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Undiscriminating bishops

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has issued some Diversity and Equality Guidelines on the relationship between antidiscrimination law and the mission of the Church and its agencies. The Guidelines have drawn some unfavorable comment because of their positive treatment of “living together” (including homosexual) situations. Beyond the specific issues, however, they include a Policy Statement that’s short and provides an occasion for thinking about general principles and whether common attitudes of Church officials today toward “social justice” issues are really consistent with an intelligent understanding of Catholicism.

The Policy Statement takes Gaudium et Spes, 29 as its point of departure:

“All human beings are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God’s image; they have the same nature and origin and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling and destiny…”

From that it infers that “the dignity and equality of all human beings” is one of the “fundamental truths of Christianity, in common with other faiths.” I think that’s true in general, at least as to Christianity, but it’s worth noting that the equality has to do with ultimate matters and not social organization. It doesn’t mean that the distinction between bishop and layman or prime minister and imprisoned convict have to be abolished, so that all those people are treated exactly the same and have the same rights and obligations in all respects. So I’m not sure why it means other social distinctions, sex roles for example, have to be abolished. The issue, I would suppose, is whether the distinction has a function in the general scheme of human life.

Continuing with Gaudium et Spes,

“[F]orms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, colour, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.”

From this the statement infers that the antidiscrimination law of the EU and UK is a very good thing, so much so that “witness to the Gospel” involves “striving always to be inclusive … and in tune with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.”

The conclusion doesn’t follow. The statement in Gaudium et Spes, apparently taken from documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is a tautology. If something is a basic personal right, so that people have it just by being persons, then one has it regardless of what kind of person he is. If the right to life is a basic human right then stamp collectors, lesbians and bigamist Nazi heroin addicts have it just as much as English bishops do. The conciliar statement says nothing about the content of the rights, and therefore doesn’t give anyone a right to the enforcement of a particular conception of equality. In particular, it doesn’t say that basic personal rights include eradication of the social significance of distinctions like marriage and community affiliation that world markets and rationalized value-free state bureaucracies would like to ignore. And it is the function of EU and UK antidiscrimination law, by rooting out discrimination based on such things, to eradicate that significance. Antidiscrimination law says, in effect and among other things, that marriage and related institutions (e.g., traditional sexual morality) can’t have any bearing on anything serious, because if they did that would be discrimination. The net practical effect of such rules is that everyone has to be treated as an unconnected individual (who therefore can rely on no-one other than the market, if he has money, or the state). That avoids discrimination, and incidentally makes people easier to manage and control if you’re an employer or bureaucrat.

The Church decided at Vatican II that the purely secular state is OK, apparently because religion and the Church are part of cultural life and cultural life is to be free in the secular state. I would expect therefore that the Church would like it to be possible for cultural life, which includes things like particular cultural affiliations and standards, to have an effect on something that matters to people in day-to-day life. Suppose, for example, someone wants to have a small business, a garage say, that treats work as spiritually and morally valuable, a matter of comradeship and life together as well as specific narrowly economic functions, and so prefers to hire Catholics who attempt to live by a common conception of the good life. He even gives a preference to Italian Catholics, since common background facilitates comradeship and a common mind. I would have thought that the Church would say that’s OK, at least in general, because that sort of thing would be part of the free development and expression of cultural life. It seems not, though. Through its whole-hearted approval of antidiscrimination law the Church in England and Wales has joined the Blair government, the EU, and big business in agreeing that such things have to be rooted out, and even identifies rooting them out as witness to the Gospel. The independence of cultural life from the state has turned out to be fictional. The point of multiculturalism is that no particular culture is allowed to be authoritative anywhere, so the state and its standards has to step in to fill the gap and order the whole of social life.

So why does the Church go along with this? The policy statement ends with a sort of credo that may give a clue:

“As we take up this challenge, we must remain true to our own faith and traditions. We expect the freedom to live according to these, just as we recognise the same rights for other faith communities. Above all, we are called to be neighbour, friend and partner to all men and women, as we struggle together to create a more just society.” [Emphasis added.]

I’ve gotten the impression that Western bishops today, certainly their staffers who draft documents like this, often believe that universal comradeship without regard to religion in the struggle to create a more just this-worldly society is the supreme purpose of the Church (with “just” understood as the secular Left understands it). It’s helpful to see the point made explicitly.