Promoting Intolerance

Two days ago, the Catholic bishops of Scotland released a statement on the subject of ‘Conversion therapy’ – this is a particularly thorny topic because it is widely perceived be be deeply coercive in nature, placing heavy burdens upon the subject and causing them deep psychological harm. The media have previously interviewed a number of people who have experienced it, and their accounts are generally disturbing and distressing, and quite harrowing to listen to. The broad aim of this practice is to change the sexuality of a person. It is, I think, debatable whether or not any authentic ‘therapy’ is involved.

The statement from the bishops was in response to the publication of a report by the Scottish Government, whose website notes“This report is the result of the work of the Expert Advisory group on Ending Conversion Practices and informs the Scottish Government on the measures which should be considered in order to end conversion practices in Scotland which aim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The statement from the bishops shocked me for a number of reasons.

The first reason for my shock was that while the statement opens with “the Church is pastorally sensitive to the experience of people who identify as homosexual” – those people are not really mentioned in any meaningful way after this first line. The statement is really not about them at all – it is about the Church protecting its own position on the matter of conversion therapy. It seems to me that if the very people at the centre of the debate are not referenced, then something rather crucial has been lost and any argument put forward on this basis is simply without meaning.

Alongside this, I’m not sure I actually agree with this line from the bishops because I don’t think it is borne out in reality. Certainly, there are many priests – and no doubt, bishops also – who are genuinely pastorally sensitive to the needs of gay people on an individual basis; and the views of the present Holy Father are fairly well known in this area. And yet despite this, the official position of the Church in her teachings says something quite different; as well as describing gay people as ‘intrinsically disordered’, the Church does not allow gay men to be accepted as candidates for priesthood. This latter point seems quite at odds with numerous media reports concerning the very many priests and bishops whose activities in this regard within their private lives do not reflect that official position.

There have also been – indeed, there still are – many bishops whose views on the subject of gay people can only be described as medieval, a view sometimes reflected in the broader ‘Catholic consciousness’ seen and heard in the pews. A quick trawl of social media clarifies that there are persistent views expressed even today which are anything but Catholic or Christian in nature. While that consciousness is undoubtedly changing to some extent these days and reflecting a far greater degree of simple compassion among the laity, the bishops still have quite a way to go. Last year, for example, bishops in America refused funding for a suicide telephone helpline because it was directed toward helping young gay men. More locally, I can think of several present and recently-past bishops who have made their views – quite wicked views, in my opinion – widely known. One local archbishop was forced to make a public apology after making some seriously disrespectful and altogether untrue comments following the death of one gay man. And many will remember the case of Cardinal O’Brien – viciously opposed to gay marriage and other gay-related matters in his public pronouncements, which hid his private hypocrisy in precisely the same areas, where his personal behaviour was not at all what might reasonably be expected of someone in that position. Not surprisingly, his case and it’s inherent hypocrisy did incalculable damage to the Church in Scotland, damage which continues to this day. And yet despite this, I recently heard one priest, referring to this, minimising it by calling it “shenanigans”.

The second reason for my shock at the bishops’ statement was that while loudly and publicly decrying the Government report, they offered no counter argument, no moral argument about why they consider ‘conversion therapy’ to be a good thing.

Instead, they offered nothing except a menu fear about what would happen if the Report was accepted by the Scottish Government –

“If accepted, legal counsel has warned that they would outlaw pastoral care, prayer, parental guidance and advice relating to sexual orientation, expression of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, other than that which is deemed by the state to constitute ‘affirmative care’ .. Would criminalise mainstream religious pastoral care, parental guidance, and medical or other professional intervention .. could criminalise the Church’s teaching about God’s creation of the human person as male and female and the meaning of sex as within marriage, and that anyone who proposes this teaching to someone with same sex attraction or gender identity issues would face sanctions .. Priests could be banned from working in Scotland, the Church could lose its charitable status, and classroom and pastoral teachers could lose their jobs .. There would be uncertainty about the future of Catholic schools and children could be taken away from their parents..”

With their collective wisdom, pastoral experience, education and personal ability – was this really the only argument the bishops could think to offer? I would have expected something far better and much more convincing.

I recall similar lists being put forward by the bishops in the not-so distant past – I am thinking especially of the debates around the odious Section 28 some years ago, and also those arguments the bishops issued against gay marriage. On those occasions – and, I suspect, on this occasion also – their fears were groundless; moral depravity did not ensue, society did not collapse and the world kept turning. And all the while, civil society – pluralistic, multi-cultural and multi-faceted, comprised of all faiths and none – moved forward whilst the Church remained deeply entrenched, circling it’s own wagons.

It is hard not to conclude this list of fears from the bishops was fully and deliberately intended as a dog-whistle to encourage the support of the masses in the pews, preferably in the absence of any critical thinking and without anything other than blind support. The thing is – I’m not sure that support is there now anywhere near as much as it was present before.

Amongst all this, the bishops – here, as much as elsewhere – have forgotten one very central point. They have lost their moral authority. Or to be more accurate, they discarded their former moral authority with deliberate abandon as a result of the past thirty years of clerical abuse and the hierarchical cover-up of this. Throughout, the bishops across the world collectively decided to protect the Church, her reputation and her finances at the enormous expense of the people who were so viciously hurt by priests, bishops, cardinals and popes. This evil continues to the present day. Even now, dioceses are more concerned about protecting their wealth and their property portfolios rather than listening to and supporting those whose lives have been devastated by the incredible evil of abuse and it’s subsequent silencing and cover-up.

And make no mistake – any improvements effected over the last thirty years have come about not because of an ecclesial change of heart, but purely because of pressure applied from outwith the Church as an institution. There is an incredibly perceptive and incisive article which was published yesterday in the National Catholic Reporter which touches on this subject and which every Catholic should read whilst considering all these issues.

Today, I see an institutional Church and hierarchy which is bereft of any genuine compassion for gay people. There are lone voices within the hierarchy who are speaking out against this, certainly, but the institution is not changing and cannot even contemplate the possibility of any change. It seems to me that while it is not within my competence to determine what the Church should or should not teach, still I would suggest this a is a good moment to look again not only at what the Church teaches, but why it teaches it, taking into account all the current societal, psychological and scientific expert opinions which would help to form an opinion on these matters’ and then, having done all this, to present their conclusions to the laity in a way that is both coherent and compassionate. And perhaps above all else, to live out in private what they preach in public.

Just this week statistics were released which noted a more-than 50% decline in Mass attendance across Scotland. That fall is not related simply to the effects of the pandemic but has roots which are much deeper and far, far broader – and which, I would suggest, are closely related to the widening disconnect between the lived-reality of ordinary peoples’ lives, and what the Church presents as it’s official moral code  – and beyond which it seems unable to see anything else.

The statement from the bishops concludes by quoting the Holy Father, who spoke about “ideological totalitarianism that promotes intolerance towards those who dissent from certain positions .. an overall regression of humanity, with the violation of freedom of thought and freedom of conscience”.

For me personally, I saw those words applying not to the world or to any ideology, but to the Church itself.

And that is a serious problem.


Catholic | Retired Nurse | UK

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