Saunders Leitrim | 26 July 2018
After holding a rosary of reparation for Pride Glasgow at the church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Balornock, Fr Mark Morris was dropped from his position as chaplain at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Catholics in Glasgow have bad luck with parades. Barely have the obnoxious echoes of the Orange Order’s tin-whistles and drums died down when the multi-coloured pageantry of Pride gets underway to take its place. For the perceptive among them, the sight of the annual celebration of sexual revolution following so closely on the heels of a display of triumphant Protestantism could seem like a symbolic representation of the direction of European spirituality in the last 500 years. “We said it would come to this”, they might mutter, as the rainbow flag replaces the orange sash. Now that those quiet frustrations have become public and cost Fr Morris his position at the Glasgow Caledonian University chaplaincy, a strange state of affairs has arisen.
The event which triggered this dispute very much appears to be a case of the private being made public, the implicit becoming explicit; though seldom expressed in the unambiguous terms in which Fr Morris chose to speak, the Roman Catholic church’s position on homosexuality is definite, widely understood, and, more importantly, entirely consistent with Fr Morris’s actions. At the church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Balornock (Fr Morris’s parish church) you will find a reminder of that position. On the parish bulletin, you can read the following statements: “Sins are acts involving the intellect (knowing) and the will (choosing). An orientation is not, in and of itself, an act or a sin.” and “All human beings are children of God. No human person is intrinsically evil.” The Church considers all sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage sinful: for that reason, it seems unavoidable for an honest Catholic to see both same-sex relationships and sexual acts between non-married persons of the opposite sex equally as a turning away from God. We must surely allow for the not very remote possibility of such people labelling Pride (an event which seeks to normalise sexual activity the Church deems sinful) a “gross offence to God”. Surely?
As much would be obvious to anyone who has ever wondered what Christianity and Catholic doctrine involve, but the observation appears to have slipped by the management of Glasgow Caledonian University. It begs the question what exactly did they think Fr Morris thought about the rights and wrongs of sex when they saw his large, cassocked frame moving around campus. As a chaplain, as a spiritual guardian for GCU’s Roman Catholic students, all of his guidance and advice would certainly have been informed by the same moral principles that have seen him dropped from the university’s chaplaincy. When asked on what grounds Fr Morris had been dropped, GCU Vice-Chancellor Pamela Gillies said (among other things) that his publicly stated views had now made him unable to “provide creditable support to Catholic students and staff who are LGBT”. But even before this controversy, what would we imagine his support to a gay man who wanted to live according to Christ’s teaching to have been? Knowing the Church’s position, one wouldn’t be long in guessing, and neither should we be long in suspense in wondering whether Ms Gillies would find such support “creditable” or not. Fr Morris’s views on the matter being as predictable as they are, we wonder why it was that GCU were so surprised at his rosary of reparation. Does a priest find Pride a “gross offence”? Is the Pope a Catholic?
Of course, this line of thinking is open to objection from liberal Catholics, at least some of whom seem to support GCU’s decision (from what can be seen on social media). Though I lack the theological knowledge to arrive at a more certain conclusion, I would venture as far as saying that, given the Church’s official position, Fr Morris’s words and actions appear to be a logical end. I have no authority (or even reason) to claim that Fr Morris’s words and actions are an inevitable end of the Church’s position - as much would amount to a direct refutation of liberal theology, of which I am incapable - but even to the relatively unschooled it certainly seems a logical one. Hard-line though he may appear, his interpretation of doctrine and scripture is watertight and (most importantly) orthodox. All sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful in Catholic eyes: as an event which aims at promoting the exact opposite view, Pride Glasgow would therefore be considered blameworthy by honest Catholics. And Fr Morris isn’t a lone voice in the Church for thinking that: as much is clear from the GCU chaplaincy’s stance of solidarity with him.
According to Ms Gillies, Fr Morris’s views are “incompatible with his university chaplaincy role.” It’s for the university management to define what that role is, and if he is deemed to have overstepped a boundary, then there is no injustice in dropping him; my contention is that the boundary is an unfair and nonsensical one to be placed on a nominally Roman Catholic chaplain. The factor that makes Fr Morris “incompatible” with the role of university chaplain, we must conclude, is harbouring a straightforwardly Catholic view on sex and gender; in that case, what purpose does a religious office serve at a university if a mere affirmation of doctrine can lead to a sacking? Not only that, but the boundaries set by the University would suggest that management itself has a doctrinal preference with regards to who leads the chaplaincy. Ms Gillies might indeed prefer a more liberal priest, but as the leader of a secular and non-affiliated institution, it would be highly improper for her preferences to be made into policy. The debate between liberals and conservatives in the Catholic Church is a matter for Catholics, and for non-Catholics to weigh in and determine who may and who may not serve as members of the chaplaincy undermines the idea that the chaplaincy itself exists for believers.
Common to the criticism Fr Morris has met from Jordan Daly of Time for Inclusive Education, Green MSP Patrick Harvey as well as Pamela Gillies, is that Fr Morris’s biggest failing is his inability to conform to the new trinity of “equality, diversity and inclusivity”. Quite a sly tactic, as these principles are mostly at odds with traditional religious belief and consequently put even mainstream Catholic opinion beyond the pale. Take inclusivity: if we must deem Fr Morris reprehensible for failing to be inclusive of students who see no wrong in sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, then once again we will have to question the point of even allowing a Catholic chaplaincy to run on campus. The chaplaincy is administered by and for Roman Catholics; to imply that Fr Morris be dropped from the same chaplaincy because his words would exclude those who are not at least sympathetic with the Church’s moral teaching is perverse. What’s more, as anyone can see from the chaplaincy’s decision to support Fr Morris against GCU, the only people with a right of inclusion within the chaplaincy (and therefore the only people whose opinion matters), would appear to be mostly on his side.
The egalitarian ideal championed by Fr Morris’s critics would also be considered untenable by a normal Roman Catholic. For example, the Church’s sexual ethic would make the extension of such rights as marriage equality impossible: indeed, the whole project of modern political liberalism runs counter to most aspects of Catholic doctrine and practice. The authority accorded to the Pope as the vicar of Christ, the Church’s prohibition on female clergy and its insistence on degree and hierarchy all make up for a very un-egalitarian impression. I doubt whether those who claim that Fr Morris has done wrong by failing to make allowances for equality have seen that line of thought through to its extremity; just as inclusivity would make the idea of a Roman Catholic chaplaincy impossible, so too would accepting equality (in its vigorous, modern incarnation) as a moral axiom make orthodox Catholic belief impossible.
And so we are left at an impasse: the expectation of university leaders is that all its employees conform to its moral mantra, but a few stubborn voices insist otherwise as a matter of conscience. The absurdity of the current situation could at least be alleviated if those same leaders recognised how impossible it would be for those lone traditionalists to accept the new morality, rather than holding them to a standard we all know they don’t recognise, and then acting surprised when they come short. As regards the GCU chaplaincy, the ruling has put them in a farcical position; students and staff may all know what its members think about sex and gender, but they mayn’t be allowed to ever publically air those all too obvious views, for the risk of…what, exactly? If GCU wants to put a stop to farce and absurdity, it can do one of two things: either the Catholic chaplaincy must be allowed to be what it says on the tin, or it should be done away with altogether. The second option is only marginally more radical than what GCU management have done already; attitudes towards sex and gender that fifty years ago were commonplace are now unwelcome, so Vice-Chancellor Gillies et al. might as well finish the job and show the university’s priests, rabbis and imams the door. A bleak prospect, but at least then we’d know where we stand.