Max Wind-Cowie is Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.
I support gay marriage. Not because I think it’s somehow my ‘right’ to get married but because in a society that tolerates the practice of homosexuality and expects people to approve of and accept homosexual relationships, those relationships should have the same burden of responsibility, sanctity and commitment as heterosexual ones. But I don’t want to write about why people like me should be able to get married – I’ve done that before – I want to write about why we should be behaving with considerably more modesty, compassion and understanding than we currently are.
The hatred and scorn poured onto Catholic clergy and congregations on this issue has shaken my support for gay marriage to its core. I want to support it, I believe in it, but the behavior of my peers has almost turned me against it. Why? Because the gay rights lobby – and its vociferous friends in the more militant ranks of Britain’s secularists – has demonstrated the very intolerance, demonisation and bigotry that gay people rightly decry when it’s directed at us.
Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, has accused Catholics of being “responsible for increasing homophobia. They've got permission from the church for bigotry.” Whilst Lynne Featherstone, the Government Minister responsible for equality, termed opponents of same sex marriage “bigots” and claimed that they are “living in the stone ages”. Even nastier – and wholly unjustified – have been those that have used the tragedy of historic child abuse cases within the clergy to justify an attempt to silence the Church on any issue of sexual morality. Kevin Crowe – a man who left the Priesthood to pursue a gay relationship – attacked Cardinal O’Brien’s stance of gay marriage by arguing “It’s a pity our church leaders did not put half as much effort into stopping child abuse as they do in condemning loving, stable and consensual adult relationships.” And that is at the more temperate end of the scale – I can’t bring myself to reproduce some of the most vicious tweets and blogs on the matter.
This hatred of Catholicism and of Catholics is bigotry of the first order. It is an attempt to silence a considerable section of our society and to paint men and women struggling with their faith as irrelevant at best and evil at worst. These are the very tactics of those who have sought to block homosexuals from public life and from political debate in the past and they are beyond ugly and hypocritical.
Of course, as gay people, we might feel uncomfortable about some of the views and concerns expressed in this argument. But gay marriage is a fundamental change to the law and norms of this society – that’s why we want it folks, isn’t it? – and so the onus lies with us to persuade, to listen and to allay fears as far as possible. Rather than dismiss people as bigots or as opposed to freedom, perhaps we should look to recent history in order to try to understand where those fears spring from.
Catholics still bear the scars of this country’s war on their provision of adoption services, for example, which saw good men and women forced to choose between their faith and the unbending and uncompromising dogma of our equality legislation. When they have seen their adoption agencies closed in the name of liberal purity – simply because they were unable to work with gay couples – is it any wonder that they fear gay marriage as a choice for churches will swiftly become an obligation for churches? And there are questions that remain about whether Catholic faith schools – delivering excellent education often in our poorest areas – will be free to teach a Catholic interpretation of marriage once the Government has rewritten the rules on what marriage is.
We who are gay, or who are simply supporters of gay marriage, have a responsibility to take these fears seriously, to be compassionate, to try our hardest to reach a compromise that is acceptable to consciences of good and loving Christians. To carry on simply banging the drum and screaming ‘bigot’, or to smear our opponents as paedophiles, is to lose any moral claim we may once have had. Let’s show Catholics some of the love and tolerance we have been granted by our society. Otherwise we are no better than those who wish to deny us our right to speak and to debate and to love.