Looking back in anger, looking forward in hope

There is a special poignancy in our Irish Christmas this year. In some way it links aptly with this no less poignant famous picture of Joseph helping Mary and her unborn child along the road to Bethlehem, just over two thousand years ago.

It is Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem, from the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In it, The Guardian newspaper (believe it or not), tells us that we see Mary and Joseph who are on their way to Bethlehem through a rocky landscape. She has climbed down from the donkey, perhaps afraid of riding down such a perilous, ankle-breaking slope. Joseph, grizzled and weary, is helping her along with all his loving kindness, his actions (rather than her physical appearance) suggesting just how pregnant she is. He is doing everything he can, as husband and prospective new father, to protect his little family from hardship and danger.

In Ireland the unborn have now lost the protection of the State. The fatal decision was made by a majority of the Irish people last May. That they did so, many still find very hard to come to terms with. Legislatures, at one remove from the will of the people, pass laws like this – but that a people should directly ask it legislature to do so is in some way harder to comprehend. But comprehend it we must.

The antiphon to the second Psalm, a substantial portion of which constitutes part of the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah, proclaims:

“His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. “

These lines challenge us, challenge our faith in the word of God. When I look around me at our crazy world and my apostate nation, I have the temerity to question these words as so much self-delusion. I’m inclined to say, “Really? Serve and obey? Will they really? You must be joking.”

Credibly enough, the psalmist asks rhetorically, “Quare fremuérunt gentes, et pópuli meditáti sunt inánia?” Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? Indeed the more direct translation, “thinking up inanities” might be better.

Tumult certainly; useless also; even self-negating – all that self-grandising posturing which we call identity politics, signifying nothing; hang-ups over ‘diversity’ to the point where the world is becoming a new Tower of Babel.

And the political classes, left, right and center? They also fit into this picture, personified by the royalty of a former age:

“They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed. They shout, ‘Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke.’”

There is certainly a great deal of that around. How else are we to interpret the abuse piled on those who dare to defend the rights of medical professionals whose consciences are being trampled on by their own elected representatives? For our “rulers” conscience is now a fetter, a yoke to be cast off.

“Carol Nolan TD (a member of the Irish Parliament) has received a lot vitriol abuse from fellow TD’S for opposing the abortion bill,” we were reminded courtesy of Facebook a few weeks ago.

But then comes an even harder bit for the beleaguered remnants of Israel to take on board.

“He who sits in the heavens”, we are told, “ laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his rage. It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”

But where is he, we ask, as the division bell rings in the Irish parliament and “the kings of the earth”, the “princes”, troop to the lobby to pass death sentence on thousands of unborn children? The estimate is that close to 10000 Irish babies will perish next year under the legislation now passing through the two Houses of Parliament – with only a few brave voices offering resistance.

We look around and see a crumbling civilization. I walk through the campus of a famous university; I pick up a student newspaper – free because it is printed with money from taxpayers, in the name of education. What do I find in it? Very little that is not advocating licentious hedonism. Irony of ironies, this university was dedicated to the Most Blessed Trinity over four hundred years ago. If I were an advocate of “safe spaces” for young people I would certainly not be recommending this university campus, my alma mater, as one of them.

But then, in the midst of all these temptations to doubt the sacred texts, we remember the crumbling of Christ’s cohort of followers. Just four are left at the foot of the Cross, while faithful Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus face up to the powers-that-be and prepare to take him down from the gibbet to lay him in the tomb prepared by one of them. That makes six out of all those who, less than a week before, the were hailing him as the Son of David.

Then we hear the psalmist say with utmost confidence:

“I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession.’”

And the reckoning?

“‘With a rod of iron you shall break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar.’ Now, O kings, understand; take warning, rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage.

Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze.”

Can all that really be balderdash? No. These words have been sung and believed in for more, much more probably, than three thousand years. They have also been scoffed at by kings, princes and peoples who delude themselves with “useless murmuring”. These words have been at the heart of the Christian transformation of the world foretold in the Old Testament and announced in the New. Strip away all that has come to us from these words and we will be left with a nasty and brutal world dominated by superstition and fatalistic myth, ruled by fools who think they can mold human nature into whatever shape they dream up or desire.

The final line of the psalm proclaims, “Blessed are they who put their trust in the Lord.” So, with those words, all doubt melts away – if trust in the Lord is the condition for Blessedness what more is there to say. If we were to value anything in the world over this then we make ourselves nothing more than useless murmurers and lackeys of the “kings of the earth”.

