Cardinal O'Brien jumps the shark

Allowing same-sex marriage is equivalent to legalising slavery, claims the head of the Catholic Chur

Listening to Cardinal Keith O'Brien spluttering semi-coherently into the microphone on the Today programme this morning, I felt sorry for my Catholic friends. I felt embarrassed for them. Like the article the cardinal wrote in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph in opposition to plans to allow same-sex marriage, the interview was (to use his own word) "grotesque", almost parodic in its extravagance. The validity of any of the points he might have been trying to make was lost amidst the general hysteria of his language. As was any remaining credibility his church might be imagined to possess.

To allow the unions entered into by same-sex couples to be legally referred to as "marriage" rather than civil partnership would, thinks O'Brien, represent a violation of human rights equivalent to the legalisation of slavery. It would shame the nation. It would be "madness", "arrogant", a "great wrong", an attempt to "redefine reality" at the behest of "a small minority of activists". It would be the next step down a slippery-slope: before we knew where we were, he told John Humphrys, "further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality".

Here's what His Eminence wrote about slavery:

Imagine for a moment that the government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that "no one will be forced to keep a slave". Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

When Humphrys pointed out that many might consider this comparison to be rather more "grotesque" than legally-recognised same-sex marriage, O'Brien was having none of it. The analogy was, he asserted, "A very, very good example as to what might happen in our own country if we go down this path."

I mean, really. What we are talking about here is replacing the phrase "civil partnership" with the word "marriage" in official documents. Calling a spade a spade. No more and no less.

O'Brien also makes much of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by which, he claimed, "marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women". On it he founds his preposterous claim that to allow same-sex marriage would be a "violation" of human rights.

The Declaration was written in 1948, at a time when in most countries homosexuality was still illegal (as, indeed, it remains in many countries even today). Gay rights were simply not on the agenda. It was not until last year that the UN Human Rights Council finally passed a resolution condemning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Nevertheless, the Article does not specify that marriage must be between a man and a woman. It merely asserts that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family".

Adding the words "or sexual orientation" to that list would neither destroy its meaning nor subvert its purpose, and if the Declaration were being drawn up today it is, I suggest, inconceivable that they would be omitted. Indeed, the use of the phrase "men and women" rather than, say, "human beings", doesn't strike me as an assertion of exclusive heterosexuality. Rather it should be read as a statement of sexual equality, reinforcing the following provision that marriage "shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". "Spouses", note, not "husband and wife."

Over the past decade, gay marriage has been made legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden, in parts of Mexico and Brazil, and in six American states. In none of those places has the sky fallen in. The list is growing, and will continue to grow. In several countries which like Britain have adopted the "compromise" of civil partnership, the debate has moved on, inevitably, to the next step of abolishing the artificial distinction between the two.

More and more, civil partnership looks to have been a temporary solution, a way of appeasing traditionally-minded defenders of the view of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union -- people who, let's be honest, never wanted the state to recognise gay relationships at all -- until society as a whole had become comfortable with the idea. One step at a time. The coalition's proposal is fully backed by David Cameron, who has rightly noted that the ideal of marriage, gay as well as straight, is inherently a conservative one. This seems like a natural time to embrace full equality in civil (if not religious) marriage. But it will happen sooner or later.

O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric, like that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, speaks of a Canute-like desperation to hold back the tide. It is as though he has given up on rational debate; as though he knows that the argument has already been lost. He should reflect on the damage his intemperate language will do to the image and long-term prospects of the Catholic Church in these islands.

In a recent message, Pope Benedict XVI contemplated the benefits of silence, a "precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive". Learning to communicate, he wrote, "is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization." Wise words indeed. Cardinal Keith O'Brien might do well to reflect on them.

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution