by John Mackrell
from Signs of the Times No. 25 - Apr 2007

The Minuet between state and Catholic Church is fascinating to watch. At this point in the dance they have just changed sides.

The formerly pragmatic state embraces principle and the once principled church opts for pragmatism. The state has been advancing, if ever so slowly, towards civil equality. Legislation has already banned discrimination on grounds of race and gender. More recently, those in same sex relationships have received similar legal protection. That last push towards civil equality has naturally angered those who believe, in the Pope's words, homosexuality to be an 'intrinsically disordered state'.

While few would deny the hierarchy's right to declare same sex relations sinful, the issue at stake is rather different: may Catholic Adoption Agencies, in receipt of state funds, be dispensed, on grounds of conscience, from considering gay couples for adoption? The state's rights in the matter are surely beyond dispute. A contractual relationship exists, whereby the state provides cash to an agency provided among other conditions, equal treatment is accorded to all, regardless of sexual orientation - a stipulation openly rejected by Catholic adoption agencies. Secondly, the Cardinal argues that the state should respect individual consciences, which are forced, he claims, by this stipulation that those in Catholic Adoption Agencies should consider adoption by homosexual couples. Yet this argument is also flawed, as Catholics are not forced to work in adoptive agencies, any more than non-Christians are forced to swear on a Bible in a court of law.

As arguments from principle are so unconvincing, it is no surprise that the critics of gay adoption have shifted their ground to invoke practical considerations. In a country where material considerations come first, it is natural that defenders of the status quo, should emphasize that Catholic agencies provide excellent value for money. These agencies are rightly praised for their skill in finding homes for the children most difficult to place - the severely handicapped and the gravely disturbed. In any case, the Church's homophobia is sufficiently well known to deter virtually all homosexual couples from applying to Catholic agencies. And when they do, the couples are routinely referred elsewhere. If there is no problem, therefore, why refuse Catholic adoption agencies an opt out? The case sounds so plausible, that even Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has rallied to Cardinal Murphy-O'Connors' support. There are extraneous reasons, of course, as the Archbishop is trying to hold the Anglican Communion together, as it is also split over how to treat gay people. Oh, Christian unity, what sacrifices are made in your name! Liberal Catholics can only hope that Dr Rowan Williams, so respected as a theologian, will return to his earlier courageous championship of gay people. The obvious objection to the opt out sought is that a concession to the Catholic Church would weaken a just act, while also providing cover for others such as housing associations and hoteliers to discriminate against homosexuals.

There is no denying the Cardinal's sincere concern for children's welfare. It is his argument which is at fault. As an adoption agency exists to further the child's interests, all contrary views are irrelevant. Perhaps sensing the force of this objection, the Cardinal poses as an expert in psychology, just as the cardinals of the Holy Inquisition claimed to be better astronomers than Galileo. Children, we are told, need role models of both sexes. Yet that popular assumption, psychological studies show, requires qualification. Homosexual and lesbian couples hold good records in rearing children. A recent widely discussed example is the success of the Reverend Martin Reynolds and his partner, in bringing up a highly disturbed boy, who against the odds is now about to enter college. The proof exists, therefore, that homosexual couples can make excellent adoptive parents. Facing so many obstacles, they bear out the claim of Chaucer's prioress, 'Amor vincit omnia'.

The row over gay adoption is largely of the Church's own making. Saint Augustine, so often invoked to buttress a hard line on sex, is a surer guide on Church-State relations. In Augustine's image the Christian is a pilgrim, whose kingdom, as Jesus said, is not of this world. The State in De Civitate Dei, so long as it guarantees justice and security, is credited with a role in furthering mankind's salvation, by providing a secure context within which the Christian can flourish. Had the Church heeded Augustine's advice, it would not have tarnished its reputation by courting dictators in Latin America and elsewhere, nor be reaching now for the levers of power in Britain to undermine state legislation.

The row over gay adoption is a symptom of the institutional church's homophobia, which is so ingrained that outright attacks would be counter productive. The Catholic hierarchy resembles a gaggle of maiden aunts, who need to be wooed respectfully and encouraged ever so gently to face reality.

Nothing short of a widespread debate among theologians will demonstrate to both hierarchy and laity, the compatibility of homosexuality and Christian living. Otherwise, the Catholic Church will never be able to flourish within a modern secular state in which citizens accord each other mutual respect.


John Mackrell is a retired lecturer in French History and a member of Catholics for a Changing Church.