

A friend of mine was told in Sunday School that the Mass was God’s penance. We really must be punishing Him, to make him listen to so many prattling priests.

Nowadays, I practise no religion, though questions of spirituality still intrigue me. For a period I became a neo-pagan. For all the (many) intellectual flaws of that particular movement, it does tend to attract disillusioned Catholics looking for a refocusing of spirituality away from the authority of the priesthood and inward to the individual psyche. Personally I suspect that the high prevalence of Ex-Catholic Syndrome among contemporary pagans accounts for a lot of “No more the Burning Times” rhetoric they tend to indulge in, usually to the dismay of historians.

Some Catholics switch to Evangelicalism. The “happy clappies” we used to disparagingly call them. At least they look like they’re enjoying their religion.

And of course, there are those Catholics who renounce religious belief altogether. It’s sometimes said that Catholics make for the most erudite atheists, because they were educated by Jesuits.

If Catholicism is about the acceptance of authority and subordination of the individual, then there is a rock against which that authority breaks with a resounding crash. And that rock is the sexual abuse scandals. The church is supposed to be the bedrock of Absolute Truth and spiritual leadership, with an infallable Pope at its head. Yet this supposed bedrock turned out to have ignored and even protected the child abusers in their midst. Why? Because defending the priestly hierarchy turned out to be more important to them than common human decency.

By the time the scandals were starting to emerge across the world in earnest, I’d already drifted away from the authority of the priests. As the true scale of the cover-ups unfolded, this scoured away any remaining respect I had left for Mother Church. This Massacre of Innocence is the Church’s brand new Original Sin for the 21st Century. An unspeakable crime for which its institutions will never be clean again.

The Catholic Church sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of moral authority and truth. If their objection to gay marriage is that it allows new moralities and new truths to emerge in a way they can’t control, then so be it.

9 thoughts on “Catholicism and Gay Marriage

  1. As a former born again, creationist, fundamentalist ‘happy clappy’ I couldn’t agree more.

    I can no longer see any reason to accept the moral guidance of someone whose moral compass continually points to the tribal sectarianism and injustice of the iron age.

  2. Well reasoned argument that some of those people on FB earlier would counter with a whinge about how ‘opressed’ catholics are. My heart literally bleeds *rolls eyes*

  3. What does my head in is the way these supposedly celibate priests claim to know so much about the blessedness of marriage: is there something they’re not telling us? Sadly, in too many cases (one would be too many) there evidently is… 😦

    I’d urge anyone who supports gay marriage, or more specifically, marriage equality, to sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage petition:

  4. It seems to me this is fundamentally a debate about who controls the definition of the word “marriage”. The catholic church and the state both claim the authority to do so, but the authority in each case is of a very different kind.

    Now, controversial as this may be, the catholic church may very well have the authority to define marriage for members of its club. Provided, of course, that club membership is regulated so that:

    • those within who don’t like the rules have a mechanism to change them;
    • those within who don’t like the rules are free to leave;
    • those outside who don’t like the rules are free to criticize;
    • those within and outside are ever alert to prevent the rules causing harm – the blog highlights the devastating failure of the catholic church in this regard;

    If the club rules are unpleasant enough, one might hope that either they are changed or the whole club falls into obsolescence.

    I wrote here recently about the relationship between religion and the state. I commented on the harm which results when the two are interchangeable – a religious state – and looked forward to a future where where the two were separate.

    What most troubles me about the recent intervention is that it looks very like an attempt by the catholic church to exert political authority over non-club members – a move in the wrong direction. Because marriage in some form has existed in some form in just about every culture and religion, every time and place, and has never been the monopoly of the catholic church. The State is fully entitled to say to the catholic church, “you define it for your club, but we define it for society at large”.

    The issue of gay marriage has come to prominence recently, but in the present state of the law there are two exclusive institutions not one: marriage is available only to heterosexual relationships,and civil partnership is available only to homosexual relationships. There are also those concerned about the connotations of marriage who would like civil partnership to be an option for heterosexual relationships.

    I wonder if that would show up the club rules?

    • It is also about who controls the definition of the word ‘Catholic’. And how does it come to be the case that sacramental rituals in Establishment Roman hands are often trite, dreary or both but they are often fun in Orthodox, High Anglican or Rebellious Roman hands? Could it be the case that we can see dried-up old farts, educated in the old authoritarian ways, who have no real experience of love or depth of spirituality and so fall back on Tha Roolz? Remember the Dublin saying: “The Sisters of Mercy have no charity, and the Sisters of Charity have no mercy”.

  5. As a non religionist I have some sympathy with your findings. All major institutions within society have an instinct to protect the hierarchy. The Catholic Church is particularly good at it. You may like to read the open letter I wrote to Cardinal Keith O’Brien this week about his views on equal marriage.

    Mike Pennell


  6. Sorry to hear the neo-paganism didn’t work out, Z. I know plenty, not least in our respective necks of the woods, who happily combine Anglicanism/Catholicism/Orthodoxy with one or more forms of paganism (not to be confused with pik’n’mix New Agery, people). Some are mental health nurses. And they are all partial to real ale and many to Morris dancing. Try Brandon Hill, in the centre of Bristol, just before dawn on 1st May – dress warmly, bring sausages, camping Gaz ring or similar, and plenty of hot coffee.


    • I may just do that, Michael. However, in being lured to secret locations on Beltane, can you reassure me no wicker men are involved?

      • Secret? You’ll be lucky not to get complaints about N-O-I-S-E from local residents, tramps on park benches, etc., especially as AWP is closing the Assertive Outreach Teams at the end of this month. I assure you there will be no wicker man or truly wicked persons of any description (can’t be sure about parsons, of course). There’s normally a Green Man or three and other such quaint folkeries with several Morris sides, I have several friends in Bristol Rag Morris, including a GP and a naughty NHS mental health finance lead.

        As to secret ceremonies, there’s a cave a mile away getting down to which (up is impossible for all except highly skilled climbers) would give the elfin safety gnomes the heeby-jeebies – the trick is to hangon to the trees as you go down. But it’s all very wholesome when you get there. And of course there’s the standing stones at Stanton Drew next to an interesting church and a decent pub that does lunches.

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