Friday 24 September 2010

A reflection on Archbishop Nichols' earlier comments on gay unions

The reflection below refers to Archbishop Nichols' comments on gay partnerships made on 2 July and 11 September. The reflection was written before the archbishop's further comments on gay partnerships in an interview shown on BBC Two on Monday (20 September) which I blogged about yesterday.

It has been suggested to me that I have been too hard on Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, in my criticism of him; and that in fact the Archbishop is rather conservative and orthodox in his views on homosexuality, but at the same time he seems to be one of those who - using the words of Pope Benedict - have an "inclination towards more permissive religious convictions" in the area of moral conduct.

In my opinion it is not possible to separate the roles of teacher and pastor so completely. It is true that Archbishop Nichols stated his opposition to homosexual acts because they cannot be fecund, but he balked at the use of the word “unnatural” which, used of such acts, is both biblical and Magisterial. The objection to homosexual acts is not limited to the physicalist observation of their non-fecundity, but takes in as well the fact that such acts contravene the natural law and are therefore unnatural in the moral sense.

Archbishop Nichols said that he would be worried if the Catholic Church were “to try and refashion a message simply to suit a time”. So far so good. But all of this is undermined by his further statement that he did not know if the Catholic Church would "accept the reality of gay partnerships" (11 September) or "sanction gay unions" (2 July).

It is not just the case that there is something “missing” in what Archbishop Nichols says. In the context of that interview, and in common parlance, to “accept the reality” of something is to accept it as a fact and then move on. That that is what he meant can be found in his statement of 2 July, some two months earlier, that he did not know if the Catholic Church would “sanction gay unions”. That is to say that the Catholic Church’s moral teaching in this matter is in fact open to change, is fallible, and may ultimately be set aside.

Putting it all together, it seems obvious to me that Archbishop Nichols gives lip-service to the Catholic Church’s teaching, while fatally undermining (as distinct from denying) the security and even the legitimacy of that teaching.

It is pointed out, correctly, that Archbishop Nichols has also said this about the Catholic Church’s moral teaching:
“The moral demands on all of us made by that tradition are difficult.(...) Now, that's tough, that's a high ideal. I'm not sure many people have ever observed it in its totality, but it doesn't mean to say it has no sense".
In this statement the archbishop states the obvious, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The same is true of lying and stealing. What point is he making?

Well, he says that from the fact that we fail it doesn’t follow that the moral teaching “has no sense”. But this is a very equivocal statement. He is not saying the teaching makes complete sense, he simply observes that, as a matter of logic (as compared to truth) that it does not follow there is no sense in the teaching. Well, as a matter of logic, neither does it follow from the fact that people fail that there is any sense in the teaching.

What Archbishop Nichols should have said, quite unambiguously, is that the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on this matter is true and for a whole raft of good reasons. The way the archbishop has presented in a popular public forum is more than suggestive that:
a) he doesn’t really believe that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is true for all time
b) that homosexuality is not such a big deal, and
c) we should really just accept the fact that people are sexually active in all sorts of ways.

Archbishop Nichols says that there is:
“a critical distance to be held between how the church struggles to understand a revealed truth and how a society is moving. If they're too close there's no light. If they're too far apart there's no light.”
Two comments here. The Catholic Church is not “struggling to understand a revealed truth” here. The objection to homosexuality is that it is contrary to the natural law, a law which is accessible to non-believers as well as believers. It may suit secularists to think that objection to homosexual acts is just something for believers to worry about. But the Catholic Church clearly teaches that homosexual acts are contrary to the natural moral law. Second, what on earth does such a sentence really mean?

I expect from my archbishop clear, unequivocal, and pastorally sensitive teaching which is completely faithful to the teaching of the Magisterium. Moreover, being “pastorally sensitive” applies not just to those struggling with homosexual temptations, but to parents who have the primary responsibility in passing on the moral teaching of the Catholic Church to their children. This pastoral sensitivity also applies to parents who are non-Catholics, and who recognise that homosexual acts are, in fact, unnatural in the moral sense.

* The late Pope John Paul II, the great pro-life champion, taught in paragraph 97 of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae that it is an illusion to think that we can build a true culture of human life if we do not offer adolescents and young adults an authentic education in sexuality, and in love, and the whole of life according to their true meaning and in their close interconnection.

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