That trust, that Blessedness, will still be as real three thousand years from now, as real as it is today, as real as it was in the souls of Mary and Joseph as they struggled towards Bethlehem with the unborn child who is the saviour of mankind; and as real as it was three thousand years ago – in spite of the world’s Herods, dictators, pseudo-democrats and all the other varieties of rulers it offers us.

Religious freedom – an eternal conflict?


The long and winding road that leads to the double doors of religious tolerance and the tolerance of religious freedom will, it seems, never disappear. The history of mankind shows us this, as does the daily news of our own time.

Stephanie Slade, managing editor at Reason magazine and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, has written a long, – very long – powerful and sobering essay in the Jesuit-edited America Magazine, reflecting on the battles for religious freedom in the United States. No summary can do justice to the historical analysis which she offers us and all we can do here is highlight some of the evidence she puts before us to support her overall contention: the fight for religious liberty is never going to end. We’d better get used to it.

But it is not just an American story. It is a story which unfolds daily in almost every country in the world in one way or another – sometimes in the form of mild hostility, sometimes leading to martyrdom and unthinkable cruelty. Slade’s focus is on America and on the more institutional forms of intolerance and denial of freedom of conscience. Those of us in other jurisdictions within the democratic tradition can easily extrapolate from her analysis and see the parallels in our own public squares.

Populism is the bête noir on everyone’s political horizon just now. New Criterion, the heavyweight journal of ideas, has just published the seventh in a series of essays on the phenomenon and how it may be threatening to tear apart the trusted and tried political institutions through which we try to organise a civilised society. Populist movements across the democratic world no longer seem to trust those institutions.

But who is populist and who is not? One of the suggestions implicit in the historical picture presented to us by Slade is that populism, from both left and right, has being playing fast and loose with our politics and laws for a long time. Our fundamental freedoms, and especially our freedom of conscience and religion, have been suffering at the hands of populism for centuries.

Sometimes it changes sides and it cries stop, in defence of a freedom denied to “the other side”. The United States may now have experienced one such moment. Slade recounts a conversation on CNN.

“I feel the country was founded on Christian principles,” Sandra Long, an 80-year-old resident of Mahanoy City, Pa., and a lifelong Democrat, told CNN before the election. “And now, if our ministers don’t marry a gay couple or refuse to marry a gay couple, they can be arrested and taken to jail.”

Long was mistaken. Despite the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage two years ago, ministers are not required to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies. But the perception that they might soon be—and that the government is continually encroaching on the ability of houses of worship and even individual Americans to live out their beliefs—seems to be widespread. Moreover, it likely played a role in the decision of many voters, such as Ms. Long, to support now-President Trump last November.

Megan McArdle, a columnist at Bloomberg View, wrote in December, “When you think that you may shortly see your church’s schools and your religious hospitals closed, and your job or business threatened in the private sphere by the economic equivalent of ‘convert or die,’ you will side with whoever does not seem to set its sights on your conservative beliefs. If that side is led by an intemperate man who more than occasionally says awful things … well, at least he doesn’t want to destroy you.”

The Catholic writer Mary Eberstadt, in her recent book It’s Dangerous to Believe, called this “the new intolerance” and said that what many believers “feel to the marrow these days is fear.”

“There is no doubt,” Slade says, “the concern is widespread. If the government can force family-run businesses to provide services for gay weddings and Catholic sisters to facilitate access to birth control, people are asking ‘what might be next?’ Could laws be on the way that criminalize traditional beliefs about sex and marriage? Or punish churches for excluding gay men and women from ministerial positions? Or, as Sandra Long assumed was already the case, compel houses of worship to host and solemnize same-sex weddings?”

The political left is of course quick to assure believers that their rights are safe. After all, they say, the First Amendment protects the freedom to believe whatever you want, and any attempt to constrain that freedom would surely be invalidated by the courts.” Really?

McArdle, doesn’t buy the response from the left which, she says, “has (mostly) been that this is so much whining, clinging to a victimhood belied by Christians’ social power and majority status. No one, they have been assured, wants to touch their freedom to worship, but when they enter the commercial realm, they have to abide by anti-discrimination laws, whatever their private beliefs.”

Mozilla’s founder, Brendan Eich, donated to an anti-gay-marriage campaign and was kicked out of his own company.

Slade is certainly unconvinced by this assurance. She quotes Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who is an expert on issues of religious freedom. While Laycock thinks there is too much alarm about the issue he did acknowledge that the line is moving all the time. Even those pushing the line admit this openly. During arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Justice Samuel Alito asked the Obama administration’s lawyer whether a college could have its tax-exempt status revoked because it upholds traditional marriage. “It’s certainly going to be an issue,” the solicitor general replied. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.”

