Room for Improvement: A lesson in anti-equal marriage letter writing

To the 1054 priests and 13 bishops, abbots and other senior Catholic figures who signed yesterday’s letter to the Daily Telegraph denouncing the government’s plans to allow gay people to marry as dangerous to Catholicism,

I read with interest yesterday your letter to the Daily Telegraph, in which you claim that the legalisation of same-sex marriage will severely restrict “the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship”.  And in which you argue that “marriage is only possible between a man and a woman” because of their “physical complementarity”.  It made for interesting reading and I must say that, on the whole, it was really well written, with some excellent phrases and some lovely vocabulary.

As a primary school teacher (and English specialist to boot), however, I couldn’t help but read your letter with a slightly critical eye.  And, even though there were some great parts, I couldn’t help but find a few sections that I feel could do with a little tweaking in order to make your letter top-notch.  (Ever the teacher, eh?)   And I was wondering if you would mind if I marked it for you, as I would the work of my students, just to give you a few pointers so that you could perhaps redraft it and send out a new and improved version to the Catholic faithful and any newspapers you choose.  I wouldn’t expect any payment for this.  I’d just do it out of the kindness of my heart.
So here goes.  Your letter appears below in italics.  My comments are in pink. Bold pink.
SIR – After centuries of persecution, Catholics have, in recent times, been able to be members of the professions and participate fully in the life of this country.
This is true and it’s always good to start a letter like this with something true.  One can always prevaricate and tell half-truths later on.  I like how you zero in immediately on the hardship and suffering that has been experienced by Catholics in this country in previous centuries.  It is a direct appeal to the reader’s heart and is a surefire way to gain sympathy.  Just be careful with your argument here, though, as the people you are arguing against (namely gays and lesbians who would like to be able to marry) have also suffered centuries of persecution and cannot to this day “participate fully in the life of this country”.  Highlighting your own persecution without mentioning theirs might sound a little bit like you’re trying to say that you didn’t deserve it but they do, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be misunderstood in this way.

Legislation for same-sex marriage, should it be enacted, will have many legal consequences, severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship.

In the second paragraph one usually starts to get into the nitty gritty of one’s argument, and this you do with gusto!   You have again started with something that’s true (namely that the legalising of same-sex marriage will have “many legal consequences”), so well done for that, but I feel it is a little too early in your letter to be getting into the half-truths, which you do in the second half of the paragraph.  The phrase: “severely restricting the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage” is a little bit of a white lie, as you know as well as I do that the Government has promised to those who desire to oppose equality the freedom to remain as bigoted as they wish, with no fear of legal reprisals.  Therefore, if I were you I’d lose this phrase, as by using a half-truth so early on you risk alienating your reader.  
Also, you’ve slightly misused the word “truth”.  As we all know, the dictionary defines “truth” as being something that is in accordance with fact or reality, which is clearly not what you mean here.  The word you were looking for was “belief”, which is defined as being a firmly held opinion.  Therefore, that phrase should be rewritten to read “the ability of Catholics to teach their beliefs about marriage”, in order to avoid the unfortunate tone of arrogance that is created here by the use of the word “truth”.
Also, you’ve made an error in the final part of the sentence when you link together schools (which are institutions that are required by law to teach equality, tolerance and love to children) with Catholic places of worship, which are institutions that are legally free to preach any amount of inequality and intolerance they wish.  By linking them together in the same sentence, you make it appear that you think it would be a bad thing for children to learn about respect for others, tolerance and the innate desire of humans of all colours, creeds and sexualities to be in loving relationships, which I’m sure you didn’t mean.  A brief rewrite will sort this out in a jiffy. 
It is meaningless to argue that Catholics and others may still teach their beliefs about marriage in schools and other arenas if they are also expected to uphold the opposite view at the same time.
There is some nice vocabulary in this sentence, namely “meaningless” and “uphold”. Well done for using that.  But just be careful that you fully understand the meaning of words before you use them.  It is not “meaningless” to say that Catholic schools can still teach the Catholic Church’s beliefs about marriage as long as they acknowledge that equal marriage exists and is a viable form of loving relationship between two human beings.  It is, in fact, full of meaning and is a very significant concession, particularly when one remembers that schools are places we send children to to have their minds opened, not closed.  I would rewrite this sentence so that it expresses your gratitude towards the Government for the fact that, even once equal marriage is in place, it will still allow the Catholic Church to teach intolerance, even to impressionable children in schools.
The natural complementarity between a man and a woman leads to marriage, seen as a lifelong partnership. This loving union – because of their physical complementarity – is open to bringing forth and nurturing children.
“Complementarity” – great word, which I guess is why you’ve used it twice.  I love the use of dashes (-) as parentheses as well.  That’s high-level use of punctuation!  You might want to take a look at your argument here though, because you seem to be suggesting that only people who can create babies can create “lifelong partnerships” and “loving unions”.   And we all know that’s not true 🙂
This is what marriage is. That is why marriage is only possible between a man and a woman. Marriage, and the home, children and family life it generates, is the foundation and basic building block of our society.
This is probably the best paragraph in your letter.  Well done.  You use some lovely stylistic devices: a mixture of simple and complex sentences, and repetition of a key word (“marriage”, three times), all of which make your writing engaging to read.  The content is also good.  In the penultimate paragraph of such a letter as this, the writer is at liberty to tell as many lies and half-truths as they wish, and this you do to great effect.  We all know that marriage is possible between a man and a woman, or a man a man, or a woman and a woman, as it happens in such varied configurations in many places around the world every day, but here you state clearly that “marriage is only possible between a man and a woman” (underlining mine).  This is such a bare-faced lie that it risks sounding utterly ridiculous, so you do well to express it with conviction.  Unless, of course, when you say that marriage is “only possible” between a man and a woman, you actually mean “according to our beliefs marriage should only be possible between a man and a woman”, in which case you really ought to make this clear, otherwise you run the risk of expressing your own opinion as if it were a fact, which is never clever.
We urge Members of Parliament not to be afraid to reject this legislation now that its consequences are more clear.
It’s always nice to end on a positive note, rather than an appeal to negativity and inequality.  Try rephrasing it like this: “We urge Members of Parliament to vote with their consciences, either in favour of equality or, like us, in favour of inequality”.  It’s truthful and to-the-point.
I hope you’ve found my comments useful.  All in all, it is a good letter.  It certainly leaves the reader in no doubt as to what you believe.  I’d certainly give it a B.  To improve your grade when writing your next letter, you just need to make sure that you take a little more care with the phrasing of your sentences so as not to make it sound like you believe that everyone else should think like you.  Acknowledging that your opinions are just that, opinions, and that it is important to treat people equally and with kindness is a surefire way to get an A!
Thanks for sharing your letter with me.  I’ve really enjoyed marking it.  Feel free to send your next letter over to me if you want me to cast an eye over it before you go public!
Ever at your service,
R