THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
WAR IN UKRAINE
If words could stop wars, Pope Francis’ passionate entreaty to Russia – “In the name of God, hear the cry of those who suffer and put an end to the bombings and attacks ... In the name of God, I ask you: Stop this slaughter!” – would have prevailed. Instead, the very atmosphere is filled with horrific images of shattered, burning buildings in the great cities of Ukraine, and whole populations fleeing to the West to escape the terror. It is as gross an act of inhumanity as the human race has seen in eight decades. The world scarcely witnessed the Nazi destruction of Warsaw in 1944; now it knows what it would have looked like.
It may be no coincidence that Warsaw is again in the front line, for Catholic Poland has generously thrown open its borders to desperate refugees from Orthodox Ukraine, who are arriving literally by the million. People the whole world over feel their anguish. The global effort now is to match and if possible exceed the quantity of evil loosed by Vladimir Putin with an equal or greater quantity of good, a huge humanitarian effort to douse the flames of his inhumanity for the sake of the honour of humanity itself, which would otherwise die of shame.
The European response has been on an almost unbelievable scale, with refugee camps all along the Ukraine border, and vast involvement by local populations in bringing relief in all its forms: food, clothing, warmth, accommodation and transport, and, above all, the comfort of solidarity. The Government of the United Kingdom was far behind the public mood on this, but has at last realised what is at stake. And a grand mobilisation of civil society is occurring simultaneously, little platoons with big ones alongside. Churches and religious groups of every kind are rising to the challenge, even if they, like the Government, were slow to acknowledge the scale and gravity of what was happening. This is not just “yet another refugee crisis”; this is history-making, game-changing, paradigm-shifting. There are no blurred lines or grey areas, no balance of blame with six on one side and half a dozen on the other. Ukraine did not deserve this. Putin’s contempt for it is exceeded only by the world’s contempt for him. Ordinary people are showing what they think of him in the best way they can. And that translates into thousands of British families, like their European counterparts, defiantly throwing open their doors and readying their homes to take in refugees, almost all of them women and children, their menfolk having stayed behind to fight.
The Government’s scheme, including the offer of funding to households taking in refugees, has echoes in the response to Belgian refugees in 1914 and the mass evacuation of children from British cities to the countryside in 1939. Of European nations, Germany in particular has collective memories of mass migrations, as refugees flooded east or west in 1945. The immediate crisis may pass but the trauma lasts. But so does the memory of heroic goodness unquantified. And in Russia’s case, of murderous wickedness equally unbounded. It will not be forgiven or forgotten, not in this century.
HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE CLASSROOM
LOVE IS NEVER WRONG
Catholic attitudes towards homosexuality have moved some way towards tolerance and respect, but remain distinct from the standard ethic of permissiveness which marks secular culture. This says that if young people want to have sex with each other, that is fine as long as it is legal and there is mutual consent, respect and responsibility. But that falls short of being the right sexual ethic to teach in Catholic schools. This in turn raises the difficult question: how should relationships and sex education be taught in a Catholic secondary school? In particular, what should it say to teenagers about homosexuality? It will teach that every pupil should be treated with dignity, and that homophobia is wrong. But is that enough?
This minefield of uncertainty is one of the factors behind the row that has led to resignations and dismissals in the governing body of John Fisher School in Purley, Surrey. The school had booked a talk by the respected writer Simon James Green, who writes novels aimed at a teenage audience in which some of the characters are, like him, gay. Opponents of the author’s work claim it is pornographic and even blasphemous, and that it promotes gay sex. The former charges are unjust. The latter – that it promotes gay sex – is only true in as much as it regards homosexual relationships as morally no different from heterosexual relationships. It is a moot point whether to deny this moral equivalence – as the teaching of the Church does – is homophobic discrimination. In any event the Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, took advice and put his foot down. Simon James Green was not a suitable author, he ruled, to be invited to a Catholic secondary school under his jurisdiction. Yet banning the author of such books, overruling both headteacher and governors, does seem uncharacteristically heavy-handed.
The archbishop would have been on firmer ground if he had objected not to the author’s treatment specifically of homosexuality, but to the way his books take the prevailing secular ethos regarding sexual relations, gay and straight, as normative. His character Noah tries not to be gay by having sex with girls, but cannot manage it. He is eventually reconciled to his sexuality and finds a boyfriend. All this is in accordance with mainstream secular morality, which teachers in a Catholic school should challenge. An over-permissive approach to sex can open the door to harmful exploitation, especially of vulnerable young people. Secular sexual culture is riddled with hard-core online pornography.
But the alternative cannot mean the wounding and unfair notion that gay people are – as the Catholic Catechism currently frames it – “intrinsically disordered” in their sexual nature. It means starting from Cardinal Basil Hume’s dictum that “love is never wrong” including when between people of the same sex. Hume drew the line at the physical expression of that love, except within heterosexual marriage. Is that exclusion still tenable? Many gay and lesbian Catholic couples live in committed relationships, where their sexual relations deepen their mutual bond. Can young gay and lesbian Catholics be encouraged to look to their example? If not, where can they look?
2 | THE TABLET | 19 MARCH 2022