Despite unethical mental reservation, Bishops did threaten to withdraw from civil aspects of marriage

Eamon martinArchbishop Eamon Martin has indicated there is to be no change in the role of priests in the civil element of marriages despite the passage of the same-sex marriage referendum, as reported by Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times.

The Catholic Primate also disputed whether the bishops ever used the word “threat” in discussion of withdrawal of priests from civil aspects of marriage ceremonies. “The word threat came from yourselves in the media,” he said.

Well, the word “threat” may have come from the media, but that was because the relevant statement from the Bishops can accurately be described as a threat.

In March 2013, the Council for Marriage and the Family of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference, in a submission to the Constitutional Convention, explicitly said that:

“Any change to the definition of marriage would create great difficulties and in the light of this if there were two totally different definitions of marriage the Church could no longer carry out the civil element.”

Of course, it was aways unlikely that the Bishops would carry out that threat. They didn’t even make such a threat when divorce was made legal, which was at least as significant a change to their definition of marriage as marriage equality will be.

But it is unethical for them to imply that they did not make the threat, by saying that they didn’t use the word “threat” while making it.

The Catholic tactic of ‘mental reservation’

This tactic must be seen alongside the previous revelation that Archbishop Desmond Connell of Dublin was happy to knowingly mislead people by a process that he described as ‘mental reservation’.

As Connell explained in 2009:

“There may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be.”

Indeed, the Cloyne Report [21.20] refers to two accounts of the same meeting having different end times, and suggests that:

“It may be that that time difference was also of some assistance in performing the mental gymnastics of mental reservation in the manner of recording the details of the meeting.”

The Irish Catholic Hierarchy of course tells the truth about many things (which is a pretty low hurdle for ethical behaviour), but it is unsafe to assume that telling the truth is their default position, without further corroboration, in cases where it is in their interests to mislead us.

Context of the currently withdrawn threat

The currently withdrawn threat is made even clearer when you read the quoted sentence in its context within the submission:

“4. Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. In marriage, a woman and man promise love and fidelity to each other, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health as long as they both shall live.

28.The Catholic Church’s position is clear; it does not give recognition to any other partnerships or legal unions as having an ethical or legal equivalence with marriage. The Church opposes therefore a change in the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples or other forms of relationship other than that of the relationship between one woman and one man. We believe that it would be damaging to the common good should civil law render same sex unions equivalent to marriage.

29. It is important to note that in Ireland the Church and State co-operate closely in the solemnisation of marriages and that in excess of 70% of marriages in the Republic of Ireland are celebrated by couples choosing the Christian celebration of marriage with both elements taking place within the same ceremony. Any change to the definition of marriage would create great difficulties and in the light of this if there were two totally different definitions of marriage the Church could no longer carry out the civil element.

30.Marriage as the foundation of the family exists prior to the State and has its own legitimate and established nature and identity. The State therefore exists to serve marriage as ,the foundation of the family. Indeed, current Constitutional provisions acknowledge that the State has a duty to preserve and promote marriage as an institution that precedes the State.”

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  1. To expect any or all of those in power to be open and transparent and guileless and honest and truthful is to not live in the real world.

    Meaning to say one can almost be, but not quite fully be, justified in thinking they (the powerful) intentionally tell lies. It’s not only in war that truth suffers loss, there’s diplomacy and politics also. They don’t need to tell lies to mislead; I think they avoid that with such word tricks that enable backing out while claiming to be truthful which they are not. Eels.

    You want truth? Stay talking to friends only.

  2. But it is unethical for them to imply that they did not make the threat, by saying that they didn’t use the word “threat” while making it.

    Of course it would. What slithery nonsense they do talk. If I were to be in a position to do the following and said “if you do X I will shoot you in the foot”, that would be a threat despite the fact that I did not say “I use this threat: I will shoot you” or something similar. Do such people really think that playing with semantics makes them look clever?

    The sad thing is that they do manipulate people by using such tactics.

  3. @Carrie:

    Indeed, but they realise that they are talking to two distinct groups of people, one of whom will interpret their words the way they (the bishops) wish and the other which will see them for what they are.

    It is all pedantry and semantics, but it is effective nonetheless.

    Still, it’s worth calling them on it.

  4. “They didn’t even make such a threat when divorce was made legal, which was at least as significant a change to their definition of marriage as marriage equality will be.”

    Because divorce didn’t change the nature of what Marriage is but the Marriage Referendum (see Michael how I didn’t imply or replace the word Referendum with ‘equality’) has changed the definition in law of what Marriage is in Ireland.

