When the bishops of England and Wales brought out their letter to the churches in England and Wales, I gave it as my considered opinion that it revealed only that the bishops had an unhealthy obsession with sex.
However, I could not let it stop at that. I wrote the bishops a letter, which I do not know if they read. My sister wondered if I would blog on the subject, but I was not quite sure. Now that the bishops have had a chance to write to me on the subject (but have chosen not to) and the bishops of Scotland have come out with their letter for Scotland, maybe I should share that letter with other people. I do not say that I am always right, or that I have all the answers. No doubt this letter has mistakes. But I thought about the subject, and I read about it, and I prayed about it, and this was my best effort:
To the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales,
To my very dear brothers in Jesus Christ,
I feel obliged to write to you, in response to the letter that you wrote to be distributed in all the parishes two weeks ago. It surprises me that I should be writing to you in this way, but there are times in a person’s life when a ‘live-and-let-live’ position is no longer tenable, and I feel very strongly that this is one of those times. The letter that was appointed to be read out in parishes was nothing short of scandalous, and it cannot be ignored or brushed under the carpet.
The first thing I have to tell you is rather embarrassing. The letter, although short, had no fewer than nine references of one sort or another to the act of sexual intercourse or to the procreation of children. This obsession with sexual acts is most unbecoming in a group of mature unmarried men. Given the recent scandals about priests and sex, which have not yet been forgotten, it seems to me to be rather tactless, but that is not the point I am trying to make. If a bishop cannot mention the word ‘marriage’ without thinking about ‘sex’, what does this have to tell us about his understanding of marriage, and of his ability to offer suitable counselling on matters pertaining to the sacrament of Matrimony and the life of married couples?
The overriding impression of this letter of yours is that you believe that one of the most important parts of marriage – if not the most important – is to create a framework for the legitimate indulgence of carnal desires and that the purpose of marriage is to produce children. This reduction of marriage to genes and genetics is profoundly wrong. It is, moreover, extremely insulting to a great many couples, who do not experience their marriages in this way. Not to mention extremely hurtful for those couples who would like to have children, but are infertile, or who marry late in life, past the childbearing age. The wedding rite even makes provision for the possibility of a marriage without children, by instructing that the prayer to ‘accept children lovingly’ be left out. However, this prayer need not be interpreted as an instruction to ‘go forth and multiply’, nor should it. Parents are called to accept children in many other ways; one obvious example is by accepting a vocation to become foster parents or to adopt children. But God is not asking all married people to accept children, and it is not up to the church to imply that this is the case.
So what is marriage? Our understanding of the nature and purpose of marriage has changed over the centuries, as we have grown in greater understanding. A recent example is that the State changed marriage to better respect the rights of women. Marriage is now in the church understood as a life-long commitment of two people, the one to the other, ‘to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, till death do us part’. This is how I see my marriage. We are a partnership in life. Together we face life’s challenges. Together we support each other ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse’.
And what is homosexuality? Homosexuality is when a man or a woman discovers that he or she is not attracted to a member of the opposite sex, but to members only of the same sex. Those people today who say ‘I am a homosexual’ may have been told many times that they should ‘be attracted to people of the opposite sex’, maybe that they should marry, but they have discovered, the hard way – and in my encounters with homosexual people, it has usually been very hard – that they are simply not like that. They have not been created that way. Their attempts at conventional (heterosexual) marriage break down, because those marriages were simply never meant to be. The more we learn about the life, the more we listen to our fellow human beings, the more we discover that this is the truth. But who made them this way? And why? I cannot answer the why, but certainly, the who is clear. God made them. God made them in his own image and likeness; they are his children. God’s will may be hidden from us at times, but we know that He does not make mistakes! Under no circumstances can we consider ourselves permitted to say ‘homosexuality is disordered,’ any more than we can say ‘left-handedness is disordered’.
So where does that leave the church? Well, the truth I have come to realise, is that if my catechism, or even an encyclical letter from the pope, is self-contradictory, then it is because there is a mistake in church teaching. It is time that the church took a good hard look at sexuality, and sex, and sexual ethics, and started again from scratch.
And where does that leave you, the authors of this scandalous and hurtful letter, which contains so many untruths and errors? Well, let us go back to the letter. The purpose of your letter was to explain ‘why you were against same-sex marriages’. To support your opinion, you resorted to assertions about the nature of human beings that are contrary to the experiences of many people. You attempted to consider the nature of marriage, but succeeded only in revealing the fact that you completely misunderstand it. There are one or two true points in your letter, but they are only glimpses. You opened the door, but did not go through it. Instead, you turned away and concluded other, wrong, things.
You need to try again, beginning right at the beginning. You need to consider two aspects.
Firstly, what is homosexuality? This point was not even addressed in your letter. But it is necessary to consider this point before you can begin on your letter. By ignoring the fact that God made homosexuals, and has a calling for them that might be something other than celibacy, you are missing the point completely. By refusing to consider that homosexual people experience the same call by God to form loving relationships and commitments in life partnerships, you are guilty of the very discrimination that you deplore, of devaluing one set of people as somehow ‘flawed’, without even being able to explain why you think this is so. You need to start again at the beginning.
Secondly, what is marriage? Why is it a sacrament? How does it reflect the love of God? Why is it a vocation? Who is called to marriage? You attempted to answer these questions in your letter, but by reducing marriage to genes and genetics, you are as far from the mark as those marriages we read about in history that were merely contracts to get power from one family (or country) to another.
When you have succeeded in meditating upon these points; when you have studied them well in daily life; then maybe you might be drawn to write a new letter, a new catechism, a new understanding. One that does not cause a scandal in the world. One that does not hurt people so badly. One that is not discounted by many people as simply ‘untrue’. And maybe you will recognise that everybody who is called by God to a vocation of marriage is entitled to the support of the church and the community in that vocation and, furthermore, entitled to the public witness of the sacramental nature of that commitment, not only in the register office, but also in the church, and during the Mass.