Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Pontiff Pontificates

Another day, another barrage of bigotry from the Supreme Pontiff:
The Pope has urged Catholic bishops in England and Wales to fight the UK's Equality Bill with "missionary zeal".

Pope Benedict XVI said the legislation "violates natural law". Supporters of the law see this as a wish to keep a ban on gay people in Church positions.

Actually, I think this needs some unpacking, because I think this is one of those issues that doesn't quite work the way a lot of people think it does.

First of all, for the record, and none of this should come as a surprise, but I want equal rights for gay people, and whether they're sexually active or not is absolutely none of my damn business, nor anyone else's. Whilst the Pope has as much right as anyone else to object to new laws (and as a long-standing meddler in American politics, I can hardly argue his opinion be automatically be discounted on the grounds of him being all foreign and stuff), it's clearly ludicrous to suggest that a secular society should discriminate against non-Catholic citizens (not that all gay people are non-Catholic, obviously) indefinitely, rather than risk the Catholic Church maybe having to change its stance or compromise its hiring practices at some point.

Clearly, that's the first place where the Pope has gone wrong. He's arguing that the development of an entire society can only take place at the pace set by the religious views of a small fraction of its citizens. Even for a guy who believes himself to be the mouthpiece of God, that's some pretty stunning arrogance right there.

My main point lies elsewhere, though. This latest papal proclamation has led to a large amount of spluttering about equal rights, and the idea of a fair society. Now, as above, I am entirely in favour of both those things. What needs to be understood, though, is that this isn't necessarily directly an equality issue. That is to say, whilst clearly the Pope's desire to quash this law would adversely affect the degree of equality this society can lay claim to (which is why we should fight against him getting his way), those that support the Pope don't see themselves as arguing against equality, but against sin.

Let me once again bring up healthcare, by way of analogy. Whilst I truly believe the Republican Party is a blight upon the soul of humanity, and a clear force for misery across that country and - when they can get away with it - the globe, I wouldn't say any of them were arguing for death, even though part of the reason healthcare reform is so badly needed in the States is that 20 000 to 45 000 people die a year from a lack of health insurance. They were and are ignoring the direct cost in life that will result from getting their own way, but even I don't think those deaths were the aim of their objection. Sure, I called Lieberman a murderer, but not because I thought he wanted people to die, simply because he had absolutely no coherent explanation, not one, on any level, as to why he opposed reform he had championed so passionately in early life. Republicans were allowing people to die for their own political gain. At least "we need to get back into power and this is the fastest way to do it" makes sense as a motivation, as much damage as it's doing to their own country. Lieberman was allowing them to die simply to gain revenge on the democrats of Connecticut, which is to say he was prepared to allow tens of thousands to die to make himself feel good. But I digress.

The trouble with with framing this in terms of equal rights, and comparing the struggle for gay rights with the struggle for women's rights, or the rights of non-whites, is that generally speaking this viewpoint makes sense only to those people who don't think there's anything wrong with homosexual activity in the first place. For those that do, though, the rest of us appear to confusing what people are with what they do. To the Pope and his supporters on this matter, we might as well be demanding equal rights for adulterers. This is why the terminology "practising homosexuals", which as far as I can see sounds to many people like a way of getting out of looking like Catholicism has a problem with homosexuality itself (and that might be true in some instances), is so important.

All of which means that the question to be employed when calling the Catholic hierarchy on this isn't "Why can't you recognise homosexuals and heterosexuals are clearly equal?", it's "What other forms of sin are you already prepared to accept in those you hire?".

The big problem with Catholicism in this context isn't really that they consider homosexual activity a sin. For sure, it's a terrible and hurtful stance to take. Even when I was a Christian, I thought it a BS call to refer to love as a sin if it occurred between two adults who happened to not have compatible sexual organs. Frankly, when you have a book as frequently smart and persuasive as the Bible, to say nothing of 2000 years of expert scholarship and philosophical thinking on the subject, doggedly clinging to those parts for which the assembled might of justification boils down to "It just says so, for some reason" is kind of pointless.

