I see. So now we have the result of the Irish referendum on gay marriage, and now we’ve heard the Roman Catholic Church’s chastened response, we shall have to rewrite Exodus 32, which (you may remember) reports Moses’ (and God’s) furious reaction to the nude dancing and heretical worship of Moloch in the form of a golden calf: the Sin of the Calf in the Hebrew literature. Moses had come down from Mount Sinai bringing God’s commandments written on two tablets of stone.
'And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot…
'And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.'
Let me have a crack at the revised version right away:
'And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the Irish referendum’s huge majority for gay marriage, and the dancing: and Moses’ alarm was palpable…
'And he took a copy of the Pink Paper and, flourishing it, said, "We have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities.
‘"I appreciate how these naked revellers feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution.
‘"We need to find a new language to connect with a whole generation of young people," the prophet concluded; then, casting off his garments, Moses said, "Hey, lead me to the coolest gay bar in the camp."’
Don’t laugh. With a couple of adjustments for updated circumstances, I am quoting the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, almost verbatim. The archbishop was responding last Sunday to Irish people’s endorsement of gay marriage by a margin of almost two to one.
Even as a (gay) atheist, I wince to see the philosophical mess that religious conservatives are making of their case. Is there nobody of any intellectual stature left in our English church, or the Roman church, to frame the argument against Christianity’s slide into just going with the flow of social and cultural change? Time was — even in my time — when there were quiet, understated, sometimes quite severe men of the cloth, often wearing bifocal spectacles, who could show us moral relativists a decent fight in that eternal debate. Now there’s only the emotional witness of the ranting evangelicals, most of them pretty dim. How I miss the fine minds of bishops like Joseph Butler, who remarked drily to John Wesley: ‘Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, is an horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’
So, wearily and with a reluctance born of not even supporting the argument’s conclusion, let me restate the conservative Catholic’s only proper response to news such as that from Dublin last weekend. It is that 62 per cent in a referendum does not cause a sin in the eyes of God to cease to be a sin.
Can’t these Christians see that the moral basis of their faith cannot be sought in the pollsters’ arithmetic? What has the Irish referendum shown us? It is that a majority of people in the Republic of Ireland in 2015 do not agree with their church’s centuries-old doctrine that sexual relationships between two people of the same gender are a sin. Fine: we cannot doubt that finding. But can a preponderance of public opinion reverse the polarity between virtue and vice? Would it have occurred for a moment to Moses (let alone God) that he’d better defer to Moloch-worship because that’s what most of the Israelites wanted to do?
It must surely be implicit in the claim of any of the world’s great religions that on questions of morality, a majority may be wrong; but this should be vividly evident to Christians in particular: they need only consider the fate of their Messiah, and the persecution of adherents to the Early Church. ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you,’ says Paul. What does the Archbishop of Dublin now have to say to the 743,300 people who voted to uphold what their priests taught them was God’s will? These, and not the gays, are now the reviled ones. Popular revulsion cannot make them wrong.
But maybe I’m the fool, the one who’s missing something. Maybe there’s a deeper truth behind Dr Martin’s willingness to bend to prevailing mood, a flexibility that echoes Pope Francis’s openness to change. Could it be that the reason for both men’s apparent lack of embarrassment at these convenient shifts is that on some half-conscious level neither ever really believed that morality was absolute or objective anyway — or supposed we really thought they were serious?
Have some of us, in short, made the mistake of taking the church at its word? Was it always, anyway, about going with the flow? Was it always secretly about imposing the morals of the majority on the minority — so all that is necessary is to discover which way the preponderance falls?
In which case, when we run out of male celibates we shall adjust a previously absolute doctrine to a more relaxed view of priestly duty. When we run short of male priests altogether (celibate or not) we shall review the teaching on women priests. When we run short of parishioners on their first marriage, we’ll think again about divorce. And when we find we cannot stop heterosexuals using contraceptives or homosexuals coupling, God’s will on these wickednesses will be found to have been revised.
Abortion next, I suppose. Here, too, shall I live to hear the divine ahem? Silly me. And there I was thinking they meant it. As so often in my life, I have missed the big celestial wink.
This is an extract from tomorrow's issue of The Spectator