Religious Exceptions

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy (Reply by Mary Roe)

from Signs of the Times, No. 25 - Apr 2007

How much respect should the religious conscience be given by a secular state?

This question was debated again when new legislation forbade adoption agencies to discriminate against homosexual couples in placing children. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor objected, as many adoption agencies are Roman Catholic. The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York sent the Prime Minister an open letter supporting the Catholic position.

Commentators pointed out that gay couples seeking to adopt can choose between many agencies and would not, in any case, have been well advised to apply to a Roman Catholic one. Nevertheless an issue of principle remained, on which MCU members noted a conflict between principles. On the one hand, discrimination against homosexuals is oppressive and the legislation is welcome. On the other, the religious conscience claims a higher authority than the state and should be respected by it; we would not like the state to legislate against our most deeply held principles, so we should support others whose consciences are threatened in the same way. As the Archbishops' letter put it,

The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.

It is worth reflecting on this claim. Taken literally, it is clearly false: states often do legislate against conscientiously held views. The force of the claim, though, is that states ought not to legislate against them.

But is this always true, or only sometimes? Consciences vary immensely. In theory a state could accept as a matter of principle that every religious conscience claim should be granted exemption from legislation; but if it did, it would rapidly find every vested interest repackaged in the clothing of religious conscience.

The Archbishops' claim presupposes that the religious conscience is deeply held, long-term and part of the 'worldview' of a religious tradition, within which it makes sense even if those who do not share the worldview disagree. In the Christian tradition, this is what 'conscience' usually means.

In practice, however, the notion of the individual religious conscience has been used more loosely. In authoritarian religious traditions, church leaders may assume the authority to dictate what should be in their members' consciences. A blatant example was when the British Government permitted divorce in the 1920s, while allowing clergy to refuse to remarry divorcees on grounds of conscience. The Church of England bishops then instructed all their clergy always to refuse on grounds of conscience.

There is not a clear dividing line between the two. To say 'I share the values and ethics of Roman Catholicism and I therefore do not think homosexual couples should adopt' may mean 'I have logically worked out the ethical judgement from Catholic first principles', or alternatively 'The Pope tells me it's wrong, so I believe him'. In practice, though, the consciences of believers are formed somewhere between these two extremes. Church leaders state official positions, and the faithful, rarely being experts on the subject, are more or less willing to inform their consciences accordingly, depending on how much they trust their spiritual leaders.

Because this happens, the Archbishops' claim is too strong. It gives too much influence to church leaders with power to influence the consciences of believers.

So how much freedom should the religious conscience have? We might describe the various positions as a spectrum. The extremes represent unpopular views: that the moral person should always obey the state, and at the opposite extreme - in line with the Archbishops' letter - that the state should always respect religious consciences. The truth must be somewhere in between.

This means we need to distinguish between the conscience claims which the state should always respect and the ones it may legitimately override. On what criteria can we make the distinction?

I suggest there is an appropriate criterion, and it is at the heart of the MCU's theology. The religious conscience, to justify exemption from legislation, needs to provide good reasons for its stance, reasons which can be respected, if not shared, by society as a whole.

To opt out of public discourse and claim superior moral insight by reason-trumping divine revelation alone is to make a claim which anybody at all can make, with regard to any issue at all. It is true that some Christians - conscientious objectors, for example - have done just that, and honourably accepted the consequences of loyalty to their consciences; but the idea of reason-trumping divine revelation is too open to abuse.

Those who wish to defend their right to do what their conscience tells them, must be prepared to explain in public the reasons why they hold the views they do. The Roman Catholic disapproval of homosexuality is part of their 'natural law' tradition, which claims to be based on moral insights available to Christians and non-Christians alike. If so, it should be possible for the cardinals to debate the pros and cons openly, with a view to persuading the Government and public. In practice, unfortunately, the papacy has been much more authoritarian, at least since the Syllabus of Errors in the middle of the nineteenth century, and on the issue of gay adoptions the Cardinal was reduced to simply asserting that their teaching was opposed to the legislation.

When Christians do give good public reasons for their commitments, how the state responds is another matter. It may decide the Christians are right, and legislate accordingly. Or it may decide the Christians are wrong, in which case believers will have to decide whether to break the law. A third possibility is it does not accept the Christian arguments but finds them respectable, and designs its legislation to permit exemptions on grounds of religious conscience.

This means that there are two very different grounds on which religious believers may plead for exemption from legislation. The blunt instrument simply asserts 'This is what our religion teaches, so we cannot accept the legislation'. No government can be expected to submit to demands of this type; and when they do, secularists rightly complain that religion has once again revealed itself to be dictatorial, irrational, and opposed to the nation's well-being.

Governments can, however, be reasonably expected to listen to good arguments. If religious believers think a particular piece of legislation is wrong, it is up to us to explain why we consider it wrong, and convince those outside our tradition.

The difference between these two is, of course, the difference between the MCU's appeal to reason and the fundamentalist appeal to direct divine revelation. In an age when the most familiar images of religion are the fundamentalists, anti-evolutionists, homophobes and suicide bombers, our defence of public reason in religion is essential to the defence of religious belief itself.

(Reply by Mary Roe)

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.