But Slade shows us that the war is not a new one.

Ninety years before the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, another group of Catholic sisters appeared before the highest court in the land.

This time it was the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. An Oregon law passed by voters, at the behest of the anti-Catholic Scottish Rite Masons, required all children to attend public schools. “The effect of this law will be, if upheld by the courts, to close every private school in the State,” The New York Times reported. “That was its purpose, openly avowed in public discussions preceding the election.”

The measure had the enthusiastic support not just of the state’s majority-Protestant electorate but also of the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in the Pacific Northwest. “We are against the Catholic machine which controls our nation,” explained “Kleagle Carter,” according to a book about the Oregon chapter of the Klan. It is a refrain being heard repeatedly in Ireland just now. “Dear Catholic Church, get out of our wombs,” one histrionic headline screamed at Catholics last week. But that’s another story.

The Oregon story had a happy ending: The Supreme Court justices unanimously struck down the statute.


That does not reassure Slade because other violations of religious liberty did not have such a happy ending. More than 30 states have on their books to this day some form of legal prohibition on public dollars going to religious institutions. They are known as Blaine amendments, after the House Speaker James G. Blaine.

As with the Oregon private school ban, all accounts suggest that the Blaine amendments were motivated by deep animus toward Catholics. “They were passed in a series of outbursts of anti-Catholicism, there’s no doubt about the history,” Professor Laycock says. State-level “baby Blaines,” as some now call them, remain in force.

As bad as anti-Catholic sentiment has been at points in America’s past, however, it is nothing compared to the vitriol directed at smaller religious groups over the years. Just consider what the Mormons have had to suffer.

Justices Alito, Thomas and John Roberts noted in their dissenting opinion on one court challenge, ominously wrote, “those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern”.  Slade says that it is hard to escape the conclusion that strong forces hostile to traditional belief are on the march.

If a form of populism is not driving much of what Slade describes, what is? The glib phrases being bandied around about conservatives being on “the wrong side of history” betray a populism as sinister as anything on the right. It is not rational argument. Slade asks us to look at the history of the Supreme Court to see how much more than measured legal judgement is at play here.

If a study of Supreme Court history makes one thing clear, it is that there is no fixed line differentiating the kinds of laws that are acceptable under the First Amendment from the kinds that go too far. Where lawmakers and the courts come down on contested questions is often influenced by what a majority of Americans seem to favour.

None of the experts I talked to thought the Supreme Court literally keeps an eye on poll numbers as it hands down decisions. But they all agreed that as fallible humans, even the most upstanding jurists will be affected by the cultural zeitgeist.

Gay marriage is among the most vivid illustrations of that. For decades, public support for legal recognition of same-sex unions was a minority position. Between May 2011 and May 2012, according to Gallup, the numbers flipped. On May 9, 2012, President Obama suddenly announced that his views had “evolved” and he was now in favour of same-sex marriage. Thirteen months later, the Supreme Court ruled the federal Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Two years after that, it struck down all state-wide bans on same-sex unions.

Within hours of the Obergefell decision, people began suggesting the precedent should be extended even further. Fredrik DeBoer wrote an article for Politico titled “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy.” Similarly, in 2013, Jillian Keenan had argued at Slate that “Legalized polygamy…would actually help protect, empower, and strengthen women, children, and families.” If marrying whomever you want is a fundamental right, they wondered, shouldn’t the same be true of taking multiple spouses?

So what does Slade suggest we conclude from all this history?

She wants us to accept that institutional protections are only as strong as the underlying culture. If people are willing to see a minority group’s rights disregarded, neither the courts nor the Constitution is an airtight safeguard against abuse. But if the majority is unwilling to see liberties infringed, those in positions of authority are likely to take notice. Like it or not, popular culture has been in the driving seat for decades and conservative thinking has been in the back seat.

Slade reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. “It might have been truer if he had said it can be bent, assuming enough people are willing to do the hard work of persuasion. In other words, if what counts as ‘religious freedom’ is eternally in dispute, it matters who shows up to the debate.”

Small pharma takes on the state


Can a state force pharmacists to prescribe abortion-inducing drugs at the expense of their religious beliefs? This is the central issue in a case the US Supreme Court may agree to hear in its next term.

In 2007, the State of Washington passed a law requiring all pharmacies to deliver “all lawfully prescribed drugs or devices” in a timely manner to all customers. This “Delivery Rule” contains several exemptions such as business or convenience reasons for not stocking certain drugs, but there is no exemption for religious objections.

