Legislating Intoleration: Is Marriage a Dying Institution in England

There’s a problem at the moment in Britain with our sense of national identity. The problem is a compound of many things of course: an all-pervasive curse of pop music and TV soaps, muddle about the way history is (or isn’t) taught in schools, a substantial and growing Islamic presence, confusion about our role in the world, an obsession with denouncing the (real and imagined) mistakes and evils of our past. But probably the single most important component is the one that most debates and discussions on the subject overlook: the collapse of marriage and family structures. And new laws that took effect in April this year are going to have a marked impact on all of this.

First, some background. New textbooks on “citizenship” for use in our schools—very much a project of the moment—emphasize sexual options as a fundamental part of “Britishness.” We are meant to assume that having various sexual leanings—heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual—is all part of the culture of “choice” that is our birthright. The idea that a nation is built on families, and that the passing on of family names, along with traditions and history, culture and folklore, is central to the concept of nationhood would be regarded as anathema. I say “would be” because, as far as I know, no one has actually dared to announce it even as a suggestion. Sexual relationships are, in the current parlance, “all about choices,” and it seems now to be regarded as quite wrong to suggest otherwise.

Now for the new laws: Under the new Sexual Orientation Regulations just passed by Parliament, anyone who challenges this notion of “choices” and appears in any way whatsoever to criticize the homosexual lifestyle will be criminalized. And I do mean criminalized: There are to be fines and possibly even custodial sentences for anyone who fails to deliver “goods and services” to people who are actively homosexual—”goods and services” in this instance including, for example, children who must be offered to homosexual couples for adoption from now on.

“Britishness,” you see, is all about freedom to choose— not freedom for the child, of course, or for the natural mother giving up her baby for adoption, who might have wanted to specify a male/female married couple. No, “freedom” today is defined by political correctness.

There are many horrible aspects to all of this, one of the saddest being that the secretary of state who steered the legislation through Parliament is a Catholic, Ruth Kelly, whose membership in Opus Dei is much paraded (she’s a supernumerary).

Kelly has said that she is proud to have gotten this legislation onto the statute book. She presumably hasn’t read Sacramentum Caritatis, the recent papal exhortation on the Eucharist, which states:

Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith. Evidently, this is true for all the baptised, yet it is especially incumbent upon those who, by virtue of their social or political position, must make decisions regarding fundamental values, such as respect for human life, its defense from conception to natural death, the family built upon marriage between a man and a woman, the freedom to educate one’s children, and the promotion of the common good in all its forms. These values are not negotiable (emphasis added).

But irrespective of how Kelly copes with her conscience, Britain now has a problem with its marriage laws.

The law establishes the basis of the social relationship of marriage, sets its tone, and confirms its status in the community. I became aware of this in a very particular way. When I married more than 25 years ago, it was in a Catholic Church, but due to a falling-out between the local registration authority and our parish priest, it was necessary for brides from our parish to go to the local register office and arrange personally for someone to attend the ceremony as a legal witness and sign the relevant papers. I expected this to be a quick matter of a phone call, but soon discovered this was not the case. Marriage was taken seriously. On arrival at the registrar’s I was ushered into a rather grand office and asked to take a seat.

The kindly, rather serious official in front of me began: “Now. Marriage under the law of England and Wales is the union of a man and a woman, exclusive of others, for life. Can you confirm that you understand that?” And with a seriousness that I had not known I would feel, and a sense of solemnity about what I was considering to undertake, I answered, “Yes.”

I appreciated then—and appreciate now—the solemnity with which the matter was approached. As he proceeded to explain to me what I needed to know (including the information that, when making my vows, I must speak loudly enough for the registrar, sitting in the front pew, to hear me), I was very much aware that I was embarking on something that was of huge legal and social, as well as personal and spiritual, significance. I have never forgotten it, and that spring day in 1980 at the register office is as etched in my mind as the later September day when Jamie and I made our vows together before God, with all the glory of a Mozart Mass and bridal finery and hugs and tears and fun and joy of a family wedding.

So where’s the problem? It is simply this: Today, by reiterating what I was told by that registrar, let alone what was stated in church and what I know and believe as a Catholic concerning marriage, I could, under certain circumstances, be in legal trouble.

As a Catholic journalist and commentator on these issues, I am—or have been up until now—sometimes invited into schools and colleges to take part in conferences and seminars on marriage and related issues. And up until now I have welcomed all such opportunities, indeed relished them.

“Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims. “In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament” (2360). In explaining the Christian understanding of marriage—and the fact that it echoes the natural law written into the very fabric of our being, which undergirds the law of our country that governs how we are to live—I have been privileged to be part of some excellent classroom discussions, hear some forthright views, and be touched by young people’s statements of their beliefs, hopes, and aspirations.

