I will be supporting the Same Sex Marriage Bill because I believe in a society where people have freedom of religious expression, but also one where outside of religion people are equal in the eyes of the law. But as an MP of Roman Catholic faith, I have been drawn to considering over the last few weeks, what Thomas More would have made of this issue.
Saint Thomas More, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor and a former speaker of the House of Commons is famous for the moral stand he took against his King, even though it cost him his life. It was learning about his example at school which prompted me to choose him as my Confirmation Saint. Thomas More is particularly remembered because he could not in conscience swear an oath recognising the Succession to the Crown Act 1533 which had the effect of annulling one of Henry VIII's marriages and therefore changing the royal succession. He could not swear the oath because, although he would abide by the Act's content, he could not in conscience say that he agreed with it. Parliament, he said, had the right to decide matters of marriage, and had the right to require all subjects, including Catholics, to abide by its laws, but it could not have the right to require Catholics in conscience to agree with them. As a result he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed.
Last month press reports of a letter signed by a large number of Catholic clergy who opposed the Same Sex Marriage Bill asserted that if it passed that this could be seen as a return to the persecution that Catholics experienced during the English Reformation, because they would be required to acknowledge equal rights to marriage, against the teaching of the Church. I'm not sure that Thomas More would agree with this, and nor for that matter do I.
The Same Sex Marriage Bill is not seeking to tell the different churches and religions what they should believe, or to restrict them practicing their beliefs as the do now. Churches will not be required to conduct same sex marriage ceremonies if they do not want to. The Catholic Church will remain free to teach that marriage is a sacrament of the Church, it is between a man and a woman, that its purpose is for the procreation of children, and that it is for life. Of course, sadly, many people who are married by the Church are not able to have children, and a great many marriages end in divorce. The law of the State in allowing divorced people to remarry is already against the teaching of the Church, and a form of marriage that the Church would not recognise or perform. So we already have a system of marriage by the churches and the state which are sometimes compatible, and other times not.
The Bill is an attempt to strengthen equality in our society, without compromising religious freedom. I believe that Thomas More would have understood this distinction, and regardless of how he would have voted (I would not seek to presume on a matter of conscience like this) I think he would have agreed that this was something that Parliament had the right to do.
Other countries around the world have already introduced equal marriage rights. What is particularly notable to me, is that about half of those countries - Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay - have overwhelmingly Catholic populations. They have been able to introduce this measure without affecting the rights and practises of the Church. In these countries, where an overwhelming proportion of the population are of the Catholic faith, there is a recognition that the state is not a theocracy, that the practises of different faiths must be respected, and that those who do not follow a faith have the same rights in law as those people who do.