01 April 2014, The Tablet

Gay marriage: Egan’s collision course with politicians

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has burst on to the global religious media stage thanks to an interview he gave recently to the anti-abortion website LifeSite News. British parliamentarians who vote for abortion or civil recognition of same-sex nuptials, he said, should be banned from Holy Communion. He has since said that MPs who voted for abortion and “against the family” should withdraw from the Eucharist.

One local Catholic MP, Conor Burns, who holds strong anti-abortion views, has withdrawn from taking Communion in the diocese, having voted for same-sex marriage, because he would not wish the bishop to discipline any priest who offered him Eucharistic hospitality.

This could look like a row among Catholic friends. But these pronouncements were made just ahead of European, local and general elections.

Take the hyper-marginal constituency of Portsmouth South, which is home to Bishop Egan, his cathedral and thousands of Catholic voters. When the sitting MP, Mike Hancock, steps down it is likely that he will be succeeded as Liberal Democrat candidate by the local council leader and vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, Gerald Vernon-Jackson.

Vernon-Jackson, an erstwhile Mass-goer at the Catholic cathedral, is openly gay and recently entered into a civil partnership. Vernon-Jackson also leads a ruling group, many of whose members are up for re-election in marginal wards this May. In this seat, only Ukip has a problem with the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate’s support for gay marriage. Thus far Vernon-Jackson’s pro-gay-marriage stance has not impacted on his popularity, but as the bishop ramps up the heat, the question arises as to whether Egan is trying to instigate a local culture war, or is inadvertently intervening in national politics?

If the latter is the case, it is worth noting that the Diocese of Portsmouth is home to at least four other marginal seats where the Catholic community is more than double the sitting MP’s majority, not to mention being the region from which four of the current Cabinet are elected. Is Egan trying to sway the Catholic vote? Either way, because this region is home to thousands of commuting civil servants and journalists, there is no way the Catholic Church, even if it wanted to, could contain the matter locally.

So given that the Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, and Arundel and Brighton’s Bishop Kieran Conry are responsible for geographies represented by the same MEPs as much of Bishop Egan’s diocese, and where UKIP is even more strongly present, what will be the Church’s common line in the European constituency of the south east?

This raises a question for Cardinal Vincent Nichols as president of the bishops’ conference, and the papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini: Do they need to clarify whether the logic of Egan’s demands is legitimate grounds to ignore the Nolan principles for public life (objectivity, selflessness and so on)? Is the Holy See content with comments that could have political implications locally, nationally and in a pan-European context?

Those who meet Egan speak of his warmth rather than the anguished tone they encounter in his media appearances and written statements. But whatever one thinks about them, those comments have already had far-reaching implications.

Francis Davis is a former trustee of Portsmouth Diocese and is Visiting Fellow in Civic Innovation at Portsmouth Business School

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User comments (19)

Comment by: Joseph
Posted: 13/04/2014 20:49:48

People are living longer - and what a miracle it was that, for example, the English life expectancy has almost doubled from the year 1900 to 2000.

The usual official Catholic position seems now to be that (1) there are people with homosexual tendencies but (2) these individuals should not engage in homosexual acts. Some goes on to then say (3) anyone who do so should not be allowed communion - presumably they judge it is a mortal sin to do so.

In our judgment of whether a sin is grave enough to be excluded from communion, I think we also need to think about the prospect of living a forced celibate life with a much longer lifespan. Putting aside whether it is wrong to engage in homosexual acts, in the very least, should we not rethink the gravity of these acts? It's one thing for bishops to freely choose to live decades of celibate lives, but it's another for an individual to be forced to do so.

Comment by: JohnM
Posted: 10/04/2014 13:23:21

Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and contrary to nature. The institution of marriage is defined by God, not man. Gay 'marriage' is contrary to nature and cannot be accepted as marriage by the Church. To do so would be to accept that marriage can be unified by sinful acts.

To promote gay marriage and to go further and be involved in passing laws allowing it. To do so puts a person out of communion with the Church. Bishop Egan is quite right in drawing attention to this.