But under the Sexual Orientation Regulations, which were passed with minimal parliamentary debate (despite a valiant attempt in the House of Lords to tackle them properly), it is going to be difficult for me to talk about marriage in schools anymore, or even be of much use as a visiting Catholic journalist. The new regulations expressly ban my doing anything that might make pupils of homosexual inclinations uncomfortable. Suggesting—let alone firmly stating—that marriage is, by definition, a bond between a man and a woman is going to be rather too antagonistic. Affirming the Catholic Church’s position on other sexual relationships, including the homosexual one, is going to be trickier still unless I am prepared (which I’m not) to state that it is possible that the Church is wrong, or that other opinions on homosexual activity are of equal moral worth and validity, or that I recognize that everyone has the right to affirm his or her own sexual desires in his or her own way.

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, Tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved (CCC 2357).

I have never actually quoted that in a school, and I have no particular desire to do so. In general, I steer well away from the subject. I’m concerned with communicating the facts about the Church’s message on marriage, or my own involvement with this as a Catholic journalist. But if the issue comes up, I am certainly prepared to quote the Catechism and explain that I support its teaching—and I’d probably link the section just quoted with the next, which says, among other things: “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition: for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358). I might go on to add that such people are not just a “they”—for among such people are personal friends, people I enormously like and whose company I enjoy.

So what am Ito do? I’m probably not going to be asked to speak about marriage or relationships much anymore. I have benefited from some—though not many—schools’ attempts to present “both sides” of the debate on relationships, which does offer a little more than the usual school-nurse-with-contraceptives deal. But it now seems likely that this will slowly dry up or cease altogether.

Will there be a test case to get the legislation examined in the courts? When details of the Sexual Orientation Regulations were announced, the Catholic bishops publicly expressed worry about the position of Church adoption agencies that cannot, while remaining true to the Church, offer children to homosexual couples who, by their lifestyle, openly oppose Catholic teaching. It simply makes the whole idea of having a Catholic adoption agency pointless. It remains to be seen what, if any, legal steps the bishops decide to take. But there are other, much wider implications of the regulations.

The stated idea is that people of various “sexual orientations” should not be denied “goods or services.” It was made clear to the bishops that adoptive children are, in this instance, to be regarded as “good and services” and must be offered to practicing homosexuals under the law. And denial of goods and services is linked to the notion that people must be free from any sort of harassment—which could include being told, in a classroom, that certain activities are “intrinsically disordered,” or that a “marriage” with a person of the same sex is simply not recognized by the Catholic Church. And what about, for example, a retirement home run by a Christian group that does not want to treat lesbian and homosexual couples as married?

Speaking in schools is only a small part of my work, and journalistic talents can be flexible. I might decide to open up a new area of work by producing materials for weddings— helping with Orders of Service, choosing nice quotes for wedding programs or menus. If I am then approached by a lesbian couple and politely decline to do business with them, I could be prosecuted, even if I simply find some polite excuse and express it in a pleasant and friendly way, designed not to give offense. If I were helping to run a publication, and we chose not to have an advertisement from some organization promoting homosexual marriage, there could be similar legal consequences. And so on.

A few bishops have already expressed their concerns. Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster, protested the denial of democracy: “My fear is that, under the guise of legislating for what is said to be tolerance, we are legislating for intolerance. Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends. The question is whether the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel.” And Scotland’s Keith Cardinal O’Brien said, “The role of the state is overreached when it tramples legitimate moral freedoms and when it imposes values which are without rational and sociological merit.”

The plain fact is that the law now clashes directly with religious freedom, and no exemptions have been granted for Church schools, or for independent ones, so the denial of good and wholesome debate on a crucial subject is being imposed on all.

What do I do? What do any of us do? Shrug, I suppose, and admit that male/female marriage is now a personal thing. Something to be spoken of with confidence only within the confines of our churches (they are protected under the law—an echo of the old. Soviet legislation that confined all religious activity to church buildings, with penalties for anyone who took part in Christian activities beyond those walls); something to be affirmed as a private belief, for those who like that sort of thing. Technically, for the time being at least, the law of England and Wales will continue to affirm that marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman—but will a registrar have quite the same confidence in uttering those words as that nice chap had in saying them to me a quarter of a century ago? He has presumably long since retired, and I expect his successor has been fully trained in officiating at civil unions—homosexual marriage in all but name. (Incidentally, a Catholic, according to a detailed and useful statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should not officiate at such a ceremony. But is it likely that any Catholic in modern Britain who tried to affirm his conscientious objection to such duty would get very far?)

In teaching children about “Britishness,” I suppose schools will emphasize freedom, rights, the idea that ours is a country where we can make choices and live by them. I am not at all sure that this is an adequate summary of what being British is all about, but even if it were, it is not the case. The most profoundly important decisions are, and always, have been, about things that matter not only to us but to others, and therefore include community responsibilities and obligations that sometimes (and correctly) involve the law of the land.

But that law no longer affirms marriage between a man and a woman as the fundamental and irreplaceable basis for our society, and hence for our nation. There can be no “Britishness” now that this has occurred, and none will return until it is corrected. Only then will we be able to face our very considerable social problems—our sense of isolation from our own history, our loss of community and neighborly spirit, the recent and rapidly growing presence of Islam in what was once a Christian nation, and more—and regain some sort of confidence in our future.


  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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