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The abuse of “conscience” to defend inequality

Fr Vincent Twomey writes in yesterday’s Irish Times that “conscience” must be made central to the proposed civil partnership legislation, and that the Bill “forces citizens to collude in things they believe to be morally wrong.”

The Roman Catholic church at every level of its hierarchy has a recent and consistent history of warning the world of some unspecified dangers of homosexuality. It is significant that this coincides with the revelations of endemic child abuse throughout the Roman Catholic church, historically and geographically.

Skipping between his views of “morals,” the Irish constitution, and “democracy,” Twomey’s argument against the Civil Partnership Bill is wide-ranging, but struggles to stand up to scrutiny.

His references to “collusion” and Nazism are at once dangerous, amusing and probably mis-placed coming from a member of the Roman Catholic clergy. It’s certainly an emotional subject, not least because so many homosexuals were persecuted and murdered by Nazis and their collaborators; but also due to the implied assertion that granting same-sex relationships some recognition in the Irish statute-book (far short of equality) is somehow “totalitarian.”

For regular users of the internet, this kind of argument is comically known as “Godwin’s Law” and is regularly employed in an attempt to silence critics.

For a member of the Roman Catholic clergy to employ it, however, is at best ill-judged. Yes, we have heard the disputed claims of Pope Pius XII’s connections with Hitler’s regime. We have also heard of the very much undisputed savagery of the Roman Catholic church in what is now Croatia, and their vociferous, public support of the brutal Ustaše regime. No priest, bishop or archbishop acts alone or against Papal authority in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, yet there they are, photographed for posterity.

I would like to know where is the centrality of conscience here?

In 1986, the current Pope Benedict XVI, then writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a Vatican institution formerly known as the Inquisition) wrote to all bishops in a letter “on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”. Beyond its opening line, “Homosexualitatis problema,” the letter states:

But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behaviour to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

Can Fr Twomey point to the centrality of conscience here?

Turning to the Constitution, it is unsurprising that the Roman Catholic church in Ireland would seek to preserve our founding document in the permafrost of 1937, with all its influences of John Charles McQuaid and co. We are far from that time and therefore the Constitution should be read as a living document, as it was in McGee v The Attorney General. I understand, however, that the role of interpreting the Constitution remains solely in the hands of the Supreme Court of this country, so neither I nor anyone else should ever presume to usurp that role.

Accordingly, the legislature must ensure that every piece of legislation falls within the bounds of the Constitution, and we have been assured by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern, that the provisions relating to same-sex relationships are not at all like marriage (if you’re a member of the Select Oireachtas Committee on Justice); or that they are just like marriage (if you’re party to a same-sex relationship).

What is fascinating, however, is that the Roman Catholic church makes no comment in relation to the provisions affecting cohabiting heterosexual couples: surely, to remove the need for civil marriage by providing for automatic rights and obligations, this serves to undermine the institution of marriage? The religious sacrament of marriage, of course, remains entirely unaffected by the Bill.

Can the centrality of conscience be found here? Or perhaps double standards? Or worse, simple discrimination?

It is striking that Fr Twomey would seek to equate the Roman Catholic church with a defender of democratic principles. As every good theologian should know, democratic principles are not directly compatible with Roman Catholic hierarchy, and its dogma reflects that. This is not a controversial point, but rather a fundamental starting point, from which Roman Catholic teaching flows. Certainly, Pope Benedict XVI is no friend of liberation theologists, preferring a regression to the pre-Vatcian II church norms. Simply leafing through the pages of the “Proceedings of the Workshop on: Democracy” from December 1996 enhances one’s understanding. Indeed, historically, the establishment of democracy in Europe – through the French Revolution – was extremely bloody for members of the Catholic clergy as well as for so many others.

Can the centrality of conscience be found here? Or is this espousing of democratic values an example of mental reservation?

And so, to morals. Thankfully, this nation is governed by the carefully considered rule of law, rather than arbitrary morals. Thus, while laws may become outdated or otherwise require modification from time to time, there is a legislative procedure to do so. On the other hand, if undefined “morals” are our guidance, this nation would be governed by aribitrary whims, be it the questionable morals of those in the financial and banking sectors; or the morals of those who see fit to take the law into their own hands; or of those who see fit to telephone Joe Duffy about every conceivable outrage; or of the myriad religious faiths, denominations and interpretations; or of those who see fit to perpetrate, protect and conceal child abuse and genocide.


  • A response to Fr Twomey’s article from Angela Kerins of the Equality Authority appears in today’s Irish Times, here.
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  • Hahahaha. I think if I was ever on TV, I’d have a hard time not laughing and shouting out, “Godwin’s law! You LOSE!” Whenever anyone invoked Nazis in arguments. It might be worth writing that as a letter to the editor. ;-)

    Also, Amish Busdriver Rule (from Rachel Maddow):

    If your religion requires you not to drive, cool beans, free country — but then you can‘t get hired to be a bus driver if your religion won‘t let you drive the bus.

    Conscience clauses suck, but I have to say, when I was looking for someone to marry us, I was really stressed out. I didn’t want anyone marrying us who didn’t want to, but I also didn’t want someone outright refusing us either. I just hated we had to think about that. We were just given a list of people who perform weddings, but there was no way to know if the person at the other end of the phone would be ok with us.


    CanuckJacq said:
  • Excellent stuff Clicky, as always:)
    From the flurry of replies in the Irish Times today, I think most people are seeing this stunt by the Bishops for what it is – a desperate attempt to shift attention away from recent scandals, onto an easy minority target.
    I love how the gays are seemingly more of a threat to society, the family and the kids, than the oppression and abuse handed down by church officials for decades.

    shauna said:
  • great article.

    Dragan said:
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