A small family-run grocery store and pharmacy in the state was investigated by the  Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission for refusing to stock any form of abortifacient, such as Plan B. The Stormans family, which owns the store, cites religious beliefs as its justification for refusing to stock abortifacient drugs. The Stormans believe that by dispensing these drugs, they would be aiding in the destruction of human life, directly contradicting their Christian faith.

Although the Stormans’ store does not carry Plan B, if a customer requests it, employees provide a list of local pharmacies and drug stores that carry the drug, even going so far as to call other pharmacies to confirm that the drug is in stock.

Abortion activists were not happy with this and began sending test shoppers to the store. They then filed complaints with the Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission after they received a referral rather than a filled prescription. This led to an investigation, and the store was threatened with losing its pharmacy license.

How long will it be before the newly emboldened and militant pro-abortion activists in Ireland begin targeting Irish pharmacists to deprive them of their right to exercise their religious beliefs? Probably not until they see the outcome from their battle to deny the unborn their right to life enshrined in the Republic’s constitution and in a more limited way in the statute law of Northern Ireland.

In the US case, the Stormans defended their rights by filing suit against the State of Washington, arguing that the Delivery Rule violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, among other claims. The federal district court vindicated their right and ruled in favour of the Stormans. However, the pro-abortion activists wanted their pound of flesh and pushed for an appeal. On appeal, a three-judge court panel reversed the district court decision. Now the Stormans have petitioned the Supreme Court to review their case, which the Court should consider sometime in March.

More detail on this story here.

A victory for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience


The National Catholic Register today reports on an important victory for all those swimming against the current in the fight for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. The victory came with Canada’s Supreme Court finding in favour of a Jesuit school which challenged a law which would require Catholics to ignore the principles of their faith in what they teach in schools.


OTTAWA, Canada — Canada’s Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that Catholic schools in Quebec must be allowed to teach from a Catholic viewpoint during a state-mandated religion and ethics class.

“To tell a Catholic school how to explain its faith undermines the liberty of the members of its community, who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school,” the Canadian Supreme Court wrote in its 7-0 March 19 decision.

The province of Quebec, in July 2008, introduced a mandatory religion and ethics class and required it to be taught without regard to any religion. Even in Catholic schools, teachers were barred from voicing a preference for any faith.

The rules would mean that if a student in the class asked about a Catholic perspective on a religion, a teacher would not be allowed to answer.

Additionally, the course must be taught regardless of whether a school receives state funds.

Jesuit-run Loyola High School in Montreal challenged the law.

“This ruling makes clear that the government is on dangerous ground if it seeks to force a private organization to act in a manner completely contrary to its deepest faith convictions,” Canadian attorney Gerald Chipeur, who represented the school, said March 19.

The court’s decision means that “faith-based schools are free to operate according to the faith they teach and espouse.”

Chipeur’s law firm, Miller Thompson LLP, is allied with Alliance Defending Freedom International, the global organization of the U.S.-based religious-freedom-defense legal group.

ADF International’s executive director, Benjamin Bull, said the government “cannot require a private religious school to tell its students that their faith is no more valid than a myriad of other, conflicting faith traditions. All faith-based organizations must be free to speak and act consistently with their faith or religious freedom is not at all free.”

The court ruling noted that the requirement interferes with parents’ right to transmit their Catholic faith to their children, “not because it requires neutral discussion of other faiths and ethical systems, but because it prevents a Catholic discussion of Catholicism.” Transmission of religious faith is “an essential ingredient of the vitality of a religious community.”

Undermining lawful religious institutions’ character and disrupting religious communities’ vitality represents “a profound interference with religious freedom,” the court said.

While the court’s ruling against the province requirement was unanimous, the justices were split 4-3 on how to resolve the situation. The majority ruled that the matter should be sent back to Quebec’s minister of education, meaning that Loyola High School may now reapply to the Education Ministry for an exemption to teach the program. The ministry’s decision must be guided by the court ruling, CBC News reported.

Benoît Boucher, who represented Quebec’s attorney general, said the ruling shows that it is should be mandatory for all students in the province to have a thorough understanding of diversity.

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/canada-supreme-court-catholic-schools-have-a-right-to-teach-church-views/#ixzz3VDwKpCfJ

Another,  less optimistic, view on this decision from a writer with Canada’s National Post.

Loyola, a private Catholic secondary school, seems to be well pleased with the decision, which recognizes the unreasonableness, if not outright absurdity, of requiring the religious school to teach Catholicism and Catholic ethics “from a neutral perspective,” as the ERC would have done. One of the school’s lawyers, Mark Phillips, said enthusiastically of the ruling, “Every single judge is entirely behind the idea that Loyola as a Catholic school should be allowed to teach its religion and its ethical system without ceasing to be who they are….”

