The debate on the age of consent for homosexual men

OPINION by Bishop Ralph Heskett
I am conscious that the recent judgment regarding the age of consent for men who are homosexual, has caused disquiet among some in the Christian community.

I appreciate that this is a delicate matter and I did send representation when the issue was taken up by the courts, noting how Cardinal Basil Hume responded sensitively to the same issue in Britain during the 1990s. He was very aware of the fact that at times the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality and indeed other areas of sexual orientation and behaviour can be presented in such a way as to leave those who are struggling with these issues feeling hopeless or abandoned. It is important that this should not happen.

Therefore I think it may be helpful to draw attention to some of the principles which Cardinal Hume outlined all those years ago. What he said was based on the fact that the Church believes in the dignity of each human person and holds in reverence the mysterious gift of sex. The scriptures and our tradition teach us that marriage and only marriage is the context in which it is lawful to have a full sexual relationship. The obvious consequences of this belief and teaching are clear for all of us, whether we are heterosexual or homosexual, and I believe it is important for the pastors of the Church to continue clearly to proclaim this message.

When it comes to discussing these matters in the wider public forum, it is important for the Church to take into consideration the fact that there are many people of other faiths and none in our society, who do not adhere to this belief, not to mention those Catholics who question the Church’s teaching. To quote Cardinal Hume directly: “The Catholic Church teaches a high and demanding ideal of marriage and sexuality, one that is often difficult to realise in practice.” He went on to stress the immense importance of providing pastoral care to those who are struggling and said it would “involve a respectful attitude and a sympathetic understanding of their situation”.

On the question of legislation, those entrusted with this task have a whole array of issues to take into consideration, not least the persecution of the homosexual community in society down through the centuries. It is now that I wish to quote Cardinal Hume in some detail.

The Church condemns violence of speech and action against homosexual people. The Church has a serious responsibility to work for the elimination of any injustices perpetrated on homosexuals by society. As a group that has suffered more than its share of oppression and contempt, the homosexual community has particular claim upon the concern of the Church. But it does not follow that the Church would have to advocate equivalence in law between the age of consent for heterosexual genital activity and homosexual genital activity. That is a question for the legislative, having regard for all the relevant considerations.

Morality and law are closely linked, indeed criminal law can and often does protect what the moral law teaches. The Church does not expect that those acts which are morally wrong should, by that fact alone, be made criminal offences. In general, it is neither practical nor desirable that everything immoral be made illegal. Thus adultery is clearly immoral, but it would be difficult in our society to make it illegal.

While the debate was still in progress the Cardinal acknowledged the variety of opinions in the Catholic community as follows:

Catholics may differ as to how they see the common good. Some advocate lowering the age of consent to 16, on the grounds, for example, that a young man must be able to seek medical help or advice without fear of being arrested for breaking the law. Others question whether the common good would be best served by lowering the age of consent. It would send, they argue, a further wrong signal to our society. Furthermore they stress the emotional and sexual immaturity of 16 year olds and indeed 18 year olds as well. Some would even advocate the raising of the age of consent.

The Cardinal concluded: “The law should always seek to protect young people and to promote moral values that society can recognise as wholesome.”

This remains an ongoing challenge for Government, the Judiciary and the whole community.