Marriage is my thing

Joanna Bogle, the well-known Catholic journalist, gives a personal view of the growing culture of intolerance that appears to make Christian teaching on marriage not merely unwelcome in many quarters but possibly illegal

Marriage is my thing. I don't just mean I'm married and plan to stay that way - though that is the case. I mean that as a Catholic journalist, author and broadcaster, I've made it one of the topics on which I write and speak.

I follow up stories concerning the latest research and statistics on marriage. I'm interested in social trends concerning marriage - both here in Britain, in Europe, and in the rest of the world. I take part in debates on the subject in the mass media. I talk about it in schools. I'm the editor of a paperback [Engaged to be Married, Gracewing, 2001] produced by a Catholic women's organization and in use by RC marriage preparation groups.

So I've got a problem. I'll come to the details of the problem in a moment. But first I must establish the nature of the thing. When I speak of marriage, I mean the lifelong bond of a man and a woman, as defined in the law of England and Wales and as established in culture, tradition, testimony and canon law by the Church.

The law sets the tone, establishes the basis of the social relationship of marriage and confirms its status in the community. I became aware of this in a particular way. When I married some 25 years ago, it was in a Roman Catholic Church, but due to a falling-out between the local registration authority and our parish priest which had occurred a year or two earlier, it was necessary for brides from our parish to go to the local Register Office and arrange personally for someone to come along to the ceremony to witness the legal side of things and sign the relevant papers. I expected this to be a quick matter of a phone call - but discovered this was not the case. Marriage was taken seriously. On arrival at the Register Office, I was ushered into a rather grand office and asked to take a seat.

'Now Marriage under the law of England and Wales is the union of a man and a woman, exclusive of others, for life,' said the kindly, rather serious official in front of me. 'Can you confirm that you understand this?' And with a seriousness that I had not known I would feel, and a sense of solemnity, I answered 'Yes.'

I appreciated then - and appreciate now - the seriousness with which the matter was approached. As he proceeded to explain to me what I needed to know (including the information that, when making my vows, I must speak loudly enough for the registrar, sitting in the front pew, to hear me), I was very much aware that I was embarking on something that was of huge legal and social as well as personal and spiritual significance. I have never forgotten it, and that spring day in 1980 is as etched on my mind as the later September day when Jamie and I made our vows together before God with all the glory of a Mozart Mass and bridal finery and hugs and the tears and fun and joy of a family wedding.

So what's my problem? The problem is that by reiterating what I was told by that registrar, let alone what was stated in church and what I know and believe as a Catholic concerning marriage, I could, under certain circumstances, be in legal trouble.

As a Catholic journalist and commentator on these issues, I am - or have been up until now - sometimes invited into schools and colleges to take part in conferences and seminars on marriage and linked issues. And up until now I have welcomed all such opportunities, indeed relished them.

'Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament' [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2360]. In explaining the Christian understanding of marriage - and the fact that it echoes the natural law written into the fabric of our being, and undergirds the law of our country which governs how we are to live - I have been privileged to be part of some excellent classroom discussions, heard some forthright views, been touched by young people's statements of their beliefs and hopes and aspirations.

But under the Sexual Orientation Regulations, effective from 30 April 2007 and passed with minimal parliamentary debate, despite a valiant attempt in the House of Lords to tackle them properly, it is going to be difficult for me to talk about marriage in schools any more, or even to be of much use as a visiting Catholic journalist. The new regulations expressly ban my doing anything which might make pupils of homosexual inclinations uncomfortable. Suggesting - let alone firmly stating - that marriage is, by definition, a bond between a man and a woman, is going to be rather too antagonistic. Affirming the Catholic Church's position on other sexual relationships, including the homosexual one, is going to be trickier still, unless I am prepared (which I'm not) to state that it is possible that the Church is wrong and/or that other opinions on homosexual activity are of equal moral worth and validity, and/or that I recognize that everyone has the right to affirm his or her own sexual desires in his or her own way.

'Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, Tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered'. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved' [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357]. I have never actually quoted this in a school, and have no particular desire to do so. In general, I steer well away from the subject. I'm concerned to communicate the facts about the Church's message on marriage, and/or my own involvement with this as a Catholicjournalist. But if the issue comes up ('Well, what d'ya think about, like, gays, then?'), I am certainly prepared to quote the Catechism and to explain that I support its teaching - and I'd probably link the section just quoted with the next, which says, among other things: "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition: for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided' [Catechism 2358]. I might go on to add that such people are not just a 'they' - for among such people are personal friends, people I enormously like and whose company I enjoy.

