13 September 2011

Temperance: a cardinal if not Cardinal's virtue...

Anyone who has loosely followed the peripatetic tone of this blog when it comes to matters religious might well find themselves somewhat confused by its contradictions.  Two strains vie in contention. The first is virulent anti-clerical, anti-religious, given to invective. The second strives to assume a more considered, sympathetic, questioning poise. Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand, it counsels.  Neither vein predominates, but I feel the tug of both. When it comes to religion, I'm a one man Caledonian antisyzygy.

The SNP government's anti-sectarian proposals prompted a short biographical reflection a few months ago. I was brought up in a family who I described as atheists, existentially untroubled. Ever since I was a child, however, I've always taken a rather inexplicable and idiosyncratic interest in religion, and Christianity in particular. An encounter with the life of Moses told by a narrow-beamed head teacher in primary school, which my juvenile self insisted was "just a story", much to her chagrin, set in train a career of taking malicious glee prodding at people's religiosity. Vexing questions were posed. Graces were stubbornly unsaid. Not that most folk minded, in point of fact. Despite the reputation enjoyed by coastal, rural Scotland, the part of Argyll I grew up in was remarkable worldly, and the local Kirk was primarily a social outfit, rather than a site for the celebration of deeply held pieties. My abiding memories of childhood religious experiences are the Minister's vast set of rubbery ears (which all older gentlemen are issued, I understand, in their 60th year) and his gargantuan voice, which when raised in song would obliterate the muted chorus generated by the whole body of his parishioners, which always amused my younger self. 

Growing more ancient, as a teenager, given to extremity as most teens ought to be, I was ferociously hostile to anything smacking of the clerical and the pious - apart from hymns or carols, that is, which I was only too happy to be obliged to rattle off (peat worriers habitually enjoy a sing-song).  Growing more ancient still, I began to hae ma doots about the priggery of my atheism, which subsequently found its archetypes in the exaggerated characters of the "New Atheism", whose propositions and proponents I often find myself just as disinclined to accept or admire as those advanced in the name of the name of conventional piety, by religious men and women. Despite myself, striving to unlearn my spikiness towards religion was timely, necessary, and profoundly instructive - albeit still leaving me cold and disbelieving when it comes to the central tenets of the Christian faith. It is not primarily that I'm more tolerant these days, though doubtless, I am. Tolerance isn't really the point. 

The Scottish Government's consultation on same-sex marriage - spiced up by their preliminary indication that they are minded to legislate to allow same-sex couples to wed - was always likely to summon up these spectres, and expose my contradictory impulses. I didn't have long to wait. In as many days, three senior Roman Catholic clerics have given tongue to their attitudes towards that consultation. Predictably enough, they are vehemently opposed to the idea that marriage's conceptual elasticity extends to permitting same-sex couples to be so joined. While those of us sympathetic to gay marriage will likely feel the red mist descend at the tone of these clerical jeremiads - it is instructive to give your peepers a wipe, take a soothing gulp of air, and tarry long enough to try to understand the logic all three are promoting. At the very least, it will allow us to identify where we disagree, and how. Despite their undoubted vices and inflamed tenor, at least two of these submissions have the virtue of being, with a little thought, very clear about their premises.

First, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, sent the Herald a short letter arguing that while civil partnerships recognise the "reality" of same-sex unions, we would be making a category mistake if we equiparated these relationships with marriage. Secondly, in a key passage from his homily given at a Mass for Politicians, held in St Patrick’s Church in Edinburgh's Cowgate on the 7th of this month, Cardinal Keith O'Brien explicitly told those in attendance that...

"We cannot overlook the importance of nurturing virtues of every person which takes place firstly and most directly in the family and for such reason we uphold the importance of the family which is the first building block of every society.  Equally, the church esteems the institution of marriage as the most stable building block upon which any family can rest. The view of the church is clear, no government can rewrite human nature; the family and marriage existed before the State and are built on the union between a man and woman. Any attempt to redefine marriage is a direct attack on a foundational building block of society and will be strenuously opposed."

