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Caroline Farrow: Montague flirts with her marriage-denying Oxford professor. Have they never heard of the Wedding of Cana?


The BBC’s ban on commercial adverts obviously doesn’t extend to plugs for its own output and so listeners to Monday’s BBC Radio 4’s Today programme were subjected to a five minute interview with historian Diarmaid MacCulloch promoting his latest TV show, entitled ‘Sex and the Church’.

Presenter Sarah Montague allowed MacCulloch to prattle on unchallenged under the guise of current affairs, as he expounded his historically dubious opinions on why conservative or orthodox Christians have got it all wrong about sex and marriage. Montague’s précis of the issue, encapsulated BBC bias in a nutshell. Christians, she said, struggle to deal with society’s preoccupation with sex and, therefore, how should the Catholic Church and the Church of England deal with our increasingly tolerant and liberal world?

Got that? Anyone who opposes liberal values of sexual permissiveness is, according to the BBC, intolerant and needs to learn to be more accepting. Never mind that the family owners of a small-town pizzeria are facing financial ruin and death threats for honestly answering a hypothetical question about their religious beliefs about same-sex marriage on local TV. No, it’s all the fault of the bigots and here comes a professor of church history at Oxford University to pour further petrol on the culture wars and stoke yet more intolerance towards Christians.

He helpfully points out that not only are sexually conservative Christians intolerant, but they are also ignorant and foolish for believing what the Church teaches them. MacCulloch has been looking at the evidence, has come to the conclusion that orthodox Christianity has got it all wrong and will enlighten us all in a three-part series that the BBC has categorised as ‘factual history’.

For all his credentials as Professor of Church History at Oxford University, Diarmaid MacCulloch seems to have a tenuous grasp on history, coming to a conclusion and then going in selective search of the evidence. His contention that the idea of a Christian marriage is an illusion, citing the fact that people didn’t actually go to church to get married, omits the fact that marriage ceremonies were an important part of the Jewish culture from which Jesus came. Contradicting himself within the interview, MacCulloch states firstly that there was no such thing as a church wedding in the first 1,000 years of the church’s history, but then went on to claim that before the eleventh century, church weddings were uncommon and probably only began around the 6th century.

So one minute they did not exist for a thousand years and the next they did, but were very rare! MacCulloch further undermined his cherished hypothesis that there was no Christian notion of marriage by noting that Christ’s only teaching in this area was to prohibit divorce, which would surely be peculiar in a society which had no fixed understanding of marriage?

The logic of this escaped Sarah Montague, who didn’t think to ask whether or not the existence of formal church wedding ceremonies actually meant that marriage itself didn’t exist? What was the prohibition on divorce all about, if the idea of a lifelong marriage between a man and a woman didn’t exist? Had I been in her place, I would have asked Professor MacCulloch what he thought happened at the Wedding of Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle, if there is no evidence that marriage as the church conceives of it ever existed back in the time of Christ. I’d also be interested to learn where Professor MacCulloch got the evidence for his assertion about how common weddings were prior to the eleventh century as not much in the way of statistics exists.

Theorising that Christian ideas surrounding celibacy and virginity are derived or imported from Platonism as MacCullough did in his interview, ignores the existence of the epistles of St Paul, which historical consensus dates as being among the very earliest of Church documents, pre-dating even the Gospel writers and which have very definite things to say on these matters, along with the other liberal bete-noirs such as homosexuality and marriage. Which is alarming coming from the professor of one of the world’s top academic institutions.

The fact is that however one chooses to interpret the historical evidence, marriage as understood by both Christians and Jews has existed since time immemorial and indeed the very beginning of the Bible. A lack of a formalised Christian wedding ritual is not evidence that marriage did not exist. One of the things that marked out the Jews and Christians as different and indeed scandalous to the prevailing Roman society was precisely their attitude to matrimony. Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian authors wrote in the second century about how unlike Roman and Greek culture, Christian marriage entailed sexual exclusivity: “All things are common among us but our wives”. Tertullian seems to have been happily married and been a loving, respectful husband to his wife. For him, married life is a partnership, not only in the material matters of daily life, but in the Christian service carried out through the household.

And, of course, egged on by a laughing presenter, MacCulloch could not resist the familiar cliches and attacks upon Catholic Church teaching regarding contraception and same-sex marriage. It is far from clear that all Catholics reject these teachings, as MacCulloch claims, especially when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, which regular Mass-attendees overwhelmingly reject as demonstrated in terms of their support for the Coalition for Marriage. In any event, Cathloicism, conservative Christianity or any religion for that matter, has never based their tenets on popular opinion, preferring instead to deal in existential matters of divine truth.

Far from being obsessed by sex, the Catholic position is very straightforward: marriage is defined as being the union of one man and one woman for life and is the only context in which sex should occur, free from contraception. It is true that we live in an increasingly sexualised society, but the obsession about the Church and sex is pure projection on behalf of the liberals who populate the media, who seem to be looking to validate sexually permissive mindsets and lifestyles and are therefore keen to do whatever they can to undermine Catholic doctrine and ‘re-educate’ believers.

Regardless of whether or not one subscribes to the Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage, it obviously bothers the BBC enough to have commissioned a three-part TV series attacking these beliefs and by implication those who hold them. One wonders whether or not they will hold the sexual beliefs of other faiths, such as Islam, which are being used to terrorise, persecute, torture and kill thousands around the world, to similar dubious historic scrutiny?

Writing in this week’s Crisis magazine, Rachel Lu reports on the finding that the millennial generation of Americans (those aged 18 -35) are in reality less sexually libertine than is widely supposed. They are more in step with Church teaching than Diarmaid or the BBC, because 40 per cent of them condemn sex between adults who have no intention of establishing a relationship. Lu lays the blame for the prevalence of campus rape culture at the door of ‘bad hook ups’ because, when rape is the only recognised sexual taboo, it is therefore expanded to include all sexual wrongs. The blame for this ought not to be laid at the door of the millennials or rape victims, but those adults who ‘failed to teach their children anything of note about the meaning or purpose of sex, or offer any useful guidelines as to when to engage in it’.

A 2013 national survey by University College, London found that millennials are having sex an average of 4.9 times a month for men and 4.8 times for women, compared to 6.2 and 6.3 respectively a decade ago. Whatever the reasons for this, one can hardly claim that it’s thanks to the influence of conservative Christianity.

It just goes to show that if anyone is obsessed with sex, it’s the generation of fifty to seventy year olds to which Diarmaid belongs, who would appear to be out of step with the youth of today. And when research is demonstrating that married Catholic couples have better sex than any other demographic, in a culture which parallels the sexual paganism of  ancient Rome, perhaps the sexually obsessed BBC ought to sit up and take note.

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Caroline Farrow
Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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