Tuesday 13 July 2010

Senator Harris challenges opponents of Ireland's Civil Partnership bill to become martyrs

Eoghan Harris (pictured) is a member of the Irish Senate, a journalist and a columnist. He sets the tone for media rejoicing over Ireland's Civil Partnership bill, approved last week by both houses of the Irish parliament. (Patrick Buckley, of European Life Network, provides a useful summary of what happened in the Irish Senate).

When enacted the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitation Bill 2009 will establish the status of civil partners, enable same sex couples to register their civil partnership, confer on them a range of rights and duties consequent on registration including maintenance, shared home, succession and pensions rights.

Eoghan Harris wrote in the Sunday Independent:
"Civil partnership is a crucial stepping stone to gay marriage ... some of the speeches by opponents of the bill began to grate badly in three respects. First, I found it hard to stomach some of the spoof about private conscience. Fine, if it meant the speakers' own personal conscience. Not so fine if they were simply renting their conscience from the Christian churches. Why? Because while Jesus Christ was casual about sexual peccadilloes, his disciples, beginning with Paul, had an historically deranged view of human sexuality which led to atrocities ranging from the burning of witches to child abuse by Catholic clerics."
My first reaction, on reading Senator Harris's reflections on Jesus Christ's and St Paul's teaching on human sexuality, was to laugh: but then I realised he wasn't joking.

Donning a straight face, therefore, I ask Senator Harris two questions:
  • To what particular passage in the Gospel are you referring when you say Jesus was "casual about sexual peccadilloes"?
  • Have your profound reflections on St Paul on the matter of human sexuality included a critical reading of Pope John Paul II's 129 Wednesday audiences known as Theology of the Body - given between the years 1979 and 1984? If not, what Pauline scholarship did your reading include?
Senator Eoghan Harris continues:
"Second, I could not accept the argument that civil servants could refuse to register a civil partnership on grounds of conscience. Surely private conscience should concern major moral issues of life and death and not the peculiar convictions of civil servants on sexual matters? And how could a pluralist Republic allow civil servants to pick and choose between its laws?"
To which one might respond: Perhaps the "peculiar convictions" of the civil servants in question include a determination to abide by the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which obliges States to protect the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman. As the distinguished bioethicist and lawyer William L. Saunders has pointed out:
"Article 16 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights] declares: 'The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.' Thus, article 16 recognizes the common sense fact, sometimes overlooked by governments and international organizations, that the family exists prior to the state, is the foundation of the state, and that the state is obligated to protect it.

"Article 16 goes further. It recognizes the right of a man and woman to marry and found a family. In other words, it recognizes that the family is founded ... upon marriage. We can all be thankful the Declaration recognized these fundamental truths."
It is, therefore, only natural that good Irish citizens will want to oppose by conscientious objection Ireland's Civil Partnership Bill once it becomes law, if on no other basis than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And, in addition to being inspired by the UDHR, there might be Irish citizens who agree with Pope Benedict that legislation which is "a crucial stepping stone to gay marriage" will tend towards "man's destruction". Such citizens may well regard it like a moral issue of "life and death" rather than "private conscience". Pope Benedict said in his 2008 end of year address to the Roman Curia:
"Since faith in the Creator is an essential part of the Christian Creed, the Church cannot and should not limit itself to transmitting to its faithful only the message of salvation. She has a responsibility for Creation, and it should validate this responsibility in public.

"In so doing, it should defend not just the earth, water and air as gifts of Creation that belong to everyone. She should also protect man from destroying himself.

"It is necessary to have something like an ecology of man, understood in the right sense. It is not outdated metaphysics when the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman, and asks that this natural order be respected.

"This has to do with faith in the Creator and listening to the language of creation, which, if disregarded, would be man's self-destruction and therefore a destruction of God's work itself.

"That which has come to be expressed and understood with the term 'gender' effectively results in man's self-emancipation from Creation (nature) and from the Creator. Man wants to do everything by himself and to decide always and exclusively about anything that concerns him personally. But this is to live against truth, to live against the Spirit Creator.

"The tropical rain forests deserve our protection, yes, but man does not deserve it less as a Creature of the Spirit himself, in whom is inscribed a message that does not mean a contradiction of human freedom but its condition.

"The great theologians of Scholasticism described matrimony - which is the lifelong bond between a man and a woman - as a sacrament of Creation, that the Creator himself instituted, and that Christ, without changing the message of Creation, welcomed in the story of his alliance with men.

"Part of the announcement that the Church should bring to men is a testimonial for the Spirit Creator present in all of nature, but specially in the nature of man, who was created in the image of God."
(I thank Teresa Benedetta of the Papa Ratzi forum for the translation and the Hermeneutic of Continuity for drawing attention to this translation at the time.)

Senator Harris goes on to say:
"Finally, if a civil servant really had a crisis of conscience about civil partnership surely Dr Johnson's adage applied? 'Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test.'"
From what I know of Ireland and the Irish, and whatever Senator Harris means by martyrdom, there will be Irish citizens willing to meet his chilling challenge. Indeed, I pray to God, for the future of the family and for the culture of life*, that there will be.

* Pope John Paul II taught that it was an illusion to think that we could build a true culture of human life if we did 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. However, with the bishops of England and Wales lending its support to legislation that obliges Catholic schools to provide information on contraception and abortion, is it not completely unrealistic to expect that Catholic sexual morality will be taught in these schools?

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