The homily was followed by an article in the Mail on Sunday this weekend.  It is littered with wildly inflammatory rhetoric. The Cardinal unworthily compares legalising same-sex marriage to permitting slavery, calling the proposals a "great wrong", a  "grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and  "madness" being "indulged". As for the Scottish Government, it is "disingenuous", "intolerant", "arrogant", their "weasel words" concealing the "great wrong" which they are villainously contemplating and which, if passed, will "shame Scotland in the eyes of the world" and "forfeit the trust of the nation". Amongst the "dangers" posed by the proposals, O'Brien adds:

"There is no question, that normalising gay marriage means normalising homosexual behaviour for public school children."

Damn right, though if Scottish social attitudes are anything to go by, your moral mission to stamp out sodomy is already jiggered, Cardinal. If all that doesn't get your spectacles fugging up, nothing will. I had been labouring under the impression that the Catholic church recognised temperance as a cardinal virtue. It is certainly not a virtue of this Cardinal, who has form composing shrill, cheap, ad hominem disaster narratives when it comes to social issues.  I imagine he'd respond by saying that moderation in service to the Good is itself a vice, and that my apprehension of the Good is palsied, and criticism misplaced. One can't help but feel that if a Scottish Minister merely borrowed the Cardinal's evaluative vocabulary and threw it back at him, he'd be squirming and appealing to the language of intolerance. Indeed, the Cardinal's colleague, the Bishop of Paisley, describes criticism of opposition to same sex-marriage as "homophobic bigotry" to be "an illiberal and undemocratic intolerance which only seeks to close down rational argument and to intimidate people into acquiescence". Words like "grotesque" and "madness" do not immediately strike me as the stuff that debates are best constructed from. Arguments, certainly. Bitter and acrimonious disagreement, without question. But tolerant, democratic, rational argument which is not aiming to intimidate Scottish Ministers by inflammatory discourse into acquiescing in your point of view? I think not.

But back to the mainspring of their arguments. Enlarging on Conti's theme, Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley, Philip Tartaglia, published his consultation submission to Scottish Ministers. Tartaglia argues that given the exclusive rationale of marriage - begetting and raising weans - it "should not be treated as an equality issue". Marriage, he says is a "human reality which is prior to politics and positive law". To (mis)recognise same-sex marriage would undermine "the common good", and commit "an act of cultural vandalism".  In defence of this proposition, the Bishop even presses Article 16 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into service. In a digression which is at best peripheral to his core case, he contends, as I understand him, that even to permit religious bodies who wish to to conduct same-sex marriages is to put refuseniks outfits of piety under duress, "infringing religious freedom". More interestingly, Tartagli quotes Pope Benedict to the effect that: “that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation.” He goes on:

"... marriage is a union between man and woman comes both from reason enlightened by faith, and from faith understood by reason, and is therefore a truth which is intrinsically able to be articulated in public discourse about the common good."

The crucial point about this formulation is that the idea that marriage is betwixt men and women only is not being ascribed to divine revelation, or faith, and therefore only having purchase (you might think) amongst the faithful. By roping in reason, Tartagli casts the proposition in universal terms. Whether or not you are a Catholic, or even a Christian, if we assume that reason is the same for all men and women, this reason-derived understanding of marriage needs must obtain for all. If I believe that marriage is a concept amenable to redefinition - if I refute the idea of substantive reason defining it, or a God endowing the concept of marriage with real solidity, rather than just being defined by mankind's conventional usage - for Tartagli, I am intellectually mistaken, in error, peddling falsehoods. It is critical that these clerics' use of terms like human reality shouldn't be mistaken for rhetorical tropes and condemnatory flourishes. This recalls I point I made in the context of Bill Walker's comments on the same subject...

