Let us have fudge, hope and charity

By Minette Marrin (THE TIMES, 28/01/07):

Let a hundred flowers bloom, Chairman Mao once said to China’s repressed intellectuals, inviting diverse ideas. Sure enough, when the intellectuals obliged, Mao ruthlessly mowed them all down. Our rulers do not believe in diversity either, although they are constantly nagging us to join them in celebrating it. What they really believe in, on the contrary, is orthodoxy and they are increasingly prepared to enforce it. That is the alarming lesson of the uproar about Catholic charities and gay adoption.

For our orthodox masters in parliament and in the public services it is not enough that gay couples have the right to adopt children like anyone else. It is not enough that they do indeed successfully do so, with the help of various agencies and with public funding, like any other couple. It’s not enough that they have the right to have surrogate babies, too, like anyone else. It’s not enough that Catholic adoption charities are willing to help gay couples find other agencies to arrange adoptions, although they will not do so themselves. The orthodox want more. They want to force those who deviate from the new orthodoxy to recant and to bend their heretic knees to it publicly, or face excommunication.

The orthodoxy holds that gay couples should have the same rights as everyone else and that is the law, too. I subscribe to this part of the orthodoxy myself. I don’t know of any reason why gays should not make as good (or as bad) parents as straights and there are two lesbians in my extended family who are the parents of two happy girls. I hate Catholic and Muslim attitudes to homosexuality, although I believe they are entitled to their views, just as I’m entitled to mine. All that concerns the rest of us is whether these views actively harm anyone.

The answer is clearly no. There are plenty of places, starting with local authorities, for a gay couple to go to arrange an adoption, other than to the homophobic church of Rome and its charities. In fact it would surely be rather peculiar for any gays to turn to the church as prospective parents. However, some do. In a conversation straight out of Alice in Wonderland, the Bishop of Birmingham said last week that his agencies do place children with single gay people, but not with gay couples. The jaw drops at the folly of this position. One gay good, two gays bad? One parent better than two? One can only suppose it has to do with some sophistry about a single gay parent being celibate. Whatever the reasoning, the Catholic position on gays is untenable.

What’s more, I don’t think anyone should be given formal exemption from the law, as the Catholic church is asking in this case. It is and should be illegal to discriminate against gay people. However, there is (or used to) be a sensible British tendency to tolerance, which does not always insist on the letter of the law. In a very diverse society it is sometimes wise to turn a blind eye; there is a fine British tradition of fudge.

It’s a sort of acceptable wriggle-room; it’s offered to doctors who refuse on principle to do abortions, to doctors who ease people’s deaths, to Orthodox Jewish and Islamic butchers, to state schools where Muslim parents don’t allow mixed-sex sport, to state schools which accept children of one faith, to gay clubs which exclude straights, to black organisations which exclude whites (even in the police). This benign tradition has developed for just such a case as this, so that a private charity should not be forced to do something it thinks (wisely or foolishly) is wrong.

The significant words here are private and charity. There is an important difference between public and private, between state provision and private charity. Charity begins as a personal impulse, sometimes but not always linked with religion. It might be a determination to help street children, like Dr Barnardo, it might be a wish to raise money for cancer research, it might be a drive to support an old people’s club; all of these impulses are specific and of their nature discriminatory.

Barnardo was excluding adults, cancer research excludes other illnesses, the old people’s club excludes Asbo teenagers and so on. A charity and its donors are working to an end which, however good, is discriminatory, according to the beliefs of the well-meaning people involved. Since many charities are based on religious faith, their values are somewhat exclusive.

To try to change that is to try to destroy the charity. That is what is likely to happen to the Catholic adoption charities. The losers will be the most hard-to-place children, whom Catholic charities have an excellent record in helping. Those like Gordon Brown and David Cameron who want to make use of the energies of charity should be careful not to repress them instead.

I call them charities because they are not agencies of state. Increasingly, though, they are becoming so. For many years I have been involved with a charity for adults with learning disabilities, for some of those years as a trustee, and I have watched it being turned into a provider of services for the state sector and, in effect, an agency of state. It does excellent work, but its services and its clients are largely decided by local authorities. Its development has been both driven and restricted by the requirements of local authorities, who pay the clients’ fees and call the tune; the original pioneering ideal of the parent-founders, no longer politically correct, has been subsumed.

For some time there has been an orthodoxy in social work training and thinking; the result is that this orthodoxy is imposed, via social services’ funding, on private charities. If the Catholic charities are deprived of state funding by local authorities, they will have to close. That’s not blackmail on their side — the bullying boot is on the other foot entirely.

True charity is heartfelt and personal and for that reason may well be unorthodox, or even politically very incorrect. Charities should be allowed to do what they believe is right and not forced to do what they believe is wrong. Isn’t it enough they do good in some way, if not in all? The green shoots and flowers of charity are tender and very diverse; the state should not be allowed to mow them all down.