“Let us be rid of those bigots and fools who will not let Scotland live and let live” ring the lyrics of The Corries’ Scotland Will Flourish. These words were previously summoned in Parliament in relation to sectarianism; yet they are equally pertinent in relation to another religious affliction: the recent poisonous diatribes within the debate on equal marriage.
Philip Tartaglia, on the day he was selected by Joseph Ratzinger to become Archbishop of Glasgow, was caught in a media melee when a video immerged of him linking the ‘gay lifestyle’ of MP David Cairns to his early death from pancreatitis. Dermot Kehoe accused the bishop of seeking political capital from his partner’s death. While defending these comments, Catholic Church spokesman Peter Keirney claimed “a link between same-sex sexual practice and early death”. He also described homosexuality as ‘hazardous, harmful, and dangerous’.
Keith O’Brien (head of the Catholic Church in Scotland) was the focus of previous controversies. He compared introducing equal marriage to legalising slavery and claimed that same-sex unions would lead to the ‘moral degeneration’ of society. Hugh Gilbert (Bishop of Aberdeen) compared gay marriage to bigamy and incest. Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict’s Secretary of State, linked pedophilia to homosexuality.
These comments are immensely serious: for all of us who wish to live in a humane, equal society, for organised religion and for all those who identify as religious. It relates particularly to the hierarchy within the Catholic Church, who have repeatedly fallen foul of public decency on this subject, but will also provide the financial and political resources in opposition to equal marriage legislation in the next year.
The debate matters because it concerns human dignity. 26% of Scottish pupils from a sexual minority have attempted suicide. Over half commit self-harm. 99% deal with homophobic language. This is a disgraceful, human tragedy. Such desperate social consequences will remain as long as high profile public discussion allows prejudice to fester.
The comments themselves are symptoms of a wider malaise. Old, white, male, celibates – with a strange obsession with the free expression of sexuality – are infecting public debate. They receive undue respect. Their claim to represent God is no excuse for campaigns of hate. It’s time that Catholics reclaimed their church from such bigots and fools.
Tom Harris MP, despite his mixed political record, bravely took a stand in response to Tartaglia’s comments. Many Catholics have done or feel (table 7.3) the same. Whilst many Catholics support equal marriage, the church leadership has remained dogmatically opposed, and as Keith O’Brien prepares to “declare war on gay marriage” in the coming year, congregations must say ‘not in my name’ or witness their faith dragged through the dirt of dogma and prejudice.
This may well be an important cultural moment for religion. The response of religious organisations and individuals will define whether faith can remain relevant or retreat into a regressive fringe. Since the 60s society has changed: it has embraced the rights of the womens’ movement, the sexual revolution and now the LGBT movement. The unresponsive conservatism of churches gives a warning of a looming death knell. Religious observance is in crisis: from European Catholicism to Scottish Presbyterianism. Numbers are falling. Young people are increasingly secular. Each and every adherent to Abrahamic faith must reflect on this.
I have witnessed this: people of faith who are currently struggling to comprehend the stance their church has taken; struggling to deconstruct the abuse of scripture; struggling to reconcile their wish for a loving and meaningful belief in God with what is preached in his name. It raises the wider question: what is religion for?
It need not be inextricably linked with social conservatism. Christianity stems from one of the most radical doctrines of Western political philosophy. Christ speaks of the equality between rich and poor, of compassion and of community. These ideas can maintain the relevance of religion as a time of great inequality. When a gay, female Priest may preach the Sermon on the Mount, Christianity will be closer to its origin of seeking justice. Seeking justice – without the current degradation of faith brought via corrupt constructions of hierarchy, gender and sexuality within organised religion. As Parish Priest Giles Fraser has quoted, the current flux between justice, faith and prejudice “will revitalise traditional Christianity or signal its moral, social and political irrelevance.”
In many ways we live in the early days of a better nation. Yet for Scotland to flourish it must reconcile religion’s festering homophobia. As it stands we have ‘Two Scotland’s’ – the progressive and an increasingly outdated and reactionary social conservatism. These two futures are incompatible. The march of secular political influence appears to be unassailable; but this does not exclude the social viability of religion. Faith can matter – but only if the ancient prejudices of Bishops, Imams and Ministers ceases. The Church of Scotland sits in quiet complacency and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is preparing an assault upon equality. It is too important an issue, and too important a time for silence. Catholics of good faith must take their church back.
21st August 2012