Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Paradox of Liberalism: Same-Sex Marriage [Porta Fidei]

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the papers delivered at the Porta Fidei conference by Adrian Pabst was on Liberalism and Catholic Education. It looked at some of the notions of liberalism that influences many of the social norms of life in Britain, and the problems that it potentially causes for those in Catholic Education.

This came at an interesting time when seemingly my entire Facebook was filled with rainbow coloured profile pictures celebrating the Supreme Court ruling in the USA making same-sex marriage legal nationwide. It would be a brave man or woman who would post an argument against gay-marriage this weekend. They would more than likely be labelled a ‘bigot’, ‘homophobic’ or worse.

Pabst made it clear that we need to listen; a major problem of contemporary liberalism is that it doesn't always listen. Libertarian liberalism is focused on a freedom whereby “you can do what you like” as long as it is within the law; this dominates social media in particular I think. It is in direct opposition to the beliefs of many people of faith, and indeed those of no faith too. Does consideration of the common good still exist?

There also seems to be a belief that a change of law will automatically change everyone’s mindset and there will be no more discussion or reflection needed. It doesn't. Obama has been explaining this week that just because racism is illegal in the US, it does not mean there is no racism and that there is much work still to be done (<here>). Just because the law has been changed on same-sex marriage, does not mean the discussion will end, nor should it.

John Stuart Mill was clear, in the 19th Century, that you need to be open to being proven wrong, and that ideas and beliefs should be freely discussed. This is being truly liberal (see <here>) and should be a characteristic of a liberal society. How can do the shutting down of debate with the use of abusive and hurtful insults be truly liberal? Are people free to believe and act in a way they see best (and can justify), or are people only free to believe and act in ways that a liberal society has decided it will allow?

It reminds me of David Laws MP at the TES Education Hustings in March 2015 who explained the Liberal Democrat Party’s view on faith schools. Some in the party argued to get rid of them as they can no longer be justified in an increasingly secular society, but others argued that in order to be be truly liberal, they must allow people who want faith schools to educate their children in them. 

In May, Lee Donaghy wrote a fascinating blog for the Labour Teachers site about teaching homosexuality in a Muslim school. His advice came down to essentially two pieces of advice:
  1. Teach things of faith accurately and in depth. This involves the nature of sin, and the difference between acts and people. Like Islam, many people do not understand the Catholic position on homosexuality. Students can have a very polarised view from parents rather than a factually accurate position. For them to form their own opinion, they need to be given all the information. 
  2. Teach the law. This may be at odds with some religious beliefs, but it is not irrelevant. There are plenty of laws which people do not approve of, or celebrate, but they are laws that need to be obeyed none the less.
You will not be able to do these things if debate is shut down under the perhaps well-intentioned cry of ‘homophobia’ (or racism, sexism etc). I urge you to read Lee’s blog in full <here>.

These ideas were revisited later in the day as James Arthur in his paper on The Catholic Identity of Catholic Institutions pointed out that many Catholics in public office are pressured into adopting secular views rather than being allowed to hold positions of faith. It is true that it is unpopular to hold a Catholic belief on the sanctity of life, for example. You will be more often than not shut down with abuse rather than engaged in debate. At the very least ridiculed. Possibly driven out of office.

Dom Anthony Sutch lead a wonderful session on Catholic leadership (with the brilliant Stephen Tiereny) where he reminded the Catholic community that, “We are a counter-cultural movement; we are what the culture should be.. a place of love.”. This was a powerful statement that reinforced some that Pabst had said earlier, that too often in contemporary society, “People feel they deserve whatever they can get.. and have a distinct smugness about it”

Sutch then said, “Our schools are there to form authentic human beings… with a personal encounter with Christ. We are the living face of Christ. When you are with child struggling with LBGT issues, you must be Christ.”

This was echoed by New York priest Fr James Martin on his Facebook (see <here>): 

Martin, who after receiving an absolute torrent of abuse from the Catholic community, linked to a number of responses including this one from the Archbishop of Atlanta (see <here>):

“It is not a license for more venomous language or vile behaviour against those who opinions continue to differ from our own… the decision has offered all of us an opportunity to continue the vitally important dialogue .”

We cannot have a liberal society, or a liberal classroom, where there is no dialogue. Vitally we must be able to listen, as Pabst suggested in his paper. There will be views in our classroom that we do not agree with: racist, homophobic, sexist. We need to listen and get to the heart of the matter without simply shutting them down.

