What an extraordinary day. Today in Roman Catholic churches all over the UK, congregations will be exhorted to stand up for tradition. Nothing new in that, since the RC church has more tradition and ritual associated with it than any other.
Today it is about the tradition of marriage. Well, actually about the western christian church’s tradition about marriage. It seems the tradition that marriage is first and foremost about procreation and raising kids (and therefore really tough luck if it turns out you cannot) and that every other reason for a committed, sealed partnership is a poor second. Including sex for bonding, comfort or just pleasure. That seems to be allowed of course, because between the fun and bonding, there is a family.
Marriage is supposed to continue for life by this argument, so that there is a stable extended family. Grandparents matter too. But marriage is not about equality.
The matter of fertility
Nowadays we can tell before marriage if we are fertile, whereas when the early church adopted various existing marriage rites and principles, people largely could not. That’s a shame, because the primacy of procreation and family would have meant infertile couples could not marry – or the purpose and benefits of marriage would have been expressed differently. If so, today’s tradition argument against same-sex marriage would not have arisen in quite the same way.
It isn’t quite so clear what individual priests in the RC church like to say about couples who marry with no intention of raising a family (or who cannot) – a very recent statement by one was clear that marriage would not be offered. So is this as sinful as having sex with someone to whom you are not married? Since one of the arguments about same-sex marriage is that the sex itself is sinful, it would appear to be on a par with deliberately persistent non-procreative hetero sex within marriage. But maybe we do know about that too, since there is clear RC policy on contraception, even though the other denominations do not.
So is fertility the real heart of the marriage tradition? How does that inform our structure of marriage today?
The Bible doesn’t have a lot to say about lesbian relationships, maybe because it assumes no real sharing of fluids, at a time when reproductive biology was pretty rudimentary? Gay sex isn’t explained, but I can only assume that the sharing of fluids that were not understood was, on the face of it, as risky a thing to do as eating parasite-infested pork and similar forbidden foods.
Divine mistakes or divine permission?
Is all this a sound basis for marriage tradition, as if traditions have never changed? Are all traditions ‘right first time’? If so, that is the best example of total quality assurance ever: give Moses an ISO 9001! As for mistakes in manufacture, isn’t that the basis for evolution and survival? Creationists aside, we don’t call the platypus one of God’s mistakes, and similarly, traditions evolve. This marriage tradition isn’t a duck just because it has a beak and lays eggs.
Gay, lesbian, queer, intersex and trans people do not choose to be how they are. Not many would strongly claim that God deliberately made them that way, and certainly the RC church (this is today’s conversation, I’m not picking on anyone) cannot say either that God did so, or that He (I insist – She) made a mistake. At best, God ‘lets LGBTQI and infertility happen’, but many in the RC church implicitly deny that anything other than a heteronormative procreative way of being can be socially valid. Tradition excludes, not God. Which is odd, since St Paul has a very strong line on ‘neither slave nor freeman, neither Greek nor Roman’ kind of equality in the eyes of God.
And our planet’s remarkable biodiversity: is it a story of divine deliberation, mistakes or laissez faire? Or is the variety of penguins authentic, whilst homosexuality among penguins (yes, and with no social pressure) is not? Look at racial diversity: Babel is a mythic attempt to explain that, and the result is seen as diversity, which increasingly the whole world respects. Now look at gender and sexuality as we understand it today, in terms of what genetic factors drive it. Why is that not set at the same level of diversity as race, the platypus and the gay penguin?
LGBTQI and marriage equality
Society for all its traditions changes, hugely. Knowledge and understanding likewise, whether of biology, sociology, health – or diversity.
So God does not make mistakes over gender and sexuality, does not do this deliberately, and the ‘woops!’ result therefore means everyone who does not actually procreate within a marriage and then stay in that marriage, is an outsider to the RC faith, and God’s world, and is forbidden the primary partnering relationship based on love?
Civil marriage has tagged for too long on the absurdity of this particular religious tradition with all its notional exceptions. A church, founded on the love of God and a message to love one another, is exceptionally discriminatory and rejecting when the one solid rite of creating stable committed partnerships of love is so selective. As such, the church has no business at all telling everyone else how they can express their love in formal social relationships. And the one thing that really sticks in my craw is that when one partner in a marriage comes to understand they are transgender, to establish their authentic gender identity, the marriage has to be dissolved and replaced with a civil partnership, which is not available to heterosexual couples! Only a fossilised church tradition could find logic in that.
I hope that individuals in RC congregations everywhere also think, and fail to see the purpose and validity of the marriage tradition as it is being expressed today. I hope they also fail to see the authority in a church with an appalling reputation throughout its history, recently with respect to abuse of children in its care, and make their own minds up about equality.
And I hope that our civil lawmakers brush today’s message aside, with those from other traditions in recent weeks, and embrace the diversity that exists, with a truly equal regard and respect.
For more about how this situation arose, Christine Burns has an excellent article at Just Plain Sense.