    ‘The Catholic tactic of ‘mental reservation’ ‘ Are you here implying the Catholic Church of this? Granted Persons can. If you are I find that offensive.

  5. Emmanuel,

    Divorce made the state definition of marriage different to the church definition of marriage, to at least as significant an extent as marriage equality will, and that was the test that the bishops were putting forward.

    With regard to mental reservation, yes it is Catholic doctrine, dating back centuries.

    Here are some excerpts from an Irish Times report at the time of the Cloyne Report:

    “One of the most fascinating discoveries in the Dublin Archdiocese report was that of the concept of “mental reservation” which allows clerics mislead people without believing they are lying.

    According to the Commission of Investigation report, “mental reservation is a concept developed and much discussed over the centuries, which permits a church man knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”.

    It gives an example. “John calls to the parish priest to make a complaint about the behaviour of one of his curates. The parish priest sees him coming but does not want to see him because he considers John to be a troublemaker. He sends another of his curates to answer the door. John asks the curate if the parish priest is in. The curate replies that he is not.”
    The commission added: “This is clearly untrue but in the Church’s view it is not a lie because, when the curate told John that the parish priest was not in, he mentally reserved the words ‘…to you’.”

    Here are some excerpts from how the Catholic Encyclopaedia describes it:

    “All Catholic writers were, and are, agreed that when there is good reason, such expressions as the above may be made use of, and that they are not lies. Those who hear them may understand them in a sense which is not true, but their self-deception may be permitted by the speaker for a good reason. If there is no good reason to the contrary, veracity requires all to speak frankly and openly in such a way as to be understood by those who are addressed. A sin is committed if mental reservations are used without just cause, or in cases when the questioner has a right to the naked truth….

    [A later] theory became known as the doctrine of strict mental reservation, to distinguish it from wide mental reservation with which we have thus far been occupied. In the strict mental reservation the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the words which he utters, and the words together with the mental qualification make a true assertion in accordance with fact. On the other hand, in a wide mental reservation, the qualification comes from the ambiguity of the words themselves, or from the circumstances of time, place, or person in which they are uttered.”

  6. Michael,
    Thank you for your message. I will admit I never heard of ‘Mental Reservation’ or ‘Mental Equivocation’ till today. The Irish Times example of ‘John’ is an out and out lie and not a good example of Mental Reservation. Sometimes we are bound in conscience to veil the truth e.g. Many Catholic men and women went to their deaths hiding family and friends from a totalitarian state. I except that Mental Reservation can be used to cover one’s own backside! That is wrong. Another an example When a person who knows he is guilty of a crime nevertheless pleads not guilty, this is merely legal and not moral. All Mental Reservation ought to be used with Prudence.

    I think you bringing up the Reporting into Clerical Sex abuse to boast your argument is weak and to use it in this no really news article. This perceived threat from the Bishops was never going to go ahead. As we seen from the Catholic Bishops of England perceived threat over ‘Same Sex Marriage’ the English Bishops spoke of the same perceived threat but 18 months on and nothing has taken place with regard to the Church pulling back from the Civil marriage signing of papers.

    The only time the threat to pull out of the Civil signing for the registrar is if the Government of the day force the Church or pass a law stating ‘All solemnisers must now perform all weddings heterosexual or homosexual’, as was the case I believe in Denmark with the State run Lutheran ‘Church’.

    Would you agree with that Michael? Having the Catholic Church performing marriage for Same Sex couples by act of the Dail?

  7. Emmanuel,

    Actually, the Irish Times example of ‘John’ (or, more accurately, the Cloyne Commission example of ‘John’) is almost identical to an example used in the Catholic Encyclopaedia:

    “Such expressions as “He is not at home” were called equivocations, or amphibologies, and when there was good reason for using them their lawfulness was admitted by all. If the person inquired for was really at home, but did not wish to see the visitor, the meaning of the phrase “He is not at home” was restricted by the mind of the speaker to this sense, “He is not at home for you, or to see you.” Hence equivocations and amphibologies came to be called mental restrictions or reservations.”

    I agree with you that it is a deliberate lie, but it seems that the Catholic doctrine of mental reservation would disagree with both of us.

    I also agree with you that the threat was highly unlikely to have been carried out. But I don’t think that takes from the probable purpose of the threat, which was to pressurise people who would mistakenly believe that it was likely that the threat would be carried out.

    With regard to your question, no I don’t agree that the Dail should force the Catholic Church to perform church marriages for same sex couples.

    But I do believe that people (of whatever religion or none) who are appointed by the State as civil solemnisers should not be able to discriminate against same sex couples in the performance of their civil duties.

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