The Irish Catholic-based marraige agency Accord has issued an email to staff saying the agency should decline giving relationship advice to a gay couple. The agency clearly took the line, which many will find reasonable, that such relationships do not reflect the teachings of the church. In fairness, the email didn’t say this but suggested that staff tell such applicants that such a service is ‘not one they offer ‘and that the same-sex couples should apply elsewhere. It even gives the names of possible other sources for advice. However, Accord is in receipt of considerable State funding which begs the question as to whether their advice, or lack of it, is in fact contravening the State’s discriminatory laws.

It seems that no same-sex applicants have yet applied for Accord’s advice. But it is interesting that the agency has prepared itself for such an approach, and they’d be right. Applying for such advice could well form part of a test case, to advance the case for gay rights and gay marriage, including into the world of religious based, but State funded bodies. This is the front line now in the struggle between liberal and conservative forces in terms of life and society and we will be seeing much more of it in the coming years, both here and in other countries. In fact, what is significant about the campaign for gay marriage is how common it is to almost all Western countries at the same time: an impressive coordination, or else just a case of the issue coming to the fore internationally. In other parts of the world however, gay rights are way behind and only this week India announced it would to ban homosexuality altogether, an edict which seems extraordinary, in a modern BRIC country in 2013.

The Accord situation here is tricky. Most of us would welcome civil society unions and even marraige for same sex relationships, but would acknowledge that religious institutions, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, have the right to deal with relationships, and marriage, in terms of their own faith. Forcing them to do otherwise, is to impose a State secularism on them and is just oppressive and unfair. If there is a battle to be had for gay rights within the Catholic Church, as there apparently is, let be had in that context. Yes, the Accord agency is in receipt of State funding, but why should that preclude it from continuing as a Catholic agency reflecting Catholic values? One wouldn’t expect an Islamic group, receiving State funding, to suddenly start applying the most progressive of modern feminist values.

The issue also highlights the dichotomy within the Catholic Church’s own position on homosexuality – which is that while it now recognises, and do not discriminate against, the idea or orientation of homosexuality, the Church does not condone the act. So basically, it is that it is tolerable to be gay so long as you don’t do anything with it! Such conundrums or subtleties are not unusual, perhaps to a Church that has advocated belief in a virgin birth and transubstantiation. Indeed, defenders of this distinction could point to celibacy where heterosexuality could be considered a tolerable condition, but it is one that is not activated.

And while the Catholic distinction between passively or actively gay sounds too much like Church tying itself up in knots, as it tries to catch up with societal norms. And this is the question, should the Church really bother trying to accomodate itself to ever changing modern values, as the current Pope seems eager to do, or should it stay true to its traditional faith and values. For many of us, this is a debate best left to the Church and its faithful and doesn’t involve the rest of us. And so one could say that, to avoid awkward situations such as that at the Accord agency, State funding should be cut from all such Church-connected organisations. But then if so many other advocacy groups, secular quangos and nebulous ‘rights bodies’ can also get State funding, then why shouldn’t the religious, to reflect their long held values? Like I say, it’s a tricky one, and it’s a debate that will only grow.