Last weekend, as people around the world celebrated the annual Gay Pride events, the Hong Kong Catholic Church saw fit to remind us (again) of the arrogance, ignorance and intolerance of their faith.
First we had Cardinal John Tong Hon openly calling for voters to take into account a candidate’s position on gay rights in the upcoming district council elections. Whilst district councillors may not have the power to legislate, this call is politically significant for the message it sends to legislators, who will themselves shortly be up for election.
Seeking to ease the controversy, auxiliary Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung then weighed in by comparing homosexuality to drug abuse. It is revealing that both these comments were made in good faith and, in the latter case, as a conciliatory gesture. By and large the Catholic community has stood by these statements. In the Church’s distorted sense of reality, this is a message of “love”.
Whilst the timing of these statements meant they would – as was surely expected – attract media attention, the homophobic political message is by no means unusual. The position of the Church on homosexuality, and the view that same-sex marriage was an issue around which the faithful were being politically mobilised, was evident in Cardinal Tong Hon’s pastoral letter of the 21 September.
Entitled Human Ecology and the Family, Cardinal Tong Hon’s letter was an open warning to both the faithful and the community at large that legalising same-sex marriage – in effect, recognising and according loving homosexual relationships the same familial rights as heterosexual ones – was both immoral and unnatural, and that such relationships posed a serious challenge to the values upon which our society is built.
Referencing the Catholic concept of human ecology, Tong Hon quoted Pope Francis in affirming “the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment,” and asserting that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will.”
Let us remember that this is not nature as understood by either reason or science, or through observation and evidence; but which relies on blind faith in scripture that has, at other times and places, been interpreted to condone slavery, genocide and rape.
Homosexual relationships have been documented in over 450 different animal species, and according to a 2012 article in Yale Scientific, are present in more than 10% of all prevailing species. Not only are these relationships natural, there is corroborating evidence to show why they probably evolved and why such relationships are beneficial for survival. As the article explains, research conducted by biologists at the University of California has found evidence to suggest that same-sex pairing in many species “actually alleviates the likelihood of divorce and curtails the pressure on the opposite sex by allowing members to exhibit more flexibility to form partnerships, which in turn strengthens social bonds and reduces competition.” In short, homosexual relations strengthen all relationships existing within a society. No one is born homophobic. From childhood, what we by nature relate to is love.
Homosexuality is neither a corruption of nature nor is it unnatural. What is a corruption of nature, and a trait found only in our species and only after the advent of religious faith, is homophobia.
Cardinal Tong Hon’s letter also castigates the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges to legalise same-sex marriage. He speaks of “a primordial and objective truth, namely that marriage involves a union between a man and a woman.” He then asks, “What, then, gives the Court the right to redefine marriage in the first place?”
Not only is there no such “truth”, but history also shows us that marriage has been understood differently through the ages and between cultures. Today, for many, it is no longer the contract between families that it once signified for much of the history of Christian Europe.
As both a concept and as a social institution, marriage predates Christianity. For much of Christian history, marriage was viewed as being outside the remit of faith. It was a legal contract defined by the state. As such, far from “redefining” marriage, the courts are merely refining their legal definition to better reflect social values and the people from whom their authority is derived. The real question should be: by what right does the Church claim to define marriage?
The believer may claim divine authority. But this authority cannot be imposed on those who do not believe, let alone recognise its right to dictate how we choose to live. My own sense of authority is derived from my own faculties, and shaped by critical reasoning. “Faith” means nothing to the faithless.
If there is a role for the Catholic Church in a modern, knowledge-driven society that values progress and understanding – and I do believe there is – it must be as a supportive institution that fosters love, tolerance and humility. The Church is right in saying that such virtues – the gentle virtues – are too often overshadowed in a world dominated by competition and a sense of individualism that breeds greed and selfishness.
As Cardinal Tong Hon’s message illustrates, in both its content and its timing, the Catholic Church in practice dresses bigotry and arrogance in humility, preaches intolerance in righteousness, and ferments hatred in the name of love.
It is time Hong Kong people and the Catholic community sent a clear message to the likes of Cardinal Tong Hon and Bishop Yeung that they are wrong in their understanding of homosexuality, and that their faith does not give them the right to define the secular institution that is marriage. Tell the Church to acknowledge nature for what it is, and not for what they want it to be – a justification for their own prejudice; to embrace what we feel instinctively, and not be slaves to bigotry, intolerance and hate. We should let them know that love is beautiful and should be celebrated, and that it is not our sex but the love between partners that is the bedrock on which a family is built.
For the sake of their Church, and in the spirit of their more progressive predecessors who helped shape our society, they would do better to be a reflection of the modern, inclusive and progressive society that, at its best, Hong Kong can be.