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honour.” At that point, no serious investigation had been made as to whether those commitments could be honoured, but the Cabinet is now aware of legal opinions delivered by Aidan O’Neill QC in which he judges that, were same-sex marriage to be introduced, Churches would be open to legal action if they refused to provide it, and that “parents who insist on no marriage without committed and faithful heterosexual sex … will be hard-pressed to rely upon their European Convention rights to ensure education and teaching by the state of their children in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” In short, schools affirming traditional marriage would be under threat.

This week’s announcement adds that to give certainty to the protection for religious bodies which do not wish to conduct samesex marriages, the Scottish Government “considers that an amendment to the UK Equality Act will be required”.

That the Scottish Government is talking about discussions with the UK Government before introducing a bill, as well as further consultation on issues such as freedom of speech and religion, suggests that they see same-sex marriage as still way off. So for all Sturgeon’s announcement this week, the issue is not yet out of the long grass.

Some will wonder whether this isn’t an attempt to push the prospect of action beyond the date of Salmond’s promised independence referendum in autumn 2014. Given the delays in responding to the original consultation, the uncertainties and controversies surrounding the possibility of revisions to Westminster Equalities legislation, and the fact that the Coalition is under pressure from Conservatives resistant to liberal progressivism, it could be some while before any legislation is brought forward. In the meantime, secularists and those calling for the celebration of same-sex marriage will be angered at the idea that Catholic schools may be able to teach the immorality of it.

And what of the Catholic Church in Scotland and its relations with the SNP Government? This is more a matter of concern to Salmond than to Sturgeon, and it is not coincidental that her statement was made the day following the appointment of Philip Tartaglia as Archbishop of Glasgow. He has been a firm opponent of the redefinition of marriage and has long suspected that the consultation was disingenuous. On the same day as Sturgeon’s announcement, Alex Salmond publicly expressed delight in offering warm congratulations on Tartaglia’s appointment.

But it must now be a matter of doubt whether he will receive an invitation to the installation, and that will be a worry for Church-Government relations north of the border.

■ Professor John Haldane is director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St Andrews.

CATHERINE PEPINSTER

‘The Church could be as ruthless as the Kremlin in airbrushing people from the record’

Theologians, like all professionals, be they journalists, head teachers or policemen, love to gossip. Having a bit of tittle-tattle to share not only provides a frisson of excitement but also confirms your membership of the group: that you know this delicious bit of information endorses how much you are part of the in-crowd. And in recent months, the theological world has been agog over a remarkable story of one of its most notable figures who is quitting the priesthood and his order. When word of this particular titbit reached The Tablet, the people whose eyes widened with shock, disbelief and not a little excitement as they told us also said: “But you mustn’t print it.” In effect, they were saying, “Don’t let the readers know”, which goes against all my instincts as a journalist. It was a tricky dilemma: this was a well-known individual, and shouldn’t the many thousands of people who had encountered him have a right to know what was happening? But on the other hand, it was a very personal story. Didn’t he deserve his privacy?

The matter was taken out of my hands by the Society of Jesus when its provincial, Dermot Preston SJ, quite possibly realising that gossip was spreading, issued a statement announcing that John McDade, the former principal of Heythrop College, has applied to leave the priesthood and the Jesuit order. The vast majority of Heythrop graduates who, like me, had the privilege of being taught by John McDade, must be stunned by the news. John McDade was not somebody I always saw eye to eye with, but he was a charismatic teacher and hugely effective speaker, and his departure after more than 40 years is a huge loss. It is hard to conceive of the agonies he must have gone through to reach that decision.

But what is remarkably cheering about his departure is the way in which the Jesuits handled it. They have not pretended it isn’t happening and let the gossip swirl in ever increasing circles with ever more lurid detail. Fr Preston’s statement was clear, in both the tone of regret for John McDade’s departure, and the warmth with which he commented on the contribution he has made.

It was a far cry from the days when priests and Religious would disappear, seemingly without trace. The Catholic Church could be as ruthless as the Kremlin in airbrushing people from the record. The way that those who had served the Church loyally for years would no longer be mentioned was deeply distressing to the laity. Their contribution could not be acknowledged, let alone praised. Perhaps some of them departed in ignominious circumstances; but should, say, a loss of faith, or falling in love and a desire to be allowed to be free to marry, be a reason to disappear?

In the 1970s, at my convent school, one of the nuns who served briefly as headmistress did just that: she left and eventually married. From time to time, the other nuns would mention that she had come back to visit, bringing her children. They delighted in her happiness and were grateful for the years she had spent with them; there was a refreshing openness and honesty about it. In sharp contrast, any monk who left the Benedictines up the road was never mentioned again; his brethren always refused to explain. Perhaps it is hard for the rest of us to understand how let down a community feels when a member of its family decides to leave; how sacred a trust has been broken. But now something has changed. Like the Jesuits, my local Benedictines have decided this time to be open about the departure of one of their number, and the parish priest has written warmly in his bulletin of the contribution that the departing novice, who almost made it to final profession, made to the parish and monastic community alike.

Something of this refreshing openness was evident at the installation of Vincent Nichols as Archbishop of Westminster three years ago, when his guests included fellow students of his from the English College, Rome, who had since left the priesthood. It might have been no more than a gesture towards people who had shared some of his most significant memories, but it spoke volumes: of a wider, Catholic family, of a Church confident enough to recognise that sometimes life does not go to plan.

But this warm embrace of priests we have lost does take us into more awkward territory too, given that many of them depart because of marriage. If the rules were different, we need not lose them at all.

28 July 2012 | THE TABLET | 5

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