But right now, that's not the issue. The issue is the sheer vehemence with which the Catholic Church condemns homosexuality. I've spoken about this before, but to reiterate: it seems completely insane to me. The degree of condemnation they heap on abortion I can at least understand; even if I strongly disagree that it's murder, I can understand why those that think it is get so outraged about it. But homosexuality? Really? That's what we need to focus our attention on? 'Cos this seems like kind of an odd hill to make your stand on. [1]

My point is this. If the Catholic Church dismisses anyone from their employ when they discover they've lied, or been mean to their mother, or screamed "JESUS CHRIST!" after dropping a paperweight on their toe, then their argument here would actually make some sense. If you want to be in the club, you follow the rules. For some reason, though, despite the above three examples all being violations of the Ten Commandments, which I seem to remember being quite important (though that might just be Charlton Heston's delivery of them), it's kind of hard to imagine any of them being firing offences. Certainly - though I'm not up on my employment law, so I'm happy to be corrected - one imagines that trying to fire someone once you realise they've lied about something (that didn't materially effect their job, of course) isn't something you'd put much money on working.

The only partial defence of the Church's position would be to point out that the above trangressions could be atoned for; that those who commit them would then seek the absolution of the confessional, whereas a practising homosexual would neither stop sinning nor apologise to God for what they've done. Again, though, there are clearly sufficient Catholics in the world who defy the words of the Bible and do not believe they need to atone for it (wearing two types of cloth, working on the Sabbath, you know; insert appropriate West Wing scene here) that this defence essentially comes down to "We've decided which bits of the Bible to ignore, and which ones to follow so fanatically that we'll allow no-one to violate them within our employ, irrespective of the law of the land or the clear inoffensiveness of the trangression in question".

The Catholic Church is wrong by our lights for believing homosexual activity is wrong. But it's wrong by its own lights, or at least wildly inconsistent in an area (crime and punishment as defined by Almighty God) where coherent positions are probably pretty important, both for choosing a baffling order for the severity of sins and for its inconsistency in how it enforces Biblical law amongst its employees.

I think it's that latter part that they need to be reminded of.

[1] Perhaps unsurprisingly, this latest reminder that the muckety mucks at the Vatican don't want teh gays to have any fun has led to a number of people (on internet forums, at least, so I don't want to imply it's gotten any further than that) that any organisation so plagues by accusations of child abuse might want to STFU about what is and isn't moral. Well, the Catholic church's attitude to those allegations - and the attendant evidence of their accuracy - is justifiably considered a disgrace (and more on that below), but even so I get nervous around the argument that this automatically implies nothing the Catholic Church says about morality is worth listening to Again, to understand the situation you have to understand the Catholic viewpoint. A pederast who confesses and repents is forgiven. A homosexual who refuses to confess continues to bear the mark of their sin. That much is entirely consistent with their own particular slant on the world, so to argue it invalidates their pronouncements on morality purely because they have starting precepts that differ from ours seems a tad unconsidered.

No, what erodes the church's moral authority isn't that the Catholic Church believes that homosexuality is a sin, it's that they apparently believe that priests who commit sins that are also illegal should be protected from legal punishment once they atone. The fact that homosexuality is viewed as wrong is baffling. The fact that the Catholic Church prefer repentant pederasts to defiant homosexuals is ludicrous. But only the fact that the Church believes itself above the laws of society strikes me as moving past non-Catholic vs. Catholic philosophies and into objectively and disgustingly immoral and wrong. You don't get to skip out on jail time because you don't think God is pissed at you any more. Even so, though, my point in all this is that whilst their attempts to shield such priests from punishment is clearly wrong, it isn't actually inconsistent with the way they view sin and punishment, so whilst they really need to knock this cover-up shit off
right now, I'd be careful about suggesting that they automatically can't know morality from a hole in the ground.


Tomsk said...

The reason I find his complaints hard to stomach is that the law, as I understand it, goes out of its way to allow religions to discriminate against homosexuality when employing priests or other religious positions. Why has this been allowed? Basically it's conceding that the church is above the law.

Senior Spielbergo said...

