While it is well-known that England and Wales are drawing closer to legalizing marriage equality, what is less well-known is the role that Catholics have been playing in bringing about this reality.
When Parliament’s House of Commons last week overwhelmingly voted to approve marriage equality, another strong statistic that emerged was that the majority of Catholic Members of Parliament (MP) also voted for the measure. London’s Tablet magazine reports:
“Out of the 82 Catholic MPs, 47 – almost 60 per cent – were in favour of same-sex marriage. Of these, 32 are Labour, 12 Conservative, two Liberal Democrat and one SDLP. . . .
“Twenty-eight Catholic MPs voted against the bill including Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat former children’s minister. She said: ‘It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever taken.’ “
St. Thomas More
One of those 82 Catholic MPs is Damian Collins, a Conservative who voted for marriage equality, and, interestingly, used St. Thomas More as his model for doing so. In an essay in The Guardian, he stated:
“Saint Thomas More, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and a former speaker of the House of Commons is famous for the moral stand he took against his King, even though it cost him his life. . . . Thomas More is particularly remembered because he could not in conscience swear an oath recognising the Succession to the Crown Act 1533 which had the effect of annulling one of Henry VIII’s marriages and therefore changing the royal succession. He could not swear the oath because, although he would abide by the Act’s content, he could not in conscience say that he agreed with it. Parliament, he said, had the right to decide matters of marriage, and had the right to require all subjects, including Catholics, to abide by its laws, but it could not have the right to require Catholics in conscience to agree with them. As a result he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed.
“Last month press reports of a letter signed by a large number of Catholic clergy who opposed the Same Sex Marriage Bill asserted that if it passed that this could be seen as a return to the persecution that Catholics experienced during the English Reformation, because they would be required to acknowledge equal rights to marriage, against the teaching of the Church. I’m not sure that Thomas More would agree with this, and nor for that matter do I.
“The Same Sex Marriage Bill is not seeking to tell the different churches and religions what they should believe, or to restrict them practicing their beliefs as the do now. Churches will not be required to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies if they do not want to. The Catholic Church will remain free to teach that marriage is a sacrament of the Church, it is between a man and a woman, that its purpose is for the procreation of children, and that it is for life. . . .
“The Bill is an attempt to strengthen equality in our society, without compromising religious freedom. I believe that Thomas More would have understood this distinction, and regardless of how he would have voted (I would not seek to presume on a matter of conscience like this) I think he would have agreed that this was something that Parliament had the right to do.”
Another Catholic MP is Conor Burns, a Tory who is also an openly gay man. PinkNews.co.uk notes that while Burns originally did not feel that the marriage bill should be considered, he has come to support it:
“He said he did not think there was a clamour for the gay marriage proposal but added: ‘That said, it’s being presented as bringing greater equality and as a gay man I don’t see how I can vote against something that’s presented as bringing greater equality.’ ”
Burns also added that he opponents of the bill strongly lobbied him to vote against it, and that he was shocked at the manner of presentation:
“ ‘The lobbying that has been undertaken by those against this bill has been some of the most unpleasant spiteful, hateful things that I’ve ever known,’ he said.
“ ‘Some of my constituents have written in opposing it. I don’t know what sort of relationship they have with their God but he’s not the God of compassion that I recognise. They’ve been hateful.’ “
Archbishop Peter Smith
Not surprisingly, Catholic leadership in Britain have opposed the marriage equality bill. One British bishop, however, has already admitted defeat in the matter. PinkNews.co.uk repots:
“The Archbishop of Southwark has said he has accepted defeat and same-sex marriage will become law in England and Wales.
“Peter Smith, who is also vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said he has reluctantly accepted the government proposals.”
Catholic British theologian Tina Beattie argued for marriage equality in the pages of The Guardian, handily debunking one of the greatest myths used against such proposals:
“I have never been able to understand the argument that same-sex marriage threatens marriage as we know it. Marriage is far more threatened by a consumerist culture in which the demand for instant gratification is worth the sacrifice of any relationship or responsibility which involves commitment and struggle, and by an ethos of sexual libertarianism which so easily mutates into predatory and exploitative relationships involving young and vulnerable people, and which fosters unrealistically high expectations of sexual performance among adults who ought to know better.
“In this context, society stands to benefit from any move towards a deeper understanding of the value of ‘lifelong fidelity and commitment’ between two people, whether of the same sex or of different sexes, as a basic building block for community and family life.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry