Saturday, 23 September 2017

The theology of Jacob Rees-Mogg


Britain has become an extremely intolerant country. We have reached the stage where in the name of liberalism and tolerance only certain views are allowed to be expressed. This is neither liberal nor tolerant.

It should be completely uncontroversial that a Catholic or at least some Catholics follow the teaching of the Catholic Church. Yet many people now appear to think, and it looks like they are right, that even to say that you agree with these teachings is to commit some sort of unforgivable sin that disqualifies you from public office. This is not tolerance. It is intolerance.


 When Jacob Rees-Mogg calmly and rationally explained his opposition to gay marriage and abortion no-one, but no-one actually looked at his argument. His opponents did not provide counter arguments rather they simply asserted that his views were unacceptable. Do we not have freedom of religion in Britain? Yes of course we do, but some religions are more equal than other religions.

The Church of England is no longer the established Church, nor indeed is the Church of Scotland. They may be this officially but in reality the only established Church is the Liberal/Left establishment that establishes what is correct and what is incorrect. Although some people in Britain can believe what they please and will never be asked about God and the consequences that follow from actually following the teachings their religion, others must cease believing what their religion tells them to believe and follow the Church of Political Correctness. This is not freedom of religion. This is not tolerance. It is intolerance.

Rees-Mogg thinks that gay marriage is simply not possible because marriage is a sacrament and Parliament has no power over sacraments. This lack of power is self-evidently true. The difficulty with his argument is that it would logically imply that only those who believe marriage is a sacrament are actually married. This would have the consequence of dissolving the vast majority of marriages in the UK.

Strictly speaking Protestants including those in the Church of England ought to think that there are only two sacraments (baptism, and communion). Catholics and Orthodox Christians think there are seven one of which is marriage. The difficulty for Rees-Mogg’s argument then is that it would not only invalidate gay marriage it would invalidate the marriage of everyone who is neither a Catholic nor Orthodox.

Where I think he is right however is in the suggestion that marriage is at least connected with God. Until relatively recently everyone believed this. Nearly every marriage in Britain until a few generations ago would have followed the words of the Prayer Book which explained why there was such a thing as marriage.

First, It was ordained for the increase of mankind according to the will of God, and that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.

This is why we have marriage rather than simply living together. Even people who have ceased to believe in God still maintain the traditions of marriage, just as many people who have ceased to be Christians still follow Christian morality. But why?

Why should we think it necessary for people to marry? Why when they do marry should we think it desirable that they remain married? The Church has an answer. Marriage was created by God, firstly so that there would be children.

Secondly, It was ordained in order that the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be hallowed and directed aright; that those who are called of God to this holy estate, should continue therein in pureness of living. 

The problem is that if you don’t believe in God why should you want to be a part of something ordained by God? Alternatively if you don’t think that marriage was ordained by God, but instead was created by human beings, why should you want to be part of it at all? Why not just live together?

The whole point of marriage and the reason it developed in our country as it did is to regulate our natural instincts and to make them pure. But if you think this is all lies and nonsense why get involved at all? Why follow this tradition? The fundamental problem is that marriage is above all a promise to love someone and remain with them forever. If it isn’t this, it isn’t anything. But what makes me keep this promise. For a Christian, like Jacob Rees-Mogg the answer is clear. He must remain married because he promised to do so in the sight of God. But if you don’t think God sees, why should you keep your promise?

We also, of course, have secular laws with regard to marriage. We don’t have to marry in a church at all. But we still promise. But why and what makes us keep it? The answer I’m afraid is that nothing makes us keep our promise. As soon as many of us tire of our wives or husbands, or as soon as we cease to feel the passion that we once felt, or as soon as we meet someone else, well at that point we break our promise. But this isn’t marriage. It is living together with a few legal strings attached.

It turns out then that Rees-Mogg is at least partly right. Most people in Britain marry in a conditional way, crossing their fingers when they promise. The loss of God is the loss of marriage. No law holds us to our promise, not for long anyway. No secular morality tells us that we must keep our promise. We are all free to break it when we please. But this means that we don’t promise and therefore don’t get married.

It turns out then that marriage is inherently connected with the Church. Without the God the idea of marriage as traditionally conceived simply collapses. We are left with the ritual, quite an expensive one, but it has become empty and quite literally meaningless. This is what happens when you keep the tradition but lose the foundation that keeps it from standing. It falls down.

The reasons given for marriage by the Church make the very idea of gay marriage inconceivable. Gay marriage contradicts the purpose of marriage. Of course society can decide to make any civil laws it pleases. If gay people wish to live together and make certain legal promises there need be nothing to stop them. But it isn’t marriage. The way to discover what is a thing is to ask the question what is it for? The purpose of marriage is so that women can have children in safety and security and so that the natural instincts of both men and women are regulated in a way that is beneficial both for themselves and for society. We have forgotten this purpose and so marriage has become purposeless. Worse by extending marriage beyond its purpose we have ended up with a situation where only those who believe that marriage is a sacrament or at least that they promise in the sight of God actually marry. Everyone else is just taking part in a very expensive charade involving white dresses, castles and drunkenness.

When you take away the foundation of morality, you are left with mere law. Everything at this point becomes permissible so long as you can get away with it. But the logical outcome of permissiveness is to say that marriage is an outdated tradition that we should dispense with. In the end if everyone can get married, then no-one can. We have already reached the point where almost no one does.  

Rees-Mogg also got into trouble because of his views on abortion. His argument will go something like this:

Killing people is wrong,
Babies in the womb are people,
Therefore killing babies in the womb is wrong.

You really have two choices here. Either you can deny that killing people is wrong or you can deny that babies in the womb are people. The first option is unpalatable for obvious reasons. If killing some people is not wrong, where are we going to draw the line? The problem with the babies in the womb are not people argument is that it looks awfully like the slaves are not people argument that meant that in the United States they could declare that all people are created equal except slaves. Why should we discriminate against these people who happen to be situated in a womb?

If I was teaching in a school and discovered that one of the children in the class was conceived as a result of rape or incest would I be morally justified in killing it? Obviously not. But why should I be justified then in killing it because it is situated in a womb rather than a classroom?

But what about the rights of a woman to do what she wants with her body? Indeed these rights must be taken into account. But which human right gives me the right to kill another human being? Self-defence perhaps gives me that right. But babies in the womb are only rarely a threat to a woman’s safety.

The babies in the womb are not people argument is faced with the difficulty that we all accept that babies outside the womb are people. Killing babies which have been born is wrong is liable to lead to a murder charge. But then if we wish to maintain that babies in the womb are not people, we are forced to say at what point they become people.

Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks that the moment of conception is the moment at which life begins. For this reason he thinks that all abortion is wrong. This is logical rather than shocking.  But why should the moment of conception be theologically significant. I think he is mixing up science (the moment of conception is only known about because of science) with theology.

Traditionally the Church knew no more about the mechanics of conception than did anyone else. A few hundred years ago no-one knew that a sperm entered into an egg. They didn’t have microscopes that were powerful enough. When did the Church think life began? It thought that it began with quickening or the moment when the woman first feels the baby in the womb. The Church traditionally treated this moment as the moment when the baby gains a soul.

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.

Elisabeth the mother of John the Baptist is filled with the Holy Spirit at the point when she first feels her baby moving. The baby gains a soul at this point not before.

For this reason it is not necessary to believe as Rees-Mogg does that all abortion is wrong from the moment of conception. It is perfectly possible to say we have an actual person when it gains a soul but prior to that we only have a potential person. But two people who first meet and think about marrying have in them any number of potential persons. Their failure to marry and have sex may prevent one of these potential persons from becoming an actual person. But there is clearly nothing wrong in this. If there were, a man could demand sex on the grounds that it makes a potential person actual.

From this we need not be quite as strict as Rees-Mogg. There is a window of opportunity where it is possible to abort babies without doing anything seriously wrong. Quickening occurs between 15-20 weeks after conception. Rape victims and victims of incest ought to be able to have an abortion prior to that. Other women too who elect to have early abortions need not feel that they are doing anything particularly wrong. A cluster of cells that is neither conscious nor self-conscious may or may not become a human being, but it is not a human being yet. A potential thing is not the thing it might become. An acorn is not an oak and therefore while chopping down an oak may be wrong throwing an acorn on the fire is morally unproblematic.

We ought to be living in a free society which is tolerant of the views of everybody whether religious or not. The law about things like marriage and abortion must take into account the wishes and beliefs of everyone. It cannot be that religious views dictate who can or cannot form a life-long partnership. But I must be free to say that I don’t think that it is possible for gay people to marry. I believe it contradicts the meaning of the words “man”, “woman” and “marry”. They on the other hand are free to call what they are doing what they please. But they are not free to compel anyone else to go along with the way they use or misuse language. Likewise religious views ought not to determine at what point abortion is legal or illegal. We do not, thank God, live in a theocracy. But I am free to think that early abortion is morally and theologically unproblematic while also maintaining that late abortion is a form of legalised murder. Rees Mogg should be free to believe what he believes. It should not disqualify him from high office, nor lead to him being described as a bigot. He is not the bigot. It is those who describe him as such who are bigots. Only when we allow everyone to believe what they believe without fear of prejudice will we find that we are living in a tolerant country. We are not living in it today.    


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