“Do not be afraid!”
I’ve just had another of those conversations that feel at once horribly unreal and horribly real. These conversations are about the future for us as Catholics in Britain under new laws that will penalise us for publicly upholding the moral teachings of the Church.
I still can’t quite believe I have written those words. But I must describe what is happening in Britain, even if doing so makes me feel that I am writing the script of a third-rate film.
There is no point in avoiding this. If the Government’s plans to impose a definition of marriage go ahead, things will be very difficult indeed for Catholics. Under the planned new law, marriage will no longer be defined as being between a man and a woman. Two members of the same sex will be able to contract a marriage. This will mean that any Catholic who is employed as a registrar will be obliged to officiate at such unions. And acceptance of same-sex unions will be regarded as normative and anyone publicly opposing this could be placed in a difficult position. A public official – a magistrate, a local borough councillor, a social worker, a police chief, a head teacher – who said something along the lines of “I believe that marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman” could be forced to resign.
What will this mean for Catholic schools? It is entirely possible that these schools will be informed that they must not teach the Catholic doctrine on marriage, as to do so will be deemed to be “bigoted” or “homophobic”, insulting to people who have contracted a same-sex union. It is entirely possible that to teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church with its clear message about the wrongfulness of homosexual activity, will be deemed socially unacceptable.
The legal position on this may remain unclear. But who wants to give public voice to something controversial if the legal position on doing so is unclear?
Our Bishops have explained the Church’s teaching on marriage in a letter read out in all Catholic parishes, and have made clear their opposition to the Government’s plans. There have been vague assurances from the Government that Catholic churches will not be forced to offer same-sex “weddings” but such assurances carry no weight and would not give protection to a church which was sued by a same-sex couple who chose to make a claim under, for example, European legislation relating to “Human Rights”.
The situation is grim and our Bishops – and all of us in the Catholic community who have thought the matter through – are uncomfortably aware of it.
In the short term, Catholics will start to leave the public service: it won’t be a planned campaign, but just a drift away from jobs that will no longer be possible to perform because of a clash of conscience. Catholics who practise their faith will just feel uncomfortable with having to promote something they know to be utterly wrong. Claiming that two people of the same sex can marry is like claiming that the earth is flat – it is an offence against truth.
But in the longer term, the whole position of the Church in Britain will be problematical. “It would be terrible to lose our Catholic schools” said a priest this afternoon “But it would be far worse to retain them in name, and have them actively caving in to teaching the acceptability of same-sex marriage.” And the situation will be confused: if the Bishops announce that Catholic schools must be allowed to teach Catholic doctrine and morals, will all the teachers actively do so, especially if it puts them at odds with the law, and with what is perceived to be widespread public opinion?
And suppose the law makes it impossible for Catholic schools – and Catholic charitable organisations of various kinds – to function with integrity? Suppose it forces the closure of our schools and organisations, as has already happened with Catholic adoption agencies?
What will we do? “But we can’t be forced into going underground!” I said “We’ve been there before…this is ridiculous.” I was thinking of the persecution of the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries, of priest-hides in old houses, and penal laws which forced Catholics to worship secretly, and all the cruel paraphernalia of persecution.
What will happen to us? I sat on the bus trundling through the London suburbs in the darkening December evening. This is my country, the one that is so dear and familiar to me that I cannot imagine living anywhere else. Pubs and shops, people hurrying out of supermarkets with bulging plastic bags, teenagers clutching mobile phones to their ears. This is normality. As the bus trundles past a school, its notice-board announcing “Sacred Heart RC School” is unremarkable. Every town has a Catholic church, most have more than one, large cities have several. There are Catholic Members of Parliament and outspokenCatholic campaigners on TV and radio. Catholics write and publish books and blogs and websites and magazines. Catholics are lawyers and civil servants. Catholic choirs sing at public events. Catholic parishes hold Blessed Sacrament processions, and Good Friday ecumenical walks, and run fairs and cake-sales for charity and…oh, a thousand other public things. Catholicism is part of life.
I have spoken in Catholic schools on the subject of marriage, putting the Church’s teaching, and enjoy doing so. Catholic groups and organisations routinely use school premises for meetings and events, promoting Catholic teachings and celebrating the Church’s message. We think of this as normal.
But what is normal can change: already it feels “normal” to be accused of “homophobia” for upholding what all Christians – and Jewish people, and others – have always understood and known to be moral and true in sexual behaviour. It is already “normal” for the Catholic Church to be heavily criticised for its stance on abortion and contraception. It is now easy to imagine a time when it is “normal” to ban a practising Catholic from holding public office or to block a practising Catholic from speaking at a school, or to prevent Catholic schools from existing at all.
I read somewhere that the Scriptures urge us “Do not be afraid!” a total of 366 times – once for every day of the year, including leap years. Blessed John Paul, who knew a thing or two about living under oppression, urged us “Do not be afraid!”. And now I’m sitting here in London looking ahead to 2013 and beyond, and the words have a new relevance: Do not be afraid”.
It is a new sensation to have these words apply in a very direct way to Catholics in Britain.