"So Walker's position is that marriage is, by definition, to be consecrated between men and women only. This whole approach has its curiosities, which are easily missed by over-familiarity. One of the queer features of the marriage debate, whether here or over the water, is how vehemently definitions are deployed by those hostile to gay marriage. In our times, generally speaking, when we are talking about moral positions, this is classically denoted by the use of an extensive evaluative vocabulary - ought, should, I believe. We take for granted a gulf between is and should. Interestingly, often debates about marriage are couched not in these sorts of evaluative terms at all - but deploy the vocabulary of facts - marriage is X, Y and not Z - as if the concept was an object of knowledge, of which one could gain a true or false apprehension, rather than an evaluative matter exercising normative judgement."

One of the interesting paradoxes about this is that folk on the other side of the argument, supporting equalised marriage, will often find themselves making the same sort of foundational case as the religious figures whose arguments they will likely find intolerable. Speaking from my own godless perspective, one reason why this recent spate of articles are so inflammatory is because they strike at the roots - and reveal - the incompatibilities separating the world views being articulated. That is what will make discussion on same-sex marriage, as with assisted dying, so difficult. Avoid the temptation to see their arguments as the polite proxy for private, disavowed but keenly felt homophobia. Take these three men at the words. All three incorporate marriage into a divinely ordered universe with an immanent logic ascertainable to human reason. Those are propositions which I, for one, don't accept. Many won't. For strategic reasons, the Government will be keen to present their conclusion as a synthesis of contending positions. This is well in line with an idea of the (in areas like this, basically implausible) liberal public sphere. In reality, however, the thorny question persists. How can we even enter into a meaningful conversation - or hell mend us, a deliberation - with religions about conceptions of marriage, when our understandings of knowledge and the nature of reality are so basically incompatible?


  1. The trouble with the religious argument put forth by these learned clerics is that the same applies to childless couples, and, indeed, used to be the position of the Church.

    If a couple is not having children then either they are not trying hard enough,perhaps by using sinful methods, or one is infertile and in which case they should have their marriage annulled and the fertile partner try again whle the barren one enjoys a life of unmarried ccelibacy

    So. Are the religious gentlemen going to revert to that earlier, hard line position or are they going to accept that they are wrong on that one and might be wrong on this ne as well.

    The Church holds that Christ came forth to put aside all these silly provisions of Leviticus,with its rules on eating shellfish, wearing clothes of multiple fibres, shaving etc, and that the way to Heaven is in acceptance o fhim.

    As far as I know Christ was not recorded having an aside to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John to say

    "You see this male bonding stuff we do a lot of, and the going around together with no women? Well, it still doesn't mean you get to play 'Hide the sausage' up each others bottoms. That's still right out.

    "Though you can have some nice tribal tattoos if you want, we can ignore that one"

    I notice a Catholic spokesman on Call kaye saying only his team has the right of it. When challenged on his opinion on polygamy he was agin it, but seemed unable to hear the words "Islam" or "Muslim", which suggests the Church is a bully, trying to hit a minority since it won't take on a larger team that it disagrees with

  2. I'm still not at all convinced by your claim that there is a particular difficulty in conversations between 'us' and 'religions' than, say, between 'us'. It rather depends on who 'us' is: do you think that there is one, rational picture of the world to which all who don't subscribe to a religion should hold, and from which moral and political conclusions emerge? (I'd suggest that, among atheists and agnostics, some do think this and some don't -and this fault line is at least as important as that between theists and non-theists.)

    In broad terms, Catholics do think that, by rationally reflecting on human nature, anyone will come to certain moral conclusions (including the ones currently at stake in the consultation on same sex marriage). From that perspective, the divide between those who think that ethics is matter for rational exploration (Catholics and some non-theists) and those who think it (eg) simply an exercise of power (other non-theists and some theists) is more important than the divide between theist and non-theist.

    I know your thinking in this area has been influenced by MacIntyre. Perhaps an even more helpful paradigm is given by Elizabeth Anscombe who (roughly) argues that, in the absence of a belief in God, we are thrown back onto basing ethics on an understanding of human nature (her classic paper 'Modern Moral Philosophy' is here: http://www.philosophy.uncc.edu/mleldrid/cmt/mmp.html). That is a view consonant with Catholic understandings of natural law and, if plausible, would provide a rather more hopeful ground for engagement between the religious and non-religious than you suggest.