And he is almost correct about that. While the majority decision does not actually recognize or delineate what religious freedom Loyola might enjoy in its own right as an institution, it does make it clear that Loyola’s teachers and students are entitled to religious freedom — freedom that it deems to have been unnecessarily limited by the ERC.

What’s the problem then? Why should proponents of religious liberty, who have had much to worry about in Canada lately, not be breaking out the confetti at this bit of good news?

The reason, I’d suggest, for holding off on the party is that what the court has delivered is really a very limited bit of happy tidings. It’s nice that all the justices have allowed that forcing a Catholic school to teach Catholicism from a secular perspective is not on. But it would have been far nicer if the majority had recognized that legally imposing on a Catholic school in this way is not merely an unnecessary limit given the particular statutory goals at issue in this case, but before that a full-on defeat of the very purpose of a religious institution and thereby an explicit and eternal violation of constitutionally protected religious freedom.

Two islands hand-in-hand on a path to moral and social chaos?

The Irish government, currently wriggling its way towards legislation to overturn its country’s pro-life laws without any clear mandate to do so from its electorate, will  also soon be trying to overturn its pro-family and pro-marriage laws in pursuit of the folly of gay “marriage”. It is now embarking of a review of the Irish Constitution which since the 1930s has kept Ireland’s laws in a framework friendly to all those values. This review is being driven by elements within the government who see their mission in Irish society as one of bringing it into line with the rest of the liberal world. In doing this they are doing no more than imitating their nearest neighbours in the United Kingdom.

Indeed, what is unfolding in the Irish Republic is nothing short of a mirror-image of what its former colonial masters have done and are doing to themselves – providing abortion on demand, destroying marriage and de-Christianinsing their society at a breakneck pace.

The terms “dismay” and “outrage” seem too mild to describe the reaction which is evident across Britain in the wake of the government’s decision there to press on with its redefinition of marriage. Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in its editorial comment decried the needles import to Britain of what it called America’s “culture wars” on this issue. Writing about the pitiable inadequacy of the so-called guarantees of religious freedom being offered by the government it went on to say:

Nor do the religious protections address another matter that vexes critics – namely the redefinition of marriage, understood by every human society through the ages to be a legal relationship between people of opposite sexes. Many Tory MPs and voters will simply not be reconciled to this, and neither will the churches, which have not even begun to organise against the Bill. They have millions of followers, and should they target vulnerable Conservative seats – as happened to Labour when the Roman Catholic Church forced the last government to retreat over faith schools’ admissions quotas – Mr Cameron may come to rue the day he embarked on this reform. Sad to say, but in a country that prides itself on its tolerance, he risks sowing division where none previously existed.

The latest onslaught on the government comes from the media response group, Catholic Voices, which this morning issued a statement describing the government’s announcements as shameful, undemocratic and cloaked in false legitimacy.

Their assessment and detailed analysis is as follows:

Tuesday’s Government response to its marital redefinition consultation, conducted earlier this year, has conclusively demonstrated that the entire consultation process had no purpose other than to shroud a shamelessly undemocratic exercise in a cloak of false legitimacy. It has made clear that it intends to redefine marriage despite opposition from the overwhelming majority of respondents to the  Government’s proposals.

Of 228,000 individual responses to the consultation, 53pc – fewer than 121,000 – said same-sex couples ought to be able to marry, according to the Government. However, with every single petition the Government received on the issue opposing marital redefinition, it’s clear that more than four times as many people contacted the Government to support the traditional understanding of marriage rather than to overturn it: the Coalition for Marriage’s petition alone bore 509,800 signatures when it was submitted. It now bears more than 620,000.

The Government, therefore, can claim no mandate for its plans, and Archbishops Vincent Nichols and Peter Smith hardly exaggerate when they say “the process by which this has happened can only be described as shambolic”.

Marital redefinition went unmentioned in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat election manifestos, and was absent from their 2010 programme for government. Parliamentary process has been scorned in the rush to redefine marriage: the Government has produced neither a green paper nor a white paper on this issue, which wasn’t so much as alluded to in the Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament this May.

Despite lacking democratic legitimacy, Mr Cameron admitted last week that he intends to go even further than previously planned by facilitating the solemnizing of same-sex marriages by religious bodies. This U-turn makes a mockery of the already questionable consultation process, and is a profound betrayal of those who responded in good faith to the consultation – which a dozen times ruled out changes to what it called ‘religious marriage’.

