Gay marriage is not the same as Scottish independence

Cardinal Keith O’Brien – the man who handed the equal marriage campaign a massive PR boost with his hysterical “legalising same-sex marriage, that’s a bit like legalising slavery” rant earlier this year – has been speaking out again on what is, apparently, the only topic in contemporary Scotland that matters to him.  Not for him any of that wishy-washy concern for the poor, for the sick, for prisoners, for refugees – you know, those people he and every other Christian are expressly charged by Christ in the gospels to care for as though they were Christ himself.  No, for Cardinal O’Brien the public face of Christianity is all about denying rights to LGBT people – something that Christ didn’t mention once in his entire earthly ministry.  Anyway it would seem that, perhaps surprisingly for a man so deeply in thrall to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of the world, the cardinal’s ideas have developed over recent weeks.

Back in March, he was adamant that marriage equality was a categorical, absolute evil, something that violated God’s law, and must not be allowed to happen in any circumstances.  Now it seems that he believes that the decision should be placed in the hands of the Scottish people via a referendum:

Let all those who have a view on this subject place their trust in the Scottish people and let Scotland decide.

Goodness, it’s almost as though he’s conceded that civil marriage is a secular matter that should be decided by secular means, and not according to the decree of a cardinal who doesn’t even speak for the majority of his own flock (scroll to Table 4 at the link).  The cardinal has also vouchsafed this little titbit of thought:

Clearly, if it is sensible to hold a referendum on Independence, it is crucial that we have one on marriage.

Fascinating as it is to gain an insight into what is ‘clear’ to a member of the Catholic priesthood (an institution that seems not entirely sure what happens to dead babies), this is obviously not true.

The key difference between Scottish independence and same-sex marriage is, of course, that independence will affect every single person living in Scotland, while same-sex marriage will affect only those same-sex couples who wish to marry.  No Catholic will be forced to enter into a gay marriage, just as no Catholic is forced to enter into a straight marriage.  The Catholic church will remain free to refuse to marry same-sex couples, just as it is currently free to refuse to marry opposite-sex couples who do not meet its criteria for marriage, even though such couples are entitled to civil marriages.  It will retain its freedom to teach that same-sex desires are ‘disordered’ and that same-sex marriage is contrary to the will of God.  The personal freedoms of individual Catholics and the institutional freedoms of the Catholic church will not be affected one iota.

Now, it’s a matter of clear precedent that the right to vote in UK referendums is only extended to the population that will be affected by the proposal in question.  There’s a very good reason for this, since it would be obviously unfair if the clear and unambiguous view of the people who will be affected by a change were to be overridden by people who would be unaffected.  That’s why the right to vote in the referendum that established the Scottish parliament was extended only to Scottish voters; English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters didn’t get to express their view because they wouldn’t be affected by the proposed change.  The same is true of local referendums on directly-elected mayors in England – only those voters who will be affected by the proposed change get to vote on it.  And since only same-sex couples who wish to marry will be affected by the proposal to permit same-sex marriage, it follows that any referendum on same-sex marriage should consult only same-sex couples who wish to marry.

As it happens, the Scottish people are strongly in favour of same-sex marriage, as this table taken from the report of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2010 makes clear:


Fully 61% either agree or agree strongly with the statement that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry, with only 19% disagreeing or disagreeing strongly.  This begs the interesting question of why Cardinal O’Brien is proposing a referendum he would seem certain to lose.  The answer, of course, is differential turnout.  The cardinal believes that amongst the small fraction of the electorate who will turn out to vote, those who are opposed will outnumber those who are in favour – and is planning to amass a fortune to ensure he is successful in his attempt to subvert meaningful democracy.

For all his talk of allowing the people of Scotland to decide, the cardinal is no democrat.  He is seeking, as the unelected head of a minority religion, to force everyone in Scotland to live according to his strictures, whether or not they endorse them.  He is not interested in a live-and-let-live Scotland, where people are free to make decisions that affect only themselves in accordance with their own conscience.

It is not enough for him that he will be able to order every Catholic in Scotland to avoid same-sex marriage, and will be free to excommunicate any who refuse to obey the instruction; it is not enough for him that he will be free to condemn same-sex marriage in the strongest terms; it is not enough that the rights and freedoms of individual Catholics or of the Catholic church will not be affected to the tiniest degree.  None of that is enough, because it is not the power to control the Catholic church that matters to him.  What matters to him is that he should be able to dictate to all of us – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – how we may organise our own personal lives, what freedoms we should enjoy and which should be forbidden to us by papal decree.

Of course, the big problem for Cardinal O’Brien is that there are so many people who do not share the Catholic hierarchy’s ultra-conservative attitudes on questions of sexual morality – just ask the many Catholics who use contraception, and the ordinary Catholic priests who know all about it.  And outside the Catholic church?  Well, there the cardinal may find he has an even bigger problem.  He may find that, out here, the Catholic church’s moral authority is yet to recover from the discovery that it spent decades nurturing and protecting men who raped children, while threatening their victims with eternal damnation if they ever breathed a word to anyone.  He may find that an organisation still tainted by the suspicion that senior clergy did not regard paedophilic rape as all that big a deal has a hard time being taken seriously when it declares that two adults promising to love, honour and protect each other is the quintessence of evil.

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