  3. The purpose - and beauty - of the consultation process is that it imposes some logic and order onto the debate whether people want it or not.

    The Scottish Government is putting forward a specific set of proposals and looking for answers to specific points in connection with that. The responses will determine how the legislation is drafted. If people simply shout at each other and refuse to engage in a meaninful discussion their views won't count. Their choice.

    Will the Catholic Church be happy with the outcome? Highly unlikely. But do they think they can stop equal marriage happening? Equally unlikely I would suggest.

    What they are probably going for is a rock solid guarantee that no religious body or celebrant will be required to be involved in a same sex marriage. They would have got that anyway, as it forms part of the proposals, but politically it is important that religious bodies get the credit for that.

    It is unfortunate that the consultation is happening at the same time that a lot of Catholics are feeling aggrieved about the Lennon verdict and other matters which are causing some anger. I suspect that the SG, if it had the choice, might have left the consultation till a bit later on and got the sectarian bill out the way first.

    Ironically I suspect it is numpties like Bill Walker who have forced their hand. Any attempt to delay the consultation would just have led to accusations of being in thrall to Souter etc so they had to bring it forward rather than delay it.

    I think it will be fairly tricky steering it through, which is why I think Nicola Sturgeon is taking the lead. She's the ideal person to do it as she is for many of us the voice of reason in a political environment which can sometimes be quite silly.

  4. As far as morality goes, there is little "natural morality" in deciding where to stick your dangly bits.

    If you have to rely on a magic sky faerie telling you right from wrong then you have a problem.

    The no compulsion thing is important

  5. ..."homophobic bigotry" to be "an illiberal and undemocratic intolerance which only seeks to close down rational argument and to intimidate people into acquiescence".

    I have yet to hear a wholly "rational argument" against.

  6. The religious arguments against same-sex marriage are based on a nonsense known as "Theology" which explains... absolutely nothing.

    If someone can come up with something - anything - that "Theology" has answered, there's a $1 000 000 prize available from James Randi.

    Hopefully the Government will ignore such nonsense, as they would from a "Fairyologist" or "Unicorniologist" etc. etc. etc.

  7. @Asterix

    "Human nature" and "natural law"? Who gets to say what these consist of?

    I'm touched by your optimism, but the past few decades of arguing gay rights (and women's rights for that matter) with the religious right leaves me unmoved. Those things can be made to mean whatever the debater wants them to mean.

  8. @ Morag

    Do you have a general pessimism about the amenability of ethics to reason or is it a pessimism focused solely on the terms 'human nature' and 'natural law'?

    If it's a general pessimism, how do you know that your views are right?

    If it's the more local pessimism, could you suggest terms of debate that are less contested?

    @ JohnB

    The Catholic arguments at least against same sex marriage are based on the Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition, as passed down through figures such as Aquinas. A great part of the difficulty that LPW identifies in the debate between the religious and the non-religious is not so much theism as a) the widespread assumption amongst the non-religious that subjectivism in morality is true with a consequent abandonment of any attempt at rational ethics; and b) even where some attempt at rational ethics is maintained, the abandonment of that classical tradition in favour of inadequate alternatives.

  9. As a straight Buddhist who understands that enlightenment comes from with yourself and has little to do with your belief system, etcetera ...

    I am always very worried when anyone says they are right and everyone else is wrong because 'wrong' is just a context that you disagree with.

    If the cardinal holds true to the biblical truth should he not be requesting Mr McAskill to bring in stoning legislation?

    Human morality is not based on what 'God thinks' but what human communities agree is 'OK'. Hence we would get just a tad annoyed with the cardinal if he proposed, based on the literal instruction of his God, that it is OK to stone homosexuals.

    Unfortunately from the RC through the Wee Free to the Hindu those of a 'godly persuasion' miss the point some what.

    What's that Buddha, put another incense stick on the puja .... roght you are..... ;-)

  10. Asterix ignores the fact that, having abandoned the Torah, the Church has no scriptural justification for this.

    Bringing in the Greeks is perverse, since homosexuality was institutionalised in Ancient Greece, and hardly unknown in Roman society, so much so that they used themes of homosexual sex in silverware found in Britain.

