Sunday, 27 January 2013

Aux barricades, citoyens

Catholic Voices noted on 9th January that the engagement of the Catholic Church in France in the political debate on same sex marriage has taken a different pattern than has the corresponding debate here in the United Kingdom: On gay marriage, we have much to learn from France.

Whilst the opposition of the Catholic Bishops of France to Francois Hollande's proposed legislation cannot be in doubt, the leadership of the huge "manif pour tous" demonstrations on 17th November of last year and, more recently, on 13th January this year has not been explicitly Catholic in nature. When Cardinal Barbarin (Lyons) supported a march against same sex marriage in his own city, he was reported as saying that he was present, not as a bishop, but as a citizen. Cardinal Vingt-Trois attended the start of one of the three marches in Paris on 13th January to indicate his support, but did not join the march itself saying that, as a Bishop, he had other ways of making his views known to the government. Indeed, the "manif pour tous" movement has succeeded in maintaining a type of neutrality with regard to specificity of religious, social or political affiliation. There is a counterpart in the United Kingdom to the "manif pour tous" of France, and that is the Coalition for Marriage, an organisation which in a similar way brings together different supporters of marriage properly understood. And what corresponds to the street demonstrations in France is the petition opposing David Cameron's proposed legislation, with over 600 000 signatures.

The approach taken by the French bishops reflects a sensitivity towards the laicite (separation) characteristic of the relationship between Church and state in France. However, I think it also reflects the difference in office (in the theological sense) between those Catholics who form part of the ordained hierarchy and those Catholics who are the lay faithful. It is the lay faithful who have the first responsibility for activity that takes Catholic teaching into the social and political fields; it is an "office" that belongs properly, though not exclusively, to them and in which they have a certain priority over the clergy (that is, if they do not fulfil it, the clergy of the nature of things are not going to be able to make up the lack).

It is interesting in this context to read the Decree on the Lay Apostolate of the Second Vatican Council, n.7 (my italics added):
The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere. As citizens they must cooperate with other citizens with their own particular skill and on their own responsibility. Everywhere and in all things they must seek the justice of God's kingdom. The temporal order must be renewed in such a way that, without detriment to its own proper laws, it may be brought into conformity with the higher principles of the Christian life ...
There is a similar passage to be found in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n.43:
Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to laymen. Therefore acting as citizens in the world, whether individually or socially, they will keep the laws proper to each discipline, and labor to equip themselves with a genuine expertise in their various fields. They will gladly work with men seeking the same goals. Acknowledging the demands of faith and endowed with its force, they will unhesitatingly devise new enterprises, where they are appropriate, and put them into action. Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.
What is very apparent on the French scene, partly because of historical circumstances both political and ecclesial, and perhaps only implicit amongst traditionalist Catholics from time to time in the UK, is a tendency that might be covered by the term integrism. This is a tendency which seeks an absolute identity between the Catholic Church and one particular line of political action. I, for example, have a certain wariness about those who might lobby members of the Bishops Conference to a greater mobilisation of Catholics towards a particular political action; and a similar wariness about those who suggest that Catholics should write to Catholic MPs who are seen as intending to support legislation on same sex marriage reminding them of Catholic teaching on the matter.

This is not to say that Bishops do not have a role as far as legislation on same sex marriage is concerned. That role is to present clearly (and in this day and age that does include the use of the media of social communications in addition to the more immediate pastoral tools of preaching and pastoral letters) Catholic teaching on marriage according to natural law and to divine revelation. It also extends to identifying a particular legislative proposal as being incompatible with Catholic teaching and therefore such that it should not be supported by Catholics. In the United Kingdom, some of our Bishops have fulfilled this role well in recent months.

But the first responsibility for a political mobilisation rests with the lay faithful, and the lay faithful, not under the category of Catholic as such, but as (Catholics who are also) citizens. The activity of Frigide Barjot in France and of Rocco Buttiglione in Italy are good examples of exactly this. Reminding Catholic MPs about Catholic teaching is not really to the point; in their political office, it is the activity of citizens to which they will rightly respond and not a "Catholic lobby". And the more this weekend's exercise in sending postcards to local MPs can be seen as a mobilisation of citizens/electors and the less that it is seen as "signing a card at the back of Church because Father said to do so" the more effective it will be.

To the barricades, O citizens!

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