Wednesday 27 February 2013

Papa don't preach

I’m thinking of a Catholic boy, coming of age in 1950s Scotland, having been raised in a culture that conflates sexuality with sin and does its best to keep the lid on both. Unfortunately, for a boy at this time and place, it’s not girls he finds himself attracted to. The practices that invade his imagination are not only associated with profound social shame, they are also punishable by imprisonment. What tempts him is categorised by his own church as one of the 'four sins crying to heaven for vengeance'.

He throws himself into academic work and is eventually drawn to the priesthood. By the time parliament decriminalises homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, he has been ordained and has put that whole complicated issue behind him, taking refuge in a life of celibacy.  He serves as a curate, a teacher, a parish priest. He’s good at his job.

In mid-life he is put in charge of the spiritual development of young men training for the priesthood. Beyond the walls of the seminary it’s a hedonistic time. There are pockets of wild liberation where gay men are indulging their sexual appetites, no longer fearful of judicial punishment and untroubled by thoughts of hell. Is he influenced by this? Or by the knowledge that his life is half over and half his nature lies dormant? Denied the normal comforts and companionship of marriage to which most people eventually aspire, does he find loneliness creeping up on him? Or does his position of unquestioned authority provide an opportunity he simply can’t resist? In the language of his Church, has his job become one continuous ‘occasion of sin’?

Is this a true story, or an outline for a novel by Colm Tóibín?

How about this one? A senior cleric approaching the end of a distinguished and respected career, about to fulfil the sacred duty of voting for the next pope, faces accusations that thirty years ago he made inappropriate advances to four seminarians, accusations that he denies. Now we’re in Philip Roth territory. In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, a professor of Classics charged with showing prejudice towards two black students, could clear his name by revealing his own deepest secret that he is himself (in a certain ethno-cultural sense) black, though sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white. What if, like Coleman, our senior cleric has it in his power to replace one scandal with another by revealing a long-standing secret – a relationship, for example, consensual and mutually beneficial, with a woman of his own age? In a strange twist, he surprises his conservative supporters by suggesting that the Church should consider allowing priests to marry, a coded intimation of his desire to normalise his private life and finally assert his long-obscured identity.

Perhaps the truth is even more implausible – something Dan Brown might have dreamt up. The whole thing is a conspiracy led by a villainous Italian cardinal with papal ambitions. Our hero is a tough, plain-talking Scot with the rugged good looks of a rugby player, who has made a name for himself by standing up to politicians cravenly seeking popularity with their liberalising agendas, particularly their plans for gay marriage, 'a grotesque subversion' as he sees it. True to form, he opposes the worldly Italian. Whether politically motivated or bribed with promises of advancement, his accusers, like the four assassins of Thomas à Becket, set out to rid their master of this turbulent priest, to neutralise him, at least, for as long as the Cardinals sit in conclave.  

But enough of fantasies and speculations. The important story is of an institution so blind to its own failings that it projects them out into the secular world, condemning the rest of us for our self-indulgence while it covers up its own crimes, a body so damaged by scandal that no one is much surprised by one more accusation, or much impressed by a heated denial or a half-hearted apology. Perhaps some of these many charges are false. But the credibility of the Church is so damaged in this area that, for someone accused, to be a member of its hierarchy makes guilt seem more likely rather than less.

It’s exactly fifty years since the death of the great reformer, John XXIII, who did his best during his brief papacy to bring daylight into the Catholic Church. I wonder if there are enough cardinals interested in renewing that interrupted process. I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile the Church might concentrate on its strong suits, such as concern for the poor, and leave questions of sexual ethics to ordinary people.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Gay marriage? What would Jane Austen have said?

If there’s an urtext for the rom-com I suppose it must be Pride and Prejudice. Shakespeare influenced the genre, but didn’t lay down its essential structure. As You Like It and Twelfth Night are perennially enjoyable but, as models, they’re too specific to the Elizabethan stage with their disguises and identity confusions. In the eighteenth century there was Fielding. But in Tom Jones the emphasis is on Tom’s picaresque scrapes, including a luckily unconsummated encounter with a woman who turns out to be his long-lost mother – more romp-com, in fact, than rom-com.

It was Jane Austen who first took as her subject the struggle of two young people in love to overcome obstacles on their way to the altar, and who chose to embed that struggle in a realistic social context. This has provided the model for endless romantic stories in which the motivation is love, the goal is marriage, and the filling in the narrative sandwich is all the stuff that gets in the way. 

But Pride and Prejudice is actually more complicated than that, and the link between love and marriage is a lot murkier. For Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte, marriage is a practical arrangement, the only way to achieve some degree of independence in a world where other careers are closed to women. And if that means being hitched to the risibly pompous Mr Collins, she’ll take it, rather than sink into despised and impoverished spinsterhood. For Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who has long had her eye on Darcy as a son-in-law, marriage is nothing more than a system for cementing bonds between aristocratic dynasties. What's love got to do with it?

For Darcy it’s a work in progress. When he first meets the hideously vulgar Bennett family, he persuades his friend Bingley not to get engaged to the eldest daughter, Jane, wanting to rescue him from this damaging connection. But he doesn't follow his own advice, because he can’t get Jane’s sister Elizabeth out of his head.

In fact marriage in Pride and Prejudice is in a state of dynamic instability. My favourite moment is when Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth to tell her to keep her hands off Darcy. The scene is memorable for purely dramatic reasons. But it also acts out the inter-generational struggle, when the old notion of marriage is confronted with the new and finds itself impotent in the face of change. Lady Catherine asserts her rights as a person of inherited wealth and power. Elizabeth is interested only in the news that Darcy might still be available. We take it for granted that Elizabeth should listen to her heart rather than to Lady Catherine, but it wasn’t always so obvious.

Today the institution of marriage is riding a new wave of dynamic instability. An unlikely alliance between the Conservative leadership and the centre-left parties has nudged it on its way. The Church of England, which lost its right to oversee English marriages in 1837, still clings to what remains of its moral authority. Tories in the shires hanker after traditional certainties. But Elizabeth Bennett stands up to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the old hierarchies are subverted.