  11. Which form of religious authority you decide to plump for, is of course, also a subjective decision. After all, people can decide that the Westminster Confession represents objective truth, but that doesn't make the Pope 'Antichrist'. Deciding which 'ready-to-wear' package of religious doctrine to take off the shelf is a subjective process. If one decides to pick up a package which treats women and gay people as second-class citizens one can't then sniffily declare that this is objective and thus superior for that reason. Nor can one claim that a system rooted in medieval and late antique Christian philosophy is rational in modern terms. Reason in this context means 'right reason' measured against 'nature', something which people in the 14th century/late antiquity had a very poor understanding of. Garbage in, garbage out, I'm afraid.

    I'll take compassion informed by historical, social and scientific enquiry any day over buying a package where a deeply embedded legacy of misogyny and a track record of the demonisation of gay people comes with the territory, because these were once falsely considered to be natural and hence 'rational'.

    Ultimately this kind of anti-gay thinking will go the way of Creationism because the evidence that gay people are just ordinary harmless folk has become too strong now we have taken our blinkers about the nature of 'Nature' off.

    Some people despite everything will still cling to such notions, because the security of buying the package and feeling that your salvation and eternal life is thus assured can overcome wee considerations like there being no evidence or any actual rational reason not cooked up by misinformed medieval philosophy to deny gay people the same rights as the rest of us.

  12. @ Peter

    Rather an odd idea for a Buddhist that the content of morality is exhausted by “‘what human communities agree is 'OK'”. On what basis should those communities make that decision? The obvious suggestion here is a rational assessment of human nature and the operations of society. (And on that basis, the Dalai Lama and many other Buddhists regard homosexual activity, let alone same sex marriage, as sexual misconduct.)

    @ Louise @ Anon

    Both of you confuse the current question of gay marriage with the question of the church’s general teaching on gay sexual activity. Certainly, if you accepted that gay sexual activity were wrong, you would be inclined even more strongly to oppose gay marriage. But the issues are clearly separable: just because you think that gay sexual activity is fine, it doesn’t automatically follow that society has an interest in privileging one particular form of gay relationship. It does however have an interest in privileging heterosexual marriage as an institution best fitted for child rearing. (Anon you mention ancient Greece and Rome. Whilst homosexual activity was (to a greater or lesser extent) accepted there, it was not institutionalized as same sex marriage, precisely because marriage was viewed as an institution whose function was to raise children. This merely reinforces the separability of the question of the rightness of gay sexual activity and the rightness of gay marriage.)

    On the general issue of the methodology of Catholic ethics, the point I was trying to make in response to LPW’s post was that reflection on human nature might provide a common basis for a conversation. That doesn’t mean that conversation will change the mind of either side, but it does mean that we might avoid talking past each other. Louise, I’m not sure on what you base your ethics if you reject everything thought before (say, following Larkin) 1963. But putting that aside, by articulating your own superior understanding of human nature as opposed to our traditional Western garbage, we might at least get a conversation going rather than indulging in insults.

  13. Maybe it would be useful to refer to what is actually being proposed? The Scottish Government position is that:

    "Same sex couples, like opposite sex couples, can and do establish loving relationships which they wish to formalise in a manner recognised by the state, and in some cases by the religious body to which they belong."

    It also states that: "The Government recognises and understands that some religious bodies and celebrants hold that marriage is a unique bond between a man and a woman. The Government does not consider it would be appropriate to require religious bodies and celebrants who hold this belief to solemnise same sex marriage."

    That is a position which is also held by all of the bodies which have been campaigning for equal marriage. So on that basis it is reasonable to put to one side the argument that religious bodies and celebrants could be forced to solemnise same sex marriages against their will. They will not be.

    Therefore the argument against same sex marriage must set out why it is wrong for the state (and those religious bodies who wish to) to formalise same sex relationships in the same way that they formalise mixed sex relationships.