Responding to Mr Cameron’s admission, the Anglican bishops drily observed that at least this suggested that the Government was starting to realise that, contrary to the chaotic language of the consultation document, the law recognises only one institution of marriage: “We welcome the fact that in his statement the Prime Minister has signalled he is abandoning the Government’s earlier intention to distinguish between civil and religious marriage.”

The Anglican bishops said that they looked forward to studying the Government’s response to the consultation, but will have found little comfort there. The Government boasts that it intends to introduce a ‘quadruple lock’ to protect religious institutions from being compelled to act against their principles in connection with the proposed legislation, but admits that churches and other religious bodies could still face legal challenges if they refuse to solemnize same-sex marriages.

The Government’s decision is probably motivated by a desire to evade challenges under the  European Convention on Human Rights , but it is difficult to have confidence in any planned safeguards; the Human Rights Act embeds the ECHR in UK law, and the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that if a state allows for marriage between persons of the same sex, it must do so on exactly the same basis that it allows for other marriages.

Leaving aside how later parliaments might rescind any safeguards established by this one, it seems clear that any religious body which declined to solemnize same-sex marriages would almost certainly be acting against the Human Rights Act and the ECHR, and would, at the very least, be seriously vulnerable to legal challenges.

The Church of England, uniquely to be banned from solemnizing same-sex marriages, will probably be proof against such challenges, but in this case it would be the state itself that would be compelled to stand in Strasbourg and justify why same-sex Anglican couples should be uniquely barred by law from marrying in their own churches.

The proposals raise important questions about the status of the Church of England as an established church; the Government recognises Parliament’s right to overrule Anglican canon law, but ignores how the basic definition of marriage in English law has for centuries been that embedded in the Church of England’s official prayerbook, licensed by Parliament and recognising marriage as a voluntary union of a man and a woman with the principle aim of bearing and rearing children.

The Government’s proposition would require the state to speak differently from both sides of its mouth, Parliament saying one thing, and the Church of England saying another. This raises a profound constitutional problem, as George Pitcher recognised on BBC this week:

 “If we’ve got the state having a completely different definition of what marriage is from what the Church calls ‘holy matrimony’ then it’s a bit difficult to see that the Church can continue with such a central area of our theology at variance with the state. We’ve got the Queen, who is not only the head of state but also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, presiding over our established church and – as a figurehead –  over the state, and it’s very difficult to see how that can cohere once we’re departing on such important institutions in our heritage and history.”

Not merely is Mr Cameron out of his depth on how redefining marriage could have serious repercussions for the British constitution, but the entire Government seems to have a grievously flawed understanding of religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

The Government insists “no one should face successful legal action for hate speech because they preach the belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman,” but in using the word ‘preach’, it seems, as with cases currently being considered by the European Court of Human Rights, to reduce ‘freedom of religion’ to mere ‘freedom of worship’. The ECHR, however, guarantees freedom to manifest religious belief in “worship, teaching, practice and observance”.

Catholic priests may be able to preach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but will ordinary Catholics be permitted to practice what the Church preaches? Will those who believe ‘same-sex marriage’ to be a contradiction in terms be obliged to recognise it as a reality, rather than a legal fiction? The Government’s response is far from clear on such issues, and Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth seems to have been fully justified in asking, “Will Catholic schools, societies and institutions be free (and legally safeguarded) to teach the full truth of Christ and the real meaning of life and love?”

Interviewed on Radio 4 this Tuesday, Culture Secretary Maria Miller displayed her fundamental incomprehension of such issues when she dismissed concerns about consummation and adultery as irrelevant to same-sex marriages. Responding to the fact that some see these issues as central to what the word ‘marriage’ means, she said, “this may well be why the Catholic Church does not want to opt into the system of being able to offer same sex marriage”. However, as Timothy Radcliffe says, it is less that the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage than that “it considers it to be impossible.”

If the Government’s response to its consultation tells us anything, it tells us that it wasn’t listening.

Religious freedom, however, is not the immediate issue here; more urgent, as our briefing paper In Defence of Conjugality: The Common-Good Case Against Same-Sex Marriage points out, are the questions of what marriage is, why the state has an interest in it, and whether the state has the power to redefine it.

The Government’s response states that “At its heart, marriage is about two people who love each other making a formal commitment to each other,” but it is difficult to see why such a private commitment should be a public concern: the state is not in the business of legitimating private relationships, and cares about marriage purely as a matter of public good.

