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By Jason Michael
ASK ANY CATHOLIC, there are plenty of reasons to be critical of the Catholic Church. ‘It is perfectly possibly,’ said an old friend of mine, ‘to be a good Catholic and a terrible Christian’ – and, bless her, she was right. Some of the harshest and least forgiving criticisms of the Church and its hierarchy come from Catholics themselves; from the clergy and the laity. Yes, children and other vulnerable people were abused by priests and members of religious orders, and yes, all too often in the past – from a perverse and distorted desire to protect the bona facia or reputation of the institution – bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and even popes have been complicit in attempts to cover up ‘the sins of the fathers’ and in so doing have further victimised victims and survivors.
Theologians like Hans Küng and the liberation theologians of South and Latin America are testimony to the authoritative and repressive nature of the magisterium – the dreaded Holy Office, the Roman curia, and all but a few popes. For all the vibrancy and diversity of parish life, few Catholics familiar with the authority of the Church would suggest Catholicism is always a bed of roses. It was a hard job of work for many Catholics, after the long and frosty papacy of John Paul II, to keep the head up when the former Inquisitor General (ahem, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope (Benedict XVI) in 2005. No, it sure hasn’t always been a bed of roses. But Catholicism – being Catholic – is more than what happens in Rome.
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo was appointed by John Paul II in 1998 as Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sci… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Nick Donnelly (@ProtecttheFaith) February 08, 2020
Regardless of the shortcomings of the institutional Church, the Catholic community – and to some extent the wider Christian community – is a place in which a certain kind of ethical and moral understanding of the world is preserved and passed on; transmitted from one generation to the next like a native language in the family home, in the school, and in the wider religious and cultural Catholic community. The value of life and human dignity are important ideas in Catholic culture. As early as the first and second centuries CE, we see Christians rejecting the Roman practice of exposing – abandoning – unwanted infants; a thinking that has informed Christian views on abortion to the present. The concepts of sin and the examination of one’s conscience have formed Catholic minds for over two millennia, making much of Christianity what it is today.
The culture that Catholicism has created – globally – has therefore made it a serious obstacle for politics and ideologies in the modern world. Catholic missionaries fought against the enslavement of indigenous peoples during the era of European colonial expansion, making them the enemies of – sometimes ‘Catholic’ – kingdoms. In the United States, Catholics came under fire from the ‘Christian’ white supremacist establishment because of their refusal to see black people as anything less than human. In Nazi Germany, Catholics – regardless of the Church’s shameful history of anti-Judaism – consistently resisted the state’s barbaric treatment of Jews and other victim populations. Even in the face of the silence of other ecclesial communities, the Catholic Church has never faltered in recent decades to speak up for the rights of prisoners, migrants, and refugees.
Where so many other world leaders have held their tongues, Pope Francis has blasted President Donald Trump over the past number of years – going as far as saying he was ‘not Christian’ because of his attitude and behaviour towards immigrants and refugees. He has questioned the US president’s pro-life credentials as he refuses to protect undocumented migrants. Francis has even publicly mocked Trump in his remarks about building bridges and not walls.
I invite you not to build walls but bridges, to conquer evil with good, offence with forgiveness, to live in peace with everyone.—
Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 18, 2017
Absolutely, the institutional Church has failed in the past. It will fail in the future too – it is a human institution. But neither Catholics nor the Catholic Church are in the habit of giving questionable and dubious politics and ideologies an easy ride, and the pushback is invariably a frustrated and frequently venomous anti-Catholicism. This is to be distinguished from ‘sectarianism;’ this is not a type of inter-Christian bigotry or an antagonism between ‘sects.’ It is the secular political or ideological response to an intractable religious and/or cultural philosophy which is inconsistent with a secular agenda – and there are some things the secular state and its ideologues want which are inconsistent with Catholic cultural ethics and the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.
At the end of June, someone on Twitter said that ‘Every single transphobe, homophobe and bigot in the SNP should be expelled from the SNP.’ In this tweet he named Christopher McEleny, Joanna Cherry, and Joan McAlpine – to which Cllr McEleny responded:
Imagine the first three examples a person could come up with to expel from a political party just happened to all be Jewish. Or Muslim. Then realise the people listed here are all Catholic. It’s no less abhorrent. Never mind outright defamatory with not a shred of substance.Christopher McEleny
It is not suggested that anyone named here is a religious or a devout Catholic. Whether or not these people are regular Mass goers or folk who say their prayers is entirely their own private business, but we can assume that at least part of their ethical worldview has been shaped by a Catholic culture – and they have taken a particular stance on gender theory that has many, like the Twitter user above, demanding their expulsion from the Scottish National Party. Their gender critical position is being branded as ‘hate speech’ by people such as Patrick Harvie who seem to want them all dismissed from the public forum as ‘homophobic, transphobic, anti-choice religious extremists.’
