Melanie McDonagh makes a decent small-c conservative case against gay marriage based on a traditional procreation-based definition of marriage. This is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go quite as far as she, or other defenders of "traditional" marriage suggest it does. In the first place, as Stephen Hough reminds us in an admirable piece at the Telegraph, the Catholic Church itself has altered its views on marriage:
One problem is that the argument about the meaning and ends of marriage has changed. The Church altered its teaching from the mid-20th century onwards away from the traditional ‘procreation first, relationship second’ to an equal billing for the two. Pope John Paul II was a key thinker in this shift of official opinion when he was still a mere priest teaching in Poland – a hundred years ago he would have been considered a heretic for his views. But people now, at least in the West, primarily choose their partners based on love, companionship and compatibility. That is not going to change.
No it is not. And once this societal shift has been accepted it becomes more difficult to deny same-sex couples the rights and responsibilities of commitment previously reserved for heterosexual couples. As Douglas Murray (and David Cameron) argue, this is a conservative basis for gay marriage.
Besides, it is nonsense to consider marriage some constant, immutable institution. Indeed in many respects gay marriage has more in common with heterosexual marriage now than contemporary heterosexual marriages do with nineteenth century heterosexual marriages. Changing societal norms have seen to that. Women are no longer viewed as property; they have agency themselves. This, in many ways, is just as great a change in the definition and practice of marriage as anything proposed by campaigners for gay marriage. Indeed, one could argue that given the percentage of the population affected by these changes, the twentieth century’s evolving understanding of hetereosexual marriage marked a much greater change than anything proposed now.
Nor, despite what some commenters seem to think, do I think it wrong for Cardinal Keith O’Brien to say his piece. On the contrary, I have no wish to infringe upon his speech-rights (this will comfort him. I’m sure). But nor is there any suggestion that catholics will be compelled to recognise homosexual unions; rather there is a suggestion that catholic ideology should not determine the state’s definition of marriage. There is no great danger, I believe, in drawing a sharper distinction between religious and civil marriage and to the extent gay unions assist in this process then so much the better.
Catholics (or muslims or anyone else) may continue to believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that, whatever the state may say, homosexual unions are separate and not quite equal. There is, I think, no expectation that catholic clergymen be compelled to recognise gay marriages any more than they are expected to officiate at protestant weddings. What is true of the church is true for individuals too: you may place a mental asterisk next to any homosexual union even as others consider them different but equal.
Brendan O’Neill, meanwhile, spies all this as an elite plot against proles and rednecks:
The speed and ease with which gay marriage has gone from being a tiny minority concern to become the No 1 battle in the modern culture wars has been truly remarkable – and revealing.
What it suggests is that gay marriage is more a tool of the elite than it is a demand of the demos. The thing motoring the gay-marriage campaign, its political engine, is not any longstanding desire among homosexuals to get married or an active, passionate demand from below for the right of men to marry men and women to marry women. No, its driving force, the reason it has been so speedily and heartily embraced by the political and media classes, is because it is so very useful as a litmus test of liberal, cosmopolitan values. Supporting gay marriage has become a kind of shorthand way of indicating one’s superiority over the hordes, particularly those of a religious or redneck persuasion.
Perhaps. Missing from this class-based analysis, mind you, is any attempt to decide whether gay marriage is a good thing or not. Brendan seems to suggest that because it may not be the talk of the Dog and Duck it must be some elite conspiracy. Well, again, perhaps. But what if the elites are right?
For that matter, the marriage-movement is not quite as recent as he suggests. It is at least 20 years old and while this is, in some respects, the mere blink of an eye it is also, viewed from another perspective, the result of a long campaign. Alternatively, you might see it as the culmination of a near 50 year campaign, dating from the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Because once the state accepted – and thank god it did – homosexuality as an unusual but normal fact of life then it perhaps became only a matter of time before the state was forced to grapple with how to recognise or otherwise deal with homosexual relationships. Once the closet door was opened, other changes were bound to follow; once homosexual acts were deemed valid, how could the state, in all conscience, deny the validity of homosexual relationships?
(In a different-yet-related example of how this process works, consider how anti-miscegenation laws in the United States failed to survive the 1960s; once black people were considered, in law, full members of society sustaining state-sponsored discriminatory marriage laws became impossible. The parallel is not exact but remains useful.)
Gay marriage is, by definition, a minority pursuit and enthusiasm. But the state has a duty to protect the rights of minorities even, perhaps especially, when the majority is indifferent or even hostile to those rights. In this instance this is a matter of recognising, valuing and, yes, protecting commitment and love. Why should heterosexuals be afraid of that?Tags: Britain, Gay Marriage, Gay Rights