I'm not going to actually comment on this matter except to point out to Tomsk that what he has just said is clearly a contradiction. If the law says something is allowed then clearly this CAN'T be conceding that someone is above the law. That would be the equivalent of saying that if you include a statute defence in a piece of legislation, or any exception at all those that fall within that are "above the law". By way of simple and hopefully non controversial example, emergency services are exempt from many road traffic laws, this is not placing them above the law, this is placing their activities firmly within the law and done so deliberately.

Basically a better turn of phrase is required.

Tomsk said...

Yes, fair enough, I concede that that sentence is above logic. It was nearly teatime!

SpaceSquid said...

I agree with S. Spielbergo on a pedantic level (always one of my favourite levels). A legal exemption is only as worthy as those to whom it applies, and why it has been made, but it's a different beast to being above the law.

Having said that, there seems no real practical distinction between a state in which one is allowed to break a given law, and one in which one is granted exemption from that law from the moment it is passed, so on every level other than the etymological, I think Tomsk is essentially right.

Whether or not such exemptions are uniformly bad, though, I'm not sure. I remember that fuss from a few years ago about a law banning motorcycle helmets in banks, but still allowing burqas. In that case, you had three options. 1) Allow helmets (increasing the risk of bank raids). 2) Ban both helmets and burqas from banks (arguably adding an extra degree of separation between mainstream society and various Muslim groups, and making it even harder for Muslim women from that group to exist apart from male influence/dominance). 3) Ban one and not the other.

It's not at all clear to me that 3) isn't the best choice. But then that's a situation in which the issues at stake are cultural intergration and female independence vs. violent crime. This current issue is about equal rights vs. how hard the Catholic church finds it to fire sinners who have committed no actual crime.

Tomsk said...

Exemptions are fine providing they benefit society in some way, e.g. it's obviously beneficial to allow ambulance drivers to go through red lights. Whereas it's not clear that banning burqas in banks benefits society when they are not being used to my knowledge in violent crime.

You could argue that it benefits society to have the anti-discrimination exemption because it gives the legislation a greater chance of being enacted and therefore improving most, if not all, of society. However, seeing as the pope is kicking up a fuss even though there is an exemption, it's not clear to me how it's benefiting society now (except that, presumably, he'd be kicking up an even bigger fuss without it).

SpaceSquid said...

"Exemptions are fine providing they benefit society in some way, e.g. it's obviously beneficial to allow ambulance drivers to go through red lights. Whereas it's not clear that banning burqas in banks benefits society when they are not being used to my knowledge in violent crime."

Agreed, though of course it doesn't seem thoroughly unreasonable to argue that if one bans motorcycle helmets to prevent bank raids, but explicitly allow something else that could be used as a disguise; those that planned to rob bikes disguised as motorbike messengers will now simply do so disguised as Muslim women. Of course, one could simply argue we wait to see if there is a rash of burqa-clad Bonnie and Clyde wannabees, rather than legislating about it immediately.

"However, seeing as the pope is kicking up a fuss even though there is an exemption, it's not clear to me how it's benefiting society now."

There's an exemption for whether Catholics have to hire practising homosexuals as priests. This is about whether they would have to hire them in other roles in the Church but outside the clergy. So whether or not the previous exemption is a good idea, this is a discussion about something else.

In the end, I think it comes down to this. It is beneficial to society for all people to be treated equally. It is beneficial to society for people to practice their religious faith freely. So how does one deal with the situations where the two contradict each other?

For example, one could conceive of a situation where, say, a teenager playing his stereo as loudly and frequently as a Muslim call to prayer might be hit with an ASBO. Given the alternatives of outlawing a major part of the Islamic faith and letting some snotty-nosed bastard piss me off with today's modern music that all the kids like even though it's just noise (I love being 30), the apparent double standard seems like the best option.

In other words, what's more important? That practising homosexuals are given the legal right to work wherever they choose? That religious groups are allowed to the freedom to run their organisations in a manner compatible with their beliefs (even if, on this matter, their beliefs are baffling and deeply unpleasant)? And are either so important that we can't find a balance between the two with a legal exemption?

Of course, the Pope isn't calling for a new exemption, he's demanding the law be thrown out in its entirety, but I can well believe that that is simple political kabuki.