Cardinal Sins against Logic

What really shocked about Cardinal Keith O'Brien's comments on same-sex marriage wasn't his opposition to legalisation per se -- we all know the Roman Catholic Church's position on this subject. It wasn't even his intemperate language (talk of "madness" and "human rights violations") or the absurd suggestion that changing the terminology from "civil partnership" to "marriage" was somehow equivalent to legalising slavery. No, what really shocked was the complete lack of any sense of reasoned analysis or coherent argument.

As the cardinal pointed out to John Humphrys, the Catholic Church has had almost two thousand years in which to ponder the nature and meaning of marriage. Can they really not have come up with anything better than (to quote O'Brien's Sunday Telegraph article) "marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together"? Or (as he put it to Mr Humphrys) "it's quite simply natural for a man and a woman to be together for the procreation of children and their own mutual love"?

If O'Brien is a fair representation of the intellectual quality of the present leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in these islands, God help them. I almost felt sorry for him. I certainly felt sorry for the many thoughtful Catholics out there who find themselves being represented by such a prize nincompoop.

But let's look at what, for all the talk of human rights, seems to be his core argument: that the state has no right to redefine what the word "marriage" means, because marriage is always and everywhere the same, something that "long predates the existence of any state or government." It's an argument heard quite readily among campaigners against the small proposed change in the law. The Archbishop of York has said something very similar, albeit without resorting to O'Brien's grotesque slavery analogy. What it amounts to is the claim that something (which we happen to call "marriage") has a transcendent reality. That it exists outside of language and outside of the human cultures in which it has always been expressed. That it is both God-given and part of nature.

The obvious problem with this is that marriage is evidently not always and everywhere the same, either in external form or in internal meaning. If you say that "marriage" has to be between a man and a woman, you come up against the fact that a majority of human cultures, including that which incubated the Hebrew Bible, have allowed or even encouraged polygamy. To outlaw polygamy was therefore to change the meaning of marriage as it had been "clearly understood" in many societies throughout history. To insist on the permanence of the union is to ignore the existence in some cultures (such as Shia Islam) of "temporary marriage" - or indeed the prevalence of divorce in our own. If you stress that marriage is a legal state rather than an anthropological fact (or else cohabitation is also "marriage") then you have already conceded that it is something defined by the state or by the law rather than by nature. Or indeed God.

Even the Roman Catholic Church itself is not entirely consistent. It formally treats as adulterous second marriages in which the partners have not obtained a religious annulment of their first union. Couples in such marriages will be forbidden communion. (Or they might not; it rather depends, I gather, on how strict the local priest is in enforcing the rules.) It might refer to unauthorised second marriages as "irregular unions". Yet at same time the church tacitly concedes the right of the state to issue divorces and the right of couples in second marriages to use the terminology of wedlock, at least in normal life. You don't find O'Brien stamping his heels and accusing politicians of "redefining reality" by allowing people to divorce and then remarry. His church is quite happy to concede that a marriage might be at the same time legally valid and canonically void.

What O'Brien's argument comes down to is the contention that the one crucial defining feature of marriage lies in heterosexuality. It is not fundamentally about love, or companionship, or the transfer or property between generations, or the binding-together of wider kinship networks, or even the upbringing of children (because, after all, the Catholic Church does not attempt to prevent the marriage of post-menopausal women, provided they aren't divorced). No, marriage is marriage if and only if the parties involved in it are of different sexes.

But this must be nonsense, because whatever else it is, marriage is not (in most societies) synonymous with opposite-sex relationship. The law, and indeed the church, distinguishes between a validly contracted marriage that might have been entered into during a drunken binge at Las Vegas, and a non-formalised cohabitation that might have lasted twenty years or more. The former has greater legal standing than the latter. On what basis? Nature? Divine revelation? Morality? Children? No: merely because the one is legally and socially described as "marriage" and the other isn't. The married state is that which the law defines as the married state.

Modern Western society is much less concerned than were previous generations with securing the legitimacy of children (and besides, we now have DNA tests). Pre-marital cohabitation has become the norm. Nor, in most cases, is legally contracted marriage necessary to achieve the financial security of women and their children. Still less do we think in terms of dowries or wider kinship networks when conceptualising marriage. On the other hand, modern culture is very concerned with notions of love and companionship. It celebrates the couple, straight or gay, as an expression of intimacy, fidelity and sexual equality. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership of equals rather than a union of opposites. Even conservative religious voices are rarely to be found, today, demanding that wives submit to their husbands and not go out to work.

But if all that is true, then to assert that the essence of marriage lies in heterosexuality makes no sense. The essential elements of marriage, as most people today understand it, are as likely to be found in gay couples as in straight ones. And those elements of traditional marriage that were specifically heterosexual are either offensively outdated or (like sex, cohabitation and even children) can all be found, without social opprobrium, outside the married state. Marriage has become a choice, in other words.

What is left is a question of semantics. Since the legal implications of heterosexual marriage and homosexual civil partnership are close enough to be practically indistinguishable, the difference in terminology is no more than a polite legal fiction. Same-sex marriage already exists in all but name. To get as worked up as Cardinal Keith O'Brien over the choice of one word over another, when the substance of the thing being described is unaffected one way or another, is not the sign of a great theological mind. In fact, it suggests that His Eminence is something of an idiot.


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