Homosexual Rights and Catholic Adoption Agencies
There has been considerable discussion about the new laws (April 2007) which will mean that homosexual people will have their right to not be discriminated against by those offering services to the public upheld. For instance, from April a B&B could not refuse a homosexual couple without facing possible prosecution. While this extension of equality is largely excepted when we talk about race or gender, the law has not included sexual orientation up till now.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales has complained that their adoption agencies should be excluded from the legislation on the grounds of conscience and fundamental belief. Catholic adoption agencies (funded by the Government) currently would not consider gay or lesbian couples as appropriate for adoption. After April they will not be able to continue with this approach, unless the law changes.
What we are witnessing here is a clash of ethics based on conflicting absolutist principles. In the red corner is the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church draws heavily on natural moral law theory, a deontological ethic, which holds that certain actions are right or wrong in and of themselves according to whether they fit certain purposes of human nature, which include worshipping God (and by extension honouring his teachings such as biblical references taken to prohibit homosexual acts) and procreation. As a result, the Church does not support or encourage homosexual acts and believes homosexual couples should not be sexually active.
In the blue corner are human rights. Human rights are also absolutist and deontological. Human rights have a fundamental idea that human dignity must be maintained. Actions that deny human dignity by removing rights from a person are in contravention with the purpose and detail of human rights law and ethics. These actions are wrong because they are orientated against human dignity (as understood by human rights thinking). Long lists of individual rights detail their extent in international and national agreements.
This dispute then is a clash between two understandings of absolute ethics. In asking for an exemption from the law on grounds of conscience and fundamental religious beliefs, the Church is asking for something rather surprising – a form of plural relativism whereby specific groups are allowed to live according to differing moral codes, respected because of their tradition. This is surprising because the Catholic Church is opposed to relativism. It is also surprising because the Church has become a great defender of rights with a long history of commitment to workers’ rights and the rights of the oppressed, the unborn and the discriminated against.
In the case of religions these divergences are coming under more and more scrutiny at a time when people are more and more concerned about what morals people all hold as basic and common. Women’s dress and Islam, and wearing crosses in the workplace are examples of this tension. However, sexual orientation is a much greater step as it involves a more basic and fundamental discrimination on a type of person. This will prove a very difficult tension to resolve and it may lead to the withdrawal of some religious institutions from the public sphere, such as the Catholic Adoption Agencies. That step is a step towards segregation.
This illustrates one of absolutisms weaknesses. It is not flexible and yet reaches a long way touching people’s individual lives and personal beliefs. Perhaps it is not ambiguous enough for modern living, or perhaps one kind of absolutism is simply right and we need to work out which it is and relegate all the others to the bin of bad ideas. It would appear that the clash of absolutisms will be resolved with homosexual rights trumping Catholic conceptions of natural law. Inevitably, when absolutisms clash, there can be only one winner.