    In making their arguments opponents of same sex marriage must bear in mind that there is no conceivable way that the Government could say to same sex couples who wish to marry we are not going to allow you to because we think your relationship is unnatural or wrong. The Government does not think that, the law does not say that. The law allows same sex couples to fall in love, to settle down and indeed to start a family if that is what they want. The only thing that is not allowed at present is for that situation to be formalised as marriage.

  14. @ Indy

    1) On the subject of compulsion, I've posted in detail previously both here and on Caron's Musings on this issue and I'd only want to repeat that a) there remains a concern that direct compulsion of religious celebrants may be an unintended consequence of the interaction of human rights/equalities law and any changes in the marriage law; and b)compulsion of individuals rather than institutions still seems likely. In any case, a clear statement of intent as suggested by John Mason would have been helpful here. That he and Bill Walker were shouted down on this issue is not reassuring.

    2) Apart from this I broadly agree with your analysis. And the reason why it is right for the state to privilege different sex marriage over all other (hetero- and homosexual) relationships is that it is best fitted to be the primary institution for the rearing of the next generation.

  15. I don't see why equal marriage would change the status of marriage as the primary institution for child rearing.

    Marriage is not exclusively about child rearing after all. People can get married who can't have children, whether for medical reasons or because they are too old, and people who don't want to have children can also get married. That doesn't detract from the fact that I would imagine most people who get married are young enough to start a family and intend to. (And of course the same applies to some gay couples who also intend to have children. Morally how does it work to deny gay parents the option of marriage if marriage is seen as the best basis for raising a family?)

    But overall, even if it is the case that most marriages are entered into for the purpose of formalising a heterosexual union which will form the basis of raising a family, there are already exceptions to this rule so where is the harm in allowing another exception? Gay people are a minority, they always will be, so how could allowing them to get married undermine the status of heterosexual unions?

    Isn't it the case that marriage, as defined as a heterosexual union for the purpose of raising a family, is being undermined by many other factors which are to do with the way that heterosexual people behave, not the way that homosexual people behave?

  16. @ Indy

    1) We have to distinguish between why a state promotes an institution and why individuals enter into it. Here, we are discussing why a state should promote a particular institution.

    2) The main -perhaps not the sole, but the main- institution for creating and rearing the next generation is the heterosexual couple. Marriage has evolved with its marks of permanence, sexual exclusivity, and advisability (we social conservatives encourage young people to get married!) to serve that function. The state does not have the same interest in promoting a similar pattern of relationship amongst homosexuals.

    3) Of course behaviour and changes among heterosexuals are the main cause of the undermining of marriage -and Catholics would disapprove of these. But at the moment we are discussing the specific change of gay marriage rather than (say) the promotion of polygamy.

    On a different point -from your previous posting- one thing where I did disagree with your analysis and an issue which I think the Scottish Government needs to factor in to how it handles this issue politically is that of the reasons behind the Bishops' outspokenness. Although I'm sure they do want to ensure the Church is left alone to plough its own furrow after any changes, this is very much a secondary aim. Primarily, they will view themselves as having the God given responsibility of warning a society when it goes against the natural law. I wouldn't expect non-Catholics to accept this reason, but it should be borne in mind by anyone who thinks they can be bought off by offering opt outs to the Church.

  17. liberalism bores me14 September 2011 at 16:22

    I think there are two approaches one can take to this question.

    A social approach and an individualistic approach.

    I believe the latter approach is mistaken because marriage is an evidently public act with social consequences which extend beyond the two individuals concerned. Thus the state recognises the marriage between a man and a woman because the union of a man and a women is a social necessity. As it is the only vehicle for begetting children it cannot have the same social standing as a homosexual union, which can never beget life.

    This is a physical, social and economic reality and the law ( which is a social construct) should be aligned with this human reality rather than be used as a device to ease hurt feelings.

  18. Thus the other bit that Asterix and liberalism ignore s, if marriage is only sanctioned to beget children, surely infertile couples should have their marriages dissolved.