British law has long recognised that marriage provides a uniquely stable and balancedenvironment in which children can be born and raised; protecting it as the one public institution that exists to uphold the principle that every child should – ideally – be raised with the love of a mother and a father.

It is telling, therefore, that the Government’s 47-page response devotes just three paragraphs to children, relegating them to the peripheral ‘wider issues’, and rejecting outright the view of 84pc of British people, as found by a ComRes poll for Catholic Voices this March, that children do best in life when raised by a mother and a father in a stable and loving relationship.

Regardless of governmental cynicism, it is indisputable that many support this project for the best of motives. Unfortunately, such support is misconceived: the introduction of same-sex marriage would not correct any injustices, couples in civil partnerships already having the same rights as married couples, and can only be brought about if British law decrees children to be at best peripheral to marriage and the state to have an interest in regulating people’s private lives.

Few people in modern Britain, it is safe to say, want either of these things.

(A version of this post appeared earlier today on the MercatorNet blog, Conjugality, where you will find more posts on the issue of marriage redefinition.)

“The most abused Faith on earth”

One of Irish television leading public square venues, The Frontline, recently took up the question of whether or not Irish faith communities were under attack from an aggressive secularism. It was, to say the least, a somewhat inconclusive debate. It might have been much better had it been asked to confront Michael Coren, whose latest book, Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity has just been published.  

Coren, English born Canadian journalist and broadcaster, of Jewish antecedents, convert to Catholicism (twice), has just been interviewed by Charles Lewis in the National Post and spells out his view very clearly. In the West generally, he believes, Christians are now

“marginalized, they’re mocked, they’re told their views don’t belong, they’re told to keep their views out of the public square and keep their religion at home. And where it can be quite sinister is at universities where Christian students are told that their ideas are stupid. I’ve even seen it with my children who are in university. Somehow Christianity is not a valid area of thought any longer. You can bring your socialism, your feminism, your homosexuality, your anti-Zionism into the class but if you bring your Christianity that’s not to be taken seriously.”

No Christian carrying a banner for their Faith in the cultural mainstream of the West today would have any difficulty producing evidence to uphold every one of these assertions.  Any Catholic in Ireland today, seriously faithful to the teaching authority of that Church knows full well that they are on the frontline of a battle with a very militant force opposing them on all and more of the issues listed by Coren.

Coren calls Christianity the most abused faith on Earth. “I believe the evidence is overwhelming,” he writes.

 “I believe… that Christianity is the main, central, most common, and most thoroughly and purposefully marginalized, obscured, and publicly and privately mis-represented belief system in the final decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first century.” He rails that the same intellectual class that so quickly condemns anything Christian will do cartwheels to explain away Islamic terrorism.

Lewis put it to Coren in his interview that there is a lot about Christianity that can seem unreal: the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus. Is it any surprise that people sometimes have trouble taking it seriously? To this Coren replies that these are really side-shows in the mocking game and that what they are really mocked for are the moral consequences of their beliefs: that life begins at conception and ends at natural death, that abortion is wrong, that promiscuity is wrong. “We live in a culture where no one wants to hear the word ‘no’” he says.

He lays bare the culture of intolerance facing orthodox Christianity:

“Intelligent people will give other ideologies and other religions a great deal of room to try to understand. When it comes to Christianity they seem to assume that any sense of fairness or sympathy should be thrown out the window. They will say things that are blatantly stupid.

“The idea that because a tiny number of Catholic priests acted in an appalling manner should jaundice everything said by the Roman Catholic Church is also so illogical. You might as well say that no comment by a Canadian should ever be taken seriously because there are some serial killers in Canada.”

On the issue of orthodox Christians’ position on homosexual acts he says they are being told our view on homosexuality is somehow wrong and called homophobic. “They’re going to be called homophobic whatever they do. I think the Catholic Church has spent too much time worrying about the reaction it might get rather than reacting itself.

“If someone calls me a homophobe because I believe marriage is between one man and one woman, then I would rejoice in that. But frankly, with gay friends, I try to avoid the subject. They know I am opposed to gay marriage and they also know I’m fond of them as people and would defend them against personal attack. But let me be clear, anyone who hates gay people is a moral criminal.”

 In the book Coren defends, but also contextualizes, the fact that the abortion question has such a high profile for Christians in the culture wars. In the first place it is because they feel intensely that they’re part of an institution given by God. This institution upholds the sacredness of all human life. Because of that “they feel it more when the most vulnerable are destroyed. And they feel it more intensely than other people. I guess we are obsessed because it is such a tragedy. And if we dare to mention it, the world tells us to be quiet.”