Comment by: Chico889
Posted: 09/04/2014 03:37:05

"Gay marriage legislation undermines sacramental marriage" is not a claim about faith or morals and therefore cannot be a Church teaching. It is a social theory (an untested one) about how civic law is likely to affect a Church sacrament. Catholics are perfectly free to disagree with social theories held by bishops.

So what Church teaching do you imagine is being violated?

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 09/04/2014 01:43:04

Politicians deal with laws that effect all citizens. The bishops are talking about a theological belief in the sacramentality of a union of man and woman.

Secular civil marriage is totally different and within the purview of the remit of elected officials.

They are not acting against the commandments of the church because they are not dealing with sacramental matrimony.

Comment by: JohnM
Posted: 08/04/2014 07:40:38

All Bishop Egan is doing is reiterating Church teaching. A politician who promotes and engages is passing legislation that is in opposition to Church teaching is putting himself out of communion with the Church. The person is acting in opposition to the Church. The Church teaching is that such a person ought not to present themselves for Holy Communion (indeed anyone not in a state of grace should refrain from taking Communion).

It is very heartening to see a bishop clearly declaring Church teaching, rather than trying to water it down in order not to cause offence. We need more bishops like Bishop Egan.

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 07/04/2014 12:16:54

Depinosophista, my comments did not mention excommunication nor do they suggest Evangelii Gaudium is the only reference point on this matter. I merely invited readers - especially those who appear to think Pope Francis will introduce radical doctrinal change - to say whether they reject the Pope's call (in EG102) for pastors to speak out on socio-political matters.

Comment by: Con Devree
Posted: 06/04/2014 12:13:32

It is clear that MPs who voted for abortion and “against the family” should withdraw from the Eucharist. They have after all signed up to Catholicism. It should not be the job of the priest to refuse them. They need to read something in English, say Newman on the Catholic teaching. If they were as slipshod about the British political system as they are about their Catholicism, they wouldn't be in Parliament.

Comment by: Chico889
Posted: 05/04/2014 05:54:24

Those opposing gay marriage are using smoke and mirrors to elevate a socio-political hierarchical opinion to the status of a doctrine of faith.

Legislation permitting abortion decriminalises the taking of life. That is fundamentally different from giving pre-existing gay relationships a legal status and calling it marriage. The moral status of gay sex is orthogonal to the legislation issue. Supporting gay marriage legislation is similar to supporting legislation to regulate prostitution. Unlike abortion, legislation around gay marriage and prostitution is directed at consenting parties.

There are social arguments for and against the legal regulation of prostitution just as there are social arguments for and against gay marriage legislation. The argument against commonly offered by the hierarchy---that gay marriage will undermine sacramental marriage---is not a doctrine of faith; it is an socio-political opinion which may or may not be accurate.

It is absurd to assert that Catholics are obliged to believe as a matter of faith that legislation enabling gay marriage will undermine sacramental marriage.

Any attempted sanction against Catholics who differ from hierarchical opinion would be ultra jures.

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 04/04/2014 23:20:03

Mary, Chris, Paul - Are you saying Pope Francis should not have called for the Church's pastors to 'offer opinions on all that affects people's lives'? Evangelii Gaudium 102.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 04/04/2014 16:09:54

Although as a pro-life person I have some sympathy with the Bishop of Portsmouth's approach, it also poses many issues for me. (1) It has caused great confusion because it has led to a statement from his fellow bishops making it clear that this is not their approach. (2) in the English context it makes it much more difficult for Catholics seeking selection as political candidature. I recall standing for parliament in 1987 in Islington North. After my selection and when it became clear at hustings that I was pro-life, several of my political backers told me that they would not have supported me had they known my views on abortion. Bishop Egan's intervention will put this question high up on the agenda in the questioning of selection panels wherever Catholics seek political office.

