Jim McCormick: The ability to listen marks great leadership
After a week of turmoil, writes Jim McCormick, the Catholic hierarchy must stop lecturing others
This has been described as a watershed week for Catholics in Scotland. And it ought to be. The Scottish Government has confirmed it will legislate for same-sex marriage. But the words of Glasgow’s new Archbishop-elect following a lecture in April have provided the real focus.
By inferring that the premature death of Labour MP David Cairns was linked to his sexuality, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia was probably thinking out loud, not intentionally seeking to open up another line of debate in the Church’s view of homosexuality.
But they were made at a public event, recorded, shared on the web and so mark a truly dreadful start to his leadership of Scotland’s biggest Catholic diocese. What’s worse is his plan is to keep on digging. An apology for causing offence to a grieving family is far from the genuine act of contrition we were taught to make as children. Where do the week’s events leave Catholics in Scotland?
The honest answer is we don’t know, because there are so few tests of Catholic opinion.
The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has offered snapshots, indicating for example that Catholic opinions on same-sex marriage are more varied and less distinct from other Scots than we might expect.
I have heard callers to a radio phone-in programme question the survey methods used, since the answer doesn’t square with their beliefs. And I expect some Church leaders to conclude this reveals only that Scottish Catholics include those who are lapsed and who identify with their upbringing in only a cultural sense. Strip them out of the analysis, and we’re left with a smaller, robust core of Mass-going “true believers”.
The trouble with this view is that it allows the Church to avoid an inconvenient truth – that among its faithful are many who feel offended, disappointed and disorientated by events.
I am still a practising Catholic, the same generation as David Cairns, and brought up a few miles away. I’ve watched all but a handful of friends turn away from the Church. A few return when their children arrive. At Mass, we’re asked to reach out and encourage them back.
On many issues of economic and social justice, along with other Christian churches and other faiths, the Catholic Church has a strong story to tell. But on same-sex relationships – especially when the issue is personalised so carelessly – what kind of approach is being offered?
No-one expects the Catholic Church to approve of same-sex marriage. But I do expect the Church to participate in a respectful debate with other faith groups, including those which are able to reconcile their belief in God with their blessing of same-sex couples.
When Nicola Sturgeon says there will be safeguards to ensure freedom of expression on the issue, and protection for faiths who don’t wish to take part, call me naïve – I believe we should take her at her word. As the MSP for Glasgow Southside, with large numbers of Catholic and Muslim voters, she will be aware of why this matters.
My own watershed moment on this came a few months ago when postcards were being handed out in our parish explaining why Catholics wanted the Scottish Government to drop its proposal.
These were to be filled in and submitted as part of the consultation. I didn’t take one. And it’s only now that I can properly say why. As Joyce McMillan argued on these pages yesterday, it’s one thing to refuse a Nuptial Mass for same-sex couples – but quite another to seek to deny them the chance to marry outside the Church. Rather than wishing same-sex relationships didn’t exist, the Church should have an interest in these being loving and stable.
We’re invited as Catholics to see this as an assault on marriage as we know it, yet I cannot reconcile the tone and scale of the Church’s opposition with the likely modest, positive impact of this reform.
We’re urged to be vigilant about what our children will be taught. I will teach my daughter that God made people different but equal in his own image and that our laws should reflect this. That some people love someone of the same sex and that they have should have a right to marry as well.
I hope she will grasp the radical message of Jesus when she grows up – and that we are called to follow it as best we can even if we disagree with how Church leaders interpret it. Meanwhile, the Archbishop-elect could show true leadership meeting with the partner and family of David Cairns to offer a personal apology and learn more about the man’s work.
Looking further afield, there are no shortage of conflicts to face up to. This week saw the first prosecution of a leading figure in the American Catholic Church for covering-up child abuse. The psychological effects of abuse by priests in Europe will continue long after recent safe-guarding rules came into effect. Contrast the known, evidenced, scale of abuse perpetrated from within the Church’s own ranks with random, confused assertions about the health impacts of being gay. To expect a full and frank response to abuse is not playing into an anti-Catholic agenda – as some elements in the Church still see it – but applying basic principles of justice. Looking to developing countries, the Catholic position on the safe use of birth control is unethical as well as unworkable. Where the Church sees contraception as stopping the creation of life, almost all Catholics I know understand this to be about slowing down the transmission of death.
The Church needs to listen as well as to lead. To recognise diversity within its own ranks. To atone for its errors. To show respect when it seeks respect. But in the end, a journey of faith is personal not hierarchical. We can make it with or without our Church leaders.
• Jim McCormick is an independent public policy adviser
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