Patrick Harvie 🇪🇺🌈 (@patrickharvie) July 31, 2020
Yet, the notion that sex and gender are fixed and binary and the rejection of ‘radical autonomy’ are far from extremist beliefs. The biological and sexual difference between women and men has been the assumption of human societies for as long as there has been human society. When the author of Genesis wrote of the creation of mankind that ‘male and female he created them,’ he wasn’t saying anything his readers hadn’t thought before; there are some pretty obvious differences between men and women. Until very recently, the terms denoting biological sex and gender have been treated as synonyms – and many (myself included) are trying to catch up with the shift in language and understanding that has occurred in our lifetimes.
This, however, does not mean the possibility of gender fluidity and people who identify themselves as non-binary, transsexual, or ‘queer’ ought to be rejected. The Catholic religious and cultural approach must always begin from a place of unconditional and indiscriminate love for all people and a profound respect for their humanity. But loving someone and respecting their humanity does not demand that we accept their every claim about their self and their identity. Something is either true or it is false, and the truth of something is not always easy to determine – especially when it relates to something as subjective and as intimate as human identity and sexuality. Discussing a recent document from the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, Male and Female He Created Them, Fr James Martin – a Jesuit priest and a vocal ally of LGBT people – wrote:
It speaks of a ‘path,’ which indicates that the church has not yet reached the destination. It focuses on the ‘question’ of gender theory in education, which leaves some degree of openness, and is thus addressed mainly to educators and ‘formators,’ including those responsible for the training of priests and members of religious orders.Fr James Martin SJ
He is right. We are all – religious and secular – on a path to the truth. The truth of the nature and complexity of human identity and sexuality is not a simple truth. Determining it is not the job of a radically autonomous individual. If that were the case all truth and meaning would be out the window; free from objective truth, I can be a Martian trapeze artist tomorrow – regardless of the fact I have never been to Mars or ever hung from a trapeze. Neither is the determination of this truth the preserve of philosophers and theologians. It belongs to a vast array of experts in the many fields of medicine, psychology, biology, and the social sciences. Of this path to the truth, Fr Martin is correct, neither the Church nor secular society – its moderates and fundamentalists – have reached the destination.
To all transgender people, no matter where you are on your spiritual, emotional or physical journey, know that God… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) March 31, 2019
Now, we cannot say why in this case it so happens only Catholics have been singled out. Plenty of non-Catholics and non-Christians are gender critical. We can’t know the motives of the people who have singled them out or why in the more recent furores over SNP election candidates the targets have been Catholic, but Christopher McEleny makes a valid observation – one myself and others have noted. We are right to be suspicious of a creeping anti-Catholicism in the current culture war being waged in the SNP. Now, we must be careful: We are not talking about sectarianism here. No one is calling those making these decisions and calling for people to be expelled sectarian bigots. We are pointing at a possible clash of ideologies in which the supporters of the dominant ideology of the party are acting against Catholics, people shaped by a different religio-cultural ideology.
This is where the National Secular Society is leading the way – much to the chagrin of Patrick Harvey – by joining with other religious and secular groups in the Free to Disagree campaign. Gender theory – as the ‘theory’ part implies – is not a concluded discussion. Unlike gay and lesbian rights – which are established, the issues arising from the present gender debate, particularly with respect to trans people, have serious and far-reaching rights-based implications. People who identify as transsexual will have the right to self-identify and be legally recognised as the opposite sex to their birth-assigned sex, and natal women and girls will lose the right to the exclusivity of female only spaces – and whether some in the SNP like this or not, this is not easy for everyone to accept. Considering this is not a closed discussion, legislation which criminalises dissent as ‘hate speech’ is authoritarian in the extreme and a clear contradiction of the ideals of the open society.
This is a discussion we must have. The Vatican has asked Catholics to listen and dialogue with the cultures in which they sojourn – clearly not a statement one would expect from an institution so many want to dismiss as backward and anachronistic. But then, the Catholic Church has been listening to and dialoguing with society and culture for a bit longer than Scotland. This doesn’t make it better at it, just different – just another partner in the dialogue. The tolerant society – which neither Scotland nor the Catholic Church have always been – has to be open to listen to and dialogue with the other, and it is the only way forward in this debate. Dogmatism and entrenchment will not wash, and neither will any creeping hostility from either side. Catholics and every culture and faith community in Scotland are part of the national discussion, and we all have to recognise this.
Bishop Barron on The Last Acceptable Prejudice