Tuesday 21 January 2020

Medb Ruane: As the UK marches to the equality drum, lesbians feel the belt of the Pope's crozier

Medb Ruane

Arsenal suffered a thrashing from Man U on Sunday but it paled to the reddener the House of Lords delivered to Harriet Harman, days after Pope Benedict intervened.

Benedict, in case you don't know, is supposed to visit Britain this September to celebrate John Henry Newman, the Briton (and former Anglican) with Irish connections who's moving rapidly upwards in the sainthood stakes. It's an official visit, proposed by Gordon Brown and graced by Queen Elizabeth, the Church of England's Head. John Paul II's 1982 trip was pastoral.

What did Harriet do? The row pits man against woman, gay against straight, faith-based against faith-free. Back to the ropes in the left corner rests Harman, who's determined to allow same-sex couples adopt children (won that) and let gay people and dissenters work in faith-based agencies (lost on points). Limbering up near the right corner is Benedict, who, like Prince Philip, never ducks a good fight even if he's the man coming to dinner and risks insulting his hosts.

What's it all about? Benedict damned with faint praise Britain's commitment to equality, before saying that the Equality Bill breached "natural law", which would mean it's sinful.

"Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society," Benedict wrote to the English and Welsh bishops. "Yet, as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects, it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed."

By natural law, read Vatican law, which suggests this is a direct conflict between a Protestant and a Catholic state. England and Rome parted company, of course, when Henry VIII set up his own church, an event Benedict will recall gently when he pays homage to Thomas More. (English Catholics still can't marry a monarch or become one.)

But the theatre of this dispute has so many acts and sub-scenes, it's a mirror. English Catholics are divided, British politics is set to convulse and Europe, meanwhile, is observing a dainty power play where the Vatican teases the nub of inclusivity in the proposed European Constitution.

Benedict opposed Labour's plans to make sex education mandatory in all primary schools, which was an early sign of division amongst English Catholics. Some of them worried about his predilection for Tridentine and Latin masses, especially when plans to canonise Pope Pius XII advanced and were criticised. He then lost the battle on gay adoption, with a number of Catholic agencies cutting diocesan ties in favour of working with English law.

On the surface, any agency shouldn't have to employ people who don't agree with its ethos but life gets complicated when things are faith-based. Do you exclude people who use "artificial" contraception, or those who live together, are separated/divorced/ in a same-sex union? That's a lot of people left in the cold.

And there's a massive hypocrisy gap on the gay issue -- Benedict's line is not only that gays can't work for the Catholic Church but, by implication, that no one inside it practices gay relationships. Dream on? Anyway, Harman isn't including child abusers in the list of those who must be included -- which some of us might find more objectionable.

The immediate backdrop is Britain's imminent general election, which will be held, probably, on May 6. Benedict's line is already appealing to Tory backbenchers, who duck under David Cameron's homo-friendly official line to remain right-of-Genghis-Khan types.

Cameron is staying quiet, sensibly, because he stands to win every time Harman comes under pressure. As for the yawningly named "equality agenda", well, it's so 1990s these days . . . or is it?

Morph the debate to Ireland and it gets chillingly real. If your private beliefs are at odds with a faith-based employer -- and they find out -- you can legally be sidelined, suspended, sacked or not employed in the first place. You'll have to lie, take the shilling or masquerade as someone else.

So it's not about expertise and skills, but about someone else's appraisal of your moral fibre. Let's say you're a teacher, living with a separated man, in a country town such as Wexford. You become pregnant, but the school heads let you know that you can't expect to work there any more.

That's more or less what happened in the Eileen Flynn case over 20 years ago. The late Ms Flynn lost when the late Judge Ryan decided that the law was not on her side.

Laws haven't changed meanwhile. Equality is such a tired word that though you may think your personal beliefs and lifestyle are your own business, be warned they can be used against you in settings from faith-based schools (most of them), hospitals, colleges and universities, and so on. Tag on bitter competition for fewer jobs, and your ethics could be your downfall.

So, if there's an election here and Benedict decides to visit, be nervous. You may have to clatter the rosary beads your granpa left behind.

Irish Independent

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