The political and social embers may still be glowing in the UK following its monumental referendum last year to leave the EU. The number of ordinary citizens who turned out to vote broke all records: 72.2% of the voting population (33.6 million) made their voices heard.
And by doing so, they shook the established cultural, academic, financial, and political elites. As British Prime Minister David Cameron rightly said, it was a “giant democratic exercise, perhaps the biggest in our history.” Seldom do we see such determination and passion when it comes to politics from the general public.
The popular protest against the UK’s involvement in the second Iraq war, and more recently, a packed House of Commons debating whether to support bombing campaigns against ISIS in Syria spring to mind as other examples.
As I listened to David Cameron’s resignation speech early on the Friday morning after the referendum result was announced, I was reminded of another political and social maelstrom which, like the EU referendum, sparked an unprecedented mobilisation of the people.
The contemporary rise of same-sex marriage around the world was sudden, and generated staggering levels of furore by those determined to usher in a new era in the long march of the sexual and cultural revolution.
The UK’s coalition government, under Cameron, passed its same-sex marriage act in February 2013, by 400 votes to 175. “I believe we’ve made great steps … enabling those who love each other to get married whatever their sexuality,” Cameron said. Opponents of the act were branded bigots, homophobes, hate-filled, and ‘anti-love’.
Imagine my surprise when in 2016, I heard a staunch opponent of the act, well-known Catholic MP Jacob ReesMogg claim that Cameron “was the most Christian prime minister in 50 years.”
He was speaking at the London [Brompton] Oratory, South Kensington, to a gathering of young conservatives and Catholics in their 20s and 30s.
When asked about his thoughts on Cameron’s samesex marriage act, Rees-Mogg said: “It’s really hard for MPs because they get criticised for not standing by what they believe. Yet when David Cameron put forward his samesex marriage plans he got criticised a lot, so it’s really hard, he really believed in it.”
Rees-Mogg is the Eton and Oxford educated Tory MP for North East Somerset. His father was the late Lord William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times. He is also a Catholic, and a traditional one at that. In fact, he is quoted as saying that he believes in a “strong papacy, an obedient laity, Latin Masses and sermons that last no longer than three minutes.” He’s married to heiress Helena de Chair, who gave birth to their sixth child (Sixtus) earlier this year.
So, if you were looking for a politician who was truly a traditional conservative and Catholic, Rees-Mogg has all the credentials, which made his further comments all the more surprising.
“I’m a Catholic, and I greatly value the Church’s sacrament of marriage. I voted against same-sex marriage, but I’m happy as long as the Catholic sacrament is left alone. The government is free to legislate and do as it pleases with secular legal marriage; however the legal arrangements are decided.”
When challenged by members of the shocked audience, Rees-Mogg resorted to anecdotes about how happy he was to have a Catholic marriage, and repeated that the government had the job of legislating marriage. It was for the government to decide how marriage was arranged in secular, civil society.
Absent from his answer was any notion of natural law, the common good of all, and the clear Catholic teaching on Church-State relations. No mention was made about the social effects of same-sex marriage on wider society. ReesMogg also fell into the erroneous concept that Catholic marriage is merely a ‘private sacrament’, something pious for the church that has nothing to do with civil society.
It was a baffling and somewhat intense moment, not helped by a member of the audience who suggested, with obvious libertarian flavour, that governments should have no involvement at all in marriage. For Catholics and conservatives, that’s just not an option.
Speaking about natural law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “It provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by a reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive and juridical nature.” Therefore, the common good and natural law require that governments and rulers take seriously their responsibilities to safeguard and serve the family.
Rees-Mogg’s voting record demonstrates that he is opposed to same-sex marriage. Speaking on Radio 4 about the opposition between being a Roman Catholic and a Conservative MP, whose leader was pushing through samesex marriage, Rees-Mogg commented: “I’m not under any pressure. I’m a Roman Catholic and have made it clear to my constituents that in this sort of matter I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whip’s Office.”
Very well, so why make confusing comments about Cameron being “the most Christian prime minster in 50 years,” and give him carte blanche when it came to experimenting with marriage?
Was Rees-Mogg under pressure not to publicly criticise his party leader? Had he been warned that to do so would threaten his chance of promotion and re-election? Perhaps that explains the disconnect between his words and his voting record.
During his talk, Rees-Mogg quoted liberally from pre-Vatican II popes. Yet these same popes condemned the positions Rees-Mogg favoured in his talk.
For example, Blessed Pope Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors, condemned the idea that “The State, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits,” and the error that “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.”
In an earlier interview, Rees-Mogg said: “My great hero is probably Pius IX, because of his traditional view of the state and the Church and his Syllabus of Errors was a clear view.”
A fellow member of the audience suggested privately that Rees-Mogg was “a child of Vatican II, bereft of authentic Catholic formation because of these changes ushered in following the council.” Whatever the case, it is hard to reconcile Rees-Mogg’s apparent familiarity with traditional Catholic teaching with his public comments.
In another interview, Rees-Mogg was asked how samesex marriage might impact Catholic school teachers, pupils and their families. He replied: “I think this is going to be a matter for the leadership of the Church. Are they willing to take a strong view on what they believe is right? Or are they going to go along with secularism?”
However, the neat separation that Rees-Mogg seems to want and think possible quickly dissolves when laws seep into everyday life, and its schools, parents and teachers on the front line.
Allow me to conclude with a prescient and prophetic statement by another Pius, this time Pope St Pius X. Writing in September 1907 in his encyclical against modernist doctrine, Pascendi Dominic Gregis, he warned:
“For given the principle that in temporal matters the State possesses absolute mastery, it will follow that when the believer, not fully satisfied with his merely internal acts of religion, proceeds to external acts, such for instance as the administration or reception of the sacraments, these will fall under the control of the State.”
Let’s hope Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest of us don’t forget this.