Bible not the rule book on same-sex marriage

The Book of Genesis offers magnificent literature but should not be used to perpetuate painful discrimination. By Vincent Browne.

Diarmuid Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, was asked last week for his views on same-sex marriage. The question arose in the aftermath of the support Barack Obama voiced for same-sex marriage.

Diarmuid Martin said the (Catholic) church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage between man and woman was clear, unchangeable and dated from the biblical account in the Book of Genesis of Adam and Eve.

It is disappointing that one of the few senior Catholic clerics who retain significant public respect across the community should use such arguments in favour of a discrimination that is the cause of much pain and belittlement among a minority of society.

What is or is not Catholic Church “teaching” is neither here nor there in the context of public debate on public issues. Catholic “teaching” has or ought to have no traction in public debate, just as Islamic “teaching”, Marxist “teaching”, or any “teaching” should have.

Some of these may be illuminating on the moral or political issues in question, but have no determinative value in themselves. This is because in public debate we seek to deploy arguments that, we hope, might have universal appeal across society, arguments based on principles that we presume all agree upon, such as freedom of speech, at least a minimal commitment to the idea of equality, to democratic values, to respect for others.

It is possible that the Catholic Church has arguments against same-sex marriage that do not depend on being “teachings” but rather are of merit in themselves, in which case they deserve to be weighed with other arguments in public debate (I have not heard such arguments).

Unfortunately, Diarmuid Martin did not proffer such arguments, but instead appealed to an “authority” that is also off-limits in public discourse: a religious text which, for many, including members of his church, carries no weight at all. And with good reason.

As literature, the opening verses of the Book of Genesis are magnificent: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.’ So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault ‘sky’. And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day.”

Genesis contains also the great stories that shaped our childhoods: Noah and his ark, the story of Abraham, Jacob and his brother Esau, the adventures of Joseph. The story I like best is that of Jacob wrestling with an angel, which has been the subject of great paintings by Rembrandt, Delacroix, Chagall and others.

But there are elements of Genesis which, I think, most of us nowadays would find morally and politically repulsive. The claim in Genesis that the creation of woman was a second thought of God, merely to bring joy to the life of the first man, Adam; the story of Eve corrupting Adam and consigning humankind to life outside paradise and then the specific admonishment of Eve and of all women in Chapter 3, verse 16: “I will greatly increase your pain in childbearing, in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you”; the story of the (supposedly) first and second genocides – the flood and the destruction of Sodom; the approval of slavery; the stigma attached to women who could not bear children, thereby frustrating the divine instruction to be fruitful and multiply; the contemplation by Abraham to offer his wife as a sex slave to the Egyptian pharaoh. And much more.

Yes, of course these stories are apocryphal, but they have been treated down the centuries as the word of God, written by one of God’s most favoured humans, Moses, and therefore they have an electricity that normal fiction lacks, as represented by the claim by Diarmuid Martin that Genesis should shape our understanding and moral perspectives on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Diarmuid Martin has some prominent allies on his views on same-sex marriage. The pope has warned against the “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage” and he has urged US Catholic bishops to ensure traditional marriage would be “defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature”. The cardinal archbishop of New York warned Obama that support for same-sex marriage could “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions”.

Although Diarmuid Martin is personally exempt from this charge, wouldn’t you think that the institution that has been exposed as so comprehensively compromised morally on its persistent complicity in the sexual abuse and rape of children might, for a while at least, have the self-realisation and humility to remain silent on what they perceive as moral issues? {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: Bob Jenkin.