As Christopher Hale writes in his excellent response to the decision: 

“When we listen to each other with big hearts, we can begin to overcome the unfair stereotypes that divide us. We can put to rest the great lie that everyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot and that everyone who supports it is a bad Catholic.” (Read in full <here>)

Will people listen to this blog post or shut it down with abuse? I hope the former.


  1. Andy, I feel the silly season has arrived early. We seem to have started on a 'Who's the best listener?'competition and 'Our schools' values are better than your schools' values' debate. This quote yesterday:

    "Dom Anthony Sutch ... reminded the Catholic community that, “We are a counter-cultural movement; we are what the culture should be.. a place of love.”. This was a powerful statement that reinforced some that Pabst had said earlier, that too often in contemporary society, “People feel they deserve whatever they can get.. and have a distinct smugness about it”. Sutch then said, “Our schools are there to form authentic human beings… with a personal encounter with Christ. We are the living face of Christ. When you are with child struggling with LBGT issues, you must be Christ.”

    Better to start with the assumption that there are shared human values and no community can claim any sort of moral or spiritual superiority. Smugness threatens us all. The idea that the Catholic community has a superior rating on the Best Listener League Table is hard to take seriously given its history! If you are with a child struggling with LBGT issues ask who it is that has generated this sense of guilt. Ah yes, that would include the churches! The churches record on human rights is not universally good. It is the voice of the human rights/equality movement that has driven the fight for justice and equal rights for women and LBGT.

    In relation to the Clarke/Woodhead paper, those who are showing limited listening skills include a lot of Christian groups. Reacting with a defensive, 'protecting our back' attitude is not helpful.

    Dressing all this behind a philosophical discussion of liberalism does not really help.

    1. How do you think that?! The last thing this is is a 'who is the best listener competition'? If you read the context of the post it was a reflection from a Catholic conference on Catholic education reminding the Catholic community of their responsibilities.

      It was specifically set in the context of papers on liberalism and Catholic education, and Catholic leadership. As I stated.

      I think it was pertinent given the history of the Church to remind people to be listeners rather than judges.

      I think you'll find many are listening and waiting for the next step...

    2. I hope so and the paper you delivered at the conference issued some good challenges. I can see that you were basically talking to yourselves and it doesn't really make sense to outsiders. But it is worrying that one part of the state-funded education system can operate using such exclusive language. I think the strength of the liberal secular basis for our curriculum is that it is inclusive.

  2. No Alan, the Catholic community is not talking to itself; if we were, we wouldn't let anyone listen in. Catholics have been pretty good at keeping quiet in this country, a habit which was encouraged in the 16th and 17th century. Catholics, just like many other groups at plenty of times and places in history have had times when the very thought of people listening would have struck fear into their hearts because it would have been likely that execution would have followed. Listening to Peter Tatchell talking about the police raiding gay pubs in London in the 60's and 70's I was struck by how fearful they must have been and how similar that had been to the persecutions of the Reformation as Catholics broke bread behind closed doors.

    We're not talking to ourselves about this. I'd say we are happy for people to see that we are thoughtful about this issue. We are also okay with people knowing that we aren't going to forsake debate and just fall in behind the dominant movement of the time. We are talking quietly but we are happy for people to listen in, because we think that it should be okay for us to say what we think. But speaking too publicly tends to lead to nothing fruitful, only screams of 'bigot'.

    I've never heard the Catholic churches explanation of what it believes about human sexuality properly put over in public debate. Ever. That's not to say archbishops haven't been given a 30 second quote on the TV where they tried their best to say something that wouldn't be taken out of context by the media. The difficulty is that what we believe about marriage is nowhere near as simple to put across as the human rights argument. So yes, you might only hear it properly when you listen to us “talking to ourselves”.

    But we aren't talking to ourselves. The difficulty is really about what we think our purpose is. We may use terms that non-Catholics aren't very familiar with. We don't think that we're superior, we just acknowledge the Creator who has a purpose for us all; we do think the Creator is superior and that everyone should try to listen to God but we don't think that we're the only ones that can do that. We can't pretend we don't believe in him. If we had to use the terms that the liberal atheists would prescribe then we wouldn't be able to talk about purpose in quite the same way as we believe it to be. And we have to talk about purpose on this issue.

    I'm sorry to be so blunt but I find it exasperating when someone as thoughtful, open and warm as Andy expresses his thinking and you respond rather negatively.

    I liked your article Andy, and the Archbishop of Atlanta had exactly the right word for the situation. I wish I could have come to the conference, but this weekend was impossible.