    Asterix is also wrong on homosexuality in Greece, the bons between men in Spara and Thebes, for example, were like marriage. A loving, supportive, long term relationship.

    by liberalism's argument, we might as well set up any factories with women chained to beds for connection and birth, that should get more children, if the creation of children is everything and no more should be considered

  19. I am not sure I follow these arguments about the state promoting marriage and a social/individual approach to marriage.

    Even if you argue that the reasons gay people want to be able to get married are not pertinent to the debate the fact that they DO want to get marrid is pertinent. Because only the Government can authorise marriage in its legal sense.

    So where there is a demand for the law to be changed to authorise same sex marriage the Government has to respond to that, and obviously that is what this consultation is about.

    In that sense I don't see that it matters whether the state, as an institution, has an interest in promoting faithful loving relationships between gay people. What matters is that gay people who are in a faithful loving relationship want the state to recognise that fact in the same way that they recognise that for mixed sex couples (whether r not they are capable of or want to have a family).

    It may perhaps also be useful to consider SNP policy in this area, because that will obviously influence the Government's thinking. It was in 2002 or 2003 I think that the SNP passed a policy in favour of giving same sex couples the same legal rights and responsibilities as mixed sex couples. As I recall the policy did not specifically mention marriage but it was based on the premise that the law should have respect for the different lifestyles and choices made by people within Scotland.

  20. I forgot to say Asterix on your point about the Catholic Church. I don't doubt that they believe what they are saying. But they are also playing poliics. They're doing both at the same time.

    That's why I said that politically religious bodies want to get the credit for a particular outcome. I didn't say that would be the ideal outcome for them.

  21. @ Anon

    On Sparta, be careful what you wish for. http://sexandhistory.blogspot.com/2008/06/sparta-experiment-in-state-fostered.html

    Quite apart from the rather undesirable features of such a system (paedophilia and '[t]he Spartan male developed no sense of responsibility toward either wife or child') it also reinforces my point that where homosexuality was tolerated or even encouraged, it was not as marriage: Lycurgus's laws keep male female marriage institutionally separate from homosexual relationships.

    I'm afraid you're simply demonstrating the confusion in the pro-gay marriage camp between the current argument on same sex marriage and general approval/disapproval of homosexuality: they are separate issues.

    As far as the dissolution of infertile marriages, I believe that has been allowed in some systems. (Although Catholics wouldn't accept that view.) If you want to argue for it, go ahead: you'd certainly have a stronger case for it than you would for same sex marriages.

  22. @ Indy

    On the issue about responding to gay demands, I suppose the problem here is that there are all sorts of demands buzzing around in the modern world: polyamory, polygamy, the entire abolition of marriage etc. The state has to exercise discernment in which demands it will respond to -and that ought to be a rational assessment of the effects of responding to those demands on the common good.

    On the issue of Bishops' playing politics, I doubt in the end whether much separates us on this except our attitude to their intervention! Of course the Bishops are trying to exercise political influence: they will view that as part of their job. I think they're right in what they're arguing; you think they're wrong. My earlier point was really just trying to helpful to anyone reading this who might have some influence on the process: don't think they are simply upping the ante in order to get a good settlement for the Church (ie opt outs). They will think that they have the duty to do all they can to stop the introduction of same sex marriage in Scotland, quite apart from whether or not Catholic priests will be forced to carry them out (and I accept that such compulsion is not intended by the proponents of the legislation). Where that leaves the government exactly, I'm not sure. But I don't think anyone should kid themselves it can be resolved just by giving cast iron guarantees on non-compulsion (although that would certainly be a good start).

  23. I can't say I am aware of any great demand for governments to authorise polygamy or to abolish the entire institution of marriage. Of course people may choose not to get narried but they don't generally want to stop other people making that choice.

    And, if polyamory means what I think it means, people can choose to do that as well without permission and without running any greater risk than ending up in a Channel 5 documentary or, previously, in the News of the World.

    So, while I agree that governments have to make judgements about whether demands made on them are reasonable, I don't think in the case of same sex marriage they have made a misjudgement.