So what am I to do? Probably, I'm not going to be asked to speak about marriage or relationships much more anyway. I have benefited from a desire in some (not many) schools to attempt to put 'both sides' of the debate on relationships, so getting in someone who has links with the pro-life, Catholic, pro-family, or just vaguely Christian, network has been a way of offering a little more than the usual school-nurse-with-contraceptives deal. It now seems likely this will cease, or gently dry up.

Will there be a test case, getting this whole thing examined in the courts? When details of the Sexual Orientation Regulations were announced, the Catholic Bishops publicly expressed concern about the position of Church adoption societies which cannot, while remaining true to the Church, offer children to homosexual couples who by their lifestyle openly oppose Catholic teaching. It makes the whole point of having a Catholic adoption society pointless. It remains to be seen what, if any, legal steps the Bishops decide to take on that. But there are other, much wider implications to the Regulations.

The stated idea is that people of various 'sexual orientations' should not be denied goods or services'. It was made clear to the Bishops that adoptive children are, in this instance, to be regarded as good and services' and must be offered to practising homosexuals under the law. Denial of goods and services is linked to the notion that people must be free from any sort of harassment - which could include being told, in a classroom, that certain activities are 'intrinsically disordered' or that a marriage with a person of the same sex is simply not recognized by the Catholic Church.

Speaking in schools is only a small part of my work, and journalistic talents can be flexible. I might decide to open up a new area of work by producing materials for weddings - helping with Orders of Service, choosing nice quotes for wedding programmes or menus. If I am then approached by a lesbian couple and politely decline to do business with them, I could be prosecuted, even if I simply find some polite excuse and express it in a pleasant and friendly way, designed not to give offence. If I was helping to run a publication and we chose not to have an advertisement from some organization promoting homosexual marriage, there could be legal consequences. And so on and so on.

These regulations were rushed through Parliament without anything like adequate debate, prompting Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, to protest about the denial of democracy. 'My fear is that, under the guise of legislating for what is said to be tolerance, we are legislating for intolerance. Once this begins, it is hard to see where it ends,' the Cardinal said. 'The question is whether the threads holding together pluralist democracy have begun to unravel. That is why I have sounded this note of alarm.'

The plain fact is that the law now clashes directly with religious freedom, and no exemptions have been granted for church schools, or for independent ones, so the denial of good and wholesome debate on a crucial subject is not confined to state schools but is being imposed on all. And what about, for example, an old people's home run by a Christian group which does not want to treat lesbian and homosexual couples as married?

What do I do? What do any of us do? Shrug, I suppose, and admit that male/female marriage is now a personal thing. Something to be spoken of with confidence only within the confines of our church (they are protected under the law - an echo of the old Soviet legislation which confined all religious activity to church buildings Technically, for the time being at least, the law of England and Wales will continue to affirm that marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman - but will a registrar have quite the same confidence in uttering those words as that nice chap had in saying them to me a quarter of a century ago? He has presumably long since retired, and I expect his successor has been fully trained in officiating at Civil Unions - homosexual marriage in all but name. A Catholic, according to a detailed and useful statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, should not officiate at such a ceremony. But is it likely that any Catholic in modern Britain who tried to affirm his conscientious objection to such duty would get far?

We all know the Church itself is compromised - sinners within its own ranks (those hideous clergy-abuse cases: no use in pointing out that the numbers were tiny, statistically insignificant compared to members of other professions - that's not the point), disloyalty to Church teachings ('Who listens to the Pope anyway?'), confusion among teachers and pastors and even bishops, a desire to fit in with the ways of the world, and not appear right wing or eccentric.

So where do we go from here? The Sexual Orientation Regulations were pushed through into law by a prominent Catholic, Secretary of State Ruth Kelly. She is a member of Opus Dei (I checked with their official spokesman, Andrew Soane, at their London office). If Opus Dei tried to expel her, there would be an outcry: look at this terrible group, ganging up against a defenceless woman and interfering in the freedom of someone in public life to do whatever she believes is right!

Who will come to the defence of another public woman, standing in a classroom or some other public place, stating what she believes is right? Because if you're prepared to do so, contact me. I'd like to go on defending marriage, and it would be useful to find a way to do so.

Joanna Bogle is a Roman Catholic journalist and broadcaster. Her books include A Book of Feasts and Seasons with ideas for things to do, cook, make and sing for the various feasts of the Christian year. She also writes children's books under the pen-name Julia Blythe'

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