In his book Coren takes on Dan Brown’s ludicrous but astonishingly popular The Da Vinci Code. Why, his interviewer asks, given that by now Brown’s pot-boiler has become somewhat passé?

“Well,” he says, “it has influenced millions of people. They’ve been led by the book to read other books that oppose Christianity. Brown quotes real people and he makes a lot of it seem like non-fiction. I thought it was worth taking on again.” Above all he wanted to make sure that what is in The Da Vinci Code is shown again to be false.

So, the next time Radio Telefis Eireann, the BBC or any other broadcaster, takes up the issue of whether or not militant secularism is a reality, perhaps they should get an airline ticket for Michael Coren and bring him on to give us his formidable point of view.

A truly draconian law in the offing

Montgomery Clift in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film on the inviolable seal of Confession, “I Confess”.

At the very heart of freedom is freedom of religion – and at the very heart of religious freedom is freedom of conscience.

The Irish Government has just published a piece of draft legislation which places a time bomb in this very heart, and if the legislation is enacted it will blow a people’s freedom to smithereens.

Is that first assertion too much? No. Every freedom which has been won for mankind, by mankind, over millennia of our history shows that where freedom was truly won it was won essentially in the context of a freedom of religion and the right to freedom and integrity of personal conscience. Freedoms won by forces hostile to religion – the freedoms won by the French Revolution, the freedoms won by the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution – have invariably ended in tyranny and have never succeeded in establishing authentic freedom until they have recognised the need for freedom of religion and conscience.

In contrast with the tyrannies which emanated from those struggles for freedom you have the greatest freedom of all, that won by Christians through centuries of persecution by the slave-owning and humanly deluded powers of the ancient world. In more modern times you have the great freedom won by the enslaved races of the 18th and 19th centuries, a struggle driven above all by a Christian consciousness of injustice. Accepted, history is more nuanced than this, but nevertheless the core truth is undeniable. Without recognition of the inviolability of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, the pursuit of freedom will be fatally flawed and will promise only tyranny.

The Irish government, seeking to deal with the problem of protecting children from abuse by adults, has now gone down this very path. In its proposed legislation it not only ignores freedom of religion and conscience but directly denies it head-on. It is promising to penalise and imprison any Catholic priest who does not report to the relevant secular authorities a sinful act for which a penitent sinner seeks the forgiveness of God as promised to him, as he believes, by the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is not stated explicitly in the draft but will be the inevitable outcome if the legislation is enacted.

Ominously the Irish Times reports today, “The Department of Justice was unable to confirm last night whether priests will be legally obliged to report serious offences against children to gardaí (police) that are disclosed during Confession.” That is a lame and disingenuous kicking to touch. This issue has been in focus for several months now and a number of government ministers have gone on record saying that the so-called sacred seal of confession no longer stands as a legal entity. Justice Minister Alan Shatter confirmed the mandatory reporting requirement would apply to priests hearing confession. Some priests have already proclaimed their defiance in defence of the freedom of conscience of those who come to them as penitents.

In this proposed legislation the State has effectively invaded a sacred realm of the religion of Christians and has countermanded that power which Christian believers understand to have been given by Christ when he said, “whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain they are retained.”  What the State does not recognise in this whole matter is that while the same act may be both a sin and a crime, these two things have to be resolved in separate ways and in separate fora. A Catholic person accused, convicted and condemned to death for murder, innocent or not, may go to Confession before his execution. The priest who hears that confession might, by revealing all he had been told by the penitent, redeem that person’s reputation. Even to achieve that justice, he may not do so. The two realms are absolutely separate and the priest’s silence about what was confessed must also be absolute.

By invading this realm of conscience in this way the Irish State has now taken away the freedom of a sinner to get the absolution promised by God because it has radically changed the terms and conditions for that absolution – that is, the secrecy given to the act of confession by the wisdom and teaching of the Catholic Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as that sinner’s religious faith leads him to believe.

Let there be no doubt about it. This is a draconian law, posturing as a necessary law under the shadow of the crimes of child abuse with which Irish society, among others, has been plagued for over 40 or 50 years. It is also a bad law, penally hostile to the practice of the religious faith of the majority of the citizens of Ireland. The fact that a draconian executive is not running the country – although some might dispute that – is irrelevant. For nearly 300 years the Roman Empire had penal laws against Christians in place. For most of that time Christians were free to practice their religion but periodically the executive power of the time deemed that they were bad citizens by practising their faith and moved murderously against them. The pattern has been repeated many times throughout history whenever and wherever laws of this type came into being. Ireland beware.