    There quite possibly are some people out there who would like the government to authorise polygamy but they have not made their voices heard and there is no wider support for their position.

    Whereas people who support same sex marriage have made their voices heard, have put forward quite a logical case (in my view) and have support not only from gay people themselves but from their friends and family and from people like me who just think well, why not? It is a symbolic thing, it's a sign of acceptance and that's important to people. I don't see why they shouldn't have that.

  24. Quite a response!

    I appreciate all your thoughts and interesting observations - and internal tussles! Just to pick up one or two. I was hoping that you might pop by Asterix. As my final question may or may not have suggested, I'm not a confirmed pessimist, committed to the thesis that we can only talk past one another, that Cardinal O'Brien and I are doomed to deaf and uncomprehending shouting matches (though I still struggle to conceptualise how these can be bridged). I appreciate the link and will give it a proper squint anon.

    Your apprehension of the influence of MacIntyre is quite right, though as my scribbling suggests, I found his critique more compelling than his answer to the very problem we're discussing.

    That said, it often strikes me that a great degree of frustration is generated by failing to recognise our deviating moral schemas. MacIntyre, in that sense, educated me into patience, ironically enough, prompting me to take more of an interest in the internal coherence of deviating perspectives. Your point about emphasising the intra as well as inter faultlines (in a way I have neglected in the piece above), is well taken.

  25. @ Indy

    There certainly are demands for the legalization of (eg) polygamy, particularly from some Muslim groups. Clearly they haven't received the oxygen of publicity that gay marriage has received -whether for good or bad reasons, I don't know. But lots of issues get raised with governments at various times: they get a hearing, (it is to be hoped) some rational debate and a decision is taken. That's what's happening now and I don't object to that process even if I think that pro-same sex marriage side is wrong and, if it is allowed, that will be a mistake. It would certainly be odd if every time there were a movement with some measure of grassroots support, government simply agreed to the wishes of that movement without any attempt at rational deliberation.

  26. @LPW

    I share with you a (mild!) obsession with MacIntyre: he's been a major intellectual influence on me since After Virtue was published in the eighties and (on a personal note) one of the key factors that led me into becoming a Catholic. That said, I don't see the modern western world as a battleground between competing traditions, but rather as a mess of individuals with usually pretty incoherent views. No combox solution to this. But I think some things that might help are developing the virtues of patience, attentiveness and civility (so we're actually taking seriously the views of those who disagree with us and dealing with their arguments) and depth (your bringing MacIntyre into this is helpful because it does reveal additional layers of complexity in the issues). If nothing else, we should be working to build a Scottish public culture where complex issues are dealt with carefully rather than on the yah-boo system (even if I'm enough of a political realist to accept that system does have its place).

    And (to butter up mine host!) I think your blog is a contribution to that better culture -so thank you!

  27. Asterix,

    In my case, MacIntyre was an eccentric acquisition from my law school days - starting also with After Virtue. Up to that point, I'd gone through the now traditional philosophical characters in school (we did Plato, but not Aristotle; Descartes; Hume; Bentham and Mill; Immanuel Kant). As seems to happy quite regularly when exposed to these limited, if profoundly interesting, figures - many of our class found themselves yearning for a comprehensible "Kantian utilitarians" (evidence, you might well think, of that melange of philosophical incoherence!)

    For my part, chancing across virtue ethics was revelatory, in its way. I'd also found both "options" presented to us to be an exceedingly impoverished and impoverishing account of human ethics, leaving out great swathes of conduct which most folk wouldn't pause to talk about in ethical terms, but would struggle (or prove quite unable) to articulate them in rule-shape, in terms of the categorical imperative, or bestowed with their particular ethical quality by the goods they might generate. Patience, attentiveness and civility are, perhaps, rather good example of the sorts of thing I mean.

    I do sympathise with your point about trying to work up a Scottish public sphere with patience, and understanding enough to pause in the place of complexity - and not immediately rush to denunciation; in politicians, primarily for a venal but mostly pointless appearances. Although not adverse to the odd frivolous or satirical ad hominem, I do try to please myself, and take a different tack on here.