Comment by: Paul Heiland
Posted: 03/04/2014 22:01:38

In Germany it would be unthinkable for a bishop to recommend refusing the sacrament and it's unusual for them to make political pronouncements at all. They get invited to policy thinktanks run by the "C"-Parties CDU and CSU but have no influence over whether they get politely listened to or whether their words get acted upon. The C-Parties have become more independent of the Churches and consult less, partly compensated for by the fact that they now also get invited to SPD and Green working groups. The last public clash was the other way round: the Chancellor admonished the then Pope Benedict for his pardoning of Bp. Williamson and caused great scandal in the Church thereby.

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 03/04/2014 20:14:03

We would do well to remember John F Kennedy's remark in the 1960 US Presidential election
“I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President, who happens also to be a Catholic”.
It is a fine line we walk, but don't let's disturb the balance of our democracy in this questionable manner.
The Eucharist is food for a journey, not for public admonition of another's conscience.

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 03/04/2014 15:41:00

Bishop Philip is entirely consistent with Pope Francis who last year declared:

‘The Church’s pastors, taking into account the contributions of the different sciences, have the right to offer opinions on all that affects people’s lives, since the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being. It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven.’ Evangelii Gaudium 102.

We are all (not just bishops) called to evangelise, to spread the Good News - including to politicians. Christ's Bride, the Church was not created to offer an unqualified stamp of approval for the political classes.

Comment by: Dominic MacCarthy
Posted: 02/04/2014 12:23:35

The bishop has done well to remind politicians who like to claim the "Catholic" identity when they reckon it may win votes, that to be Catholic involves a commitment to the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life and on sexuality and family life.

Comment by: Chico889
Posted: 02/04/2014 06:44:04

To differ from the views of senior clerics about the socio-political effects of a piece of legislation is not the same as holding a position contrary to faith. An episcopal threat of sanctions against those whose views differ is a form of moral blackmail and undermines the bishop's moral authority. Implementing such sanctions would be ultra jures.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 02/04/2014 00:37:14

Civil unions or marriages are secular actions by the state that impart secular rights, benefits, accountabilities and responsibilities.

It is common in many parts of Europe that the only marriage recognized by the state is that performed by the state. Religious ceremonies are incidental and based upon religious beliefs that may/may not be integral to the fabric of any particular State.

The Catholic Church has learned to live with this for many years now and the world as we know it has not come to an end.

The Catholic hierarchy needs reminding of the 2011 words of Albert Mohler, then president of the US Southern Baptist Convention: "I think it's clear that something like same-sex marriage — indeed, almost exactly what we would envision by that — is going to become normalized, legalized and recognized in the culture. It's time for Christians to start thinking about how we're going to deal with that. ----- Christians in particular, have kind of grown accustomed to having our beliefs and moral convictions and ways of life supported by the state, by the larger culture and we're going to have to learn what it means to live faithfully as Christians when we do not have those supports. You know, it's one thing to live believing that you're in the majority position — everything comes pretty easy that way ..."

Comment by: MaryK
Posted: 01/04/2014 21:59:21

JFK's comment before he was elected might be pertinent here. The MPs are not elected only to represent Catholics.

Comment by: Paul Milligan
Posted: 01/04/2014 19:03:55

Bishop Egan asking Catholic politicians to accept accountability for supporting positions contrary to faith should not be considered extraordinary (though it does seem to be so to many).
The author's sequitur to the European elections is tenuous in the extreme and confuses the main point of the Bishop's pronouncement.
Nevertheless I presume Conor Burns, alongside Bishop Egan, is aware of recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation as a means of returning to the sacrament.

Comment by: Sara_tms_again
Posted: 01/04/2014 15:31:50

Is there any evidence that Catholics in the UK decide for whom to vote based on this sort of consideration?

MPs from all main parliamentary parties voted for gay marriage, so it doesn't count as a direct party political intervention. As for UKIP, it isn't exactly a naturally Catholic party- listened to the Pope on immigration at all recently?

This is mischief-making, in my view. Criticise Bishop Egan for what he did if you want, but I really can't see that what he did is likely to have any measurable effect on the European elections.

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