From the editor’s desk – ‘The Tablet’
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have defended the right of gay Catholics to remain in civil partnerships. They have told the Government that the abolition of civil partnerships by their automatic conversion into same-sex marriages “could cause great harm to lesbian and gay Catholics”. Many of them “do not wish to enter into civil same-sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only”.
This defence of the religious convictions of Catholics in civil partnerships is not quite a U-turn in church policy, but will appear that way to many. In a statement in 2003 the Bishops’ Conference warned: “We believe the Government’s proposals to create civil partnerships for same-sex couples would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them. They would in the long term serve to undermine marriage … ”
It logically follows that they would have to disapprove of any lesbian or gay Catholics entering civil partnerships. Despite this, some couples did so, and have asked the bishops for support in their opposition to what the Government is now proposing – that all civil partnerships would, at a stroke, be recognised as same-sex marriages. The bishops’ response is mature and generous. Instead of scolding those who did not heed their words in 2003, they have sided with them.
When Pope Francis remarked in the course of a press conference last summer, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” he probably did not realise the dramatic effect it would have. The Catholic Church’s teaching regarding homosexuality did not alter. But its attitude certainly did. In the public mind, his words caused a transformation.
It is fair to say that in all such matters, the bishops of England and Wales keep a careful eye on Rome. They are evidently less afraid of a rebuke from Rome than they might have been 10 years ago. The climate surrounding homosexuality in the Catholic Church has become altogether more relaxed and humane.
Narrowly, it could be said that having lost the battle to prevent civil partnerships and then having lost the battle to prevent same-sex marriage, the bishops are pragmatically making the best of it. But the effect is much more positive. It fosters a sense of inclusiveness – that nobody, because of lifestyle, sexual orientation or previous marital history, should be marginalised by the Church or feel that the Church is not behind them when their interests are threatened.
The Pope’s “who am I to judge?” remark could be applied to any other person who “seeks God and has good will” but does not precisely conform to the rules. It implies that if they are conscientiously searching for the right thing to do, the Church, having reminded them of its teaching, still makes space for them. That may be what Pope Francis really means by “mercy”.
Grown-up Catholics are perfectly able to go about their occupations and professions, and live their sexual, social and family lives, without referring, as if they were children, to a detailed list of “dos and don’ts” drawn up in the Vatican.
This is not a free-for-all, but how responsible, discerning adults normally behave. As St Paul said: in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
The Church is opposing a move to abolish civil partnerships and replace them with same-sex marriages, arguing that “great harm” would be caused to those who opted for the unions but believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
In a submission to a government consultation on civil partnerships in the wake of the introduction of same-sex marriages, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has warned that some same-sex Catholic couples who did not want to marry could lose their legal rights because they do not wish to do so.
The 12-week consultation, which closed last month and allowed submissions from interested parties and members of the public, investigated whether civil partnerships should be abolished and automatically converted into same sex marriages which were introduced in March. The review also questioned whether opposite-sex couples should be allowed to enter into civil partnerships.
The Church’s submission to this year’s consultation, written by the Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, said: “We have received representations from some lesbian and gay Catholics stating that they would not wish to enter into a same sex marriage, and who fear that their legal rights will be removed if civil partnerships are abolished.” He added: “Some lesbian and gay Catholics do not wish to enter into civil same sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only, but still wish to have the legal rights that are contained in a civil partnership. The removal of the option for same sex couples to enter into civil partnerships could cause great harm to those Catholics and others.”
The support for civil partnerships appears to be a shift from a submission made by the hierarchy over a decade ago opposing the planned introduction of civil partnerships which stated: “We believe [they] would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them.”
However, in 2011 Archbishop Vincent Nichols, now a cardinal, acknowledged that civil partnerships provide gay and lesbian Catholics with legal rights. “We would want to emphasise that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship [and] a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision,” he said although he later clarified that he was simply recognising the “existence” of these partnerships.
Archbishop Smith, who is chairman of the bishops’ conference’s Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, added: “To remove the legal right of these same sex couples, who do not wish to ‘marry’, to enter into a civil partnership would mean removing legal rights for such people in future. We are opposed to any automatic conversion of civil partnerships into same sex marriages. The two realities were established differently in law with distinct meanings. Same sex couples who entered into civil partnerships may not wish to have their relationship labelled in this way.”
The Church of England has also opposed the move to replace civil partnerships with same-sex marriages on the grounds that, for religious reasons, gay and lesbian couples may not wish to marry.
More than 60,000 people have been registered in civil partnerships since they were introduced in 2005.
Perhaps the most important paragraph in this latest editorial from the U.K. Roman Catholic newspaper – ‘The Tablet’ – may be identified in the following extract from the editor’s comment”
“Narrowly, it could be said that having lost the battle to prevent civil partnerships and then having lost the battle to prevent same-sex marriage, the bishops are pragmatically making the best of it. But the effect is much more positive. It fosters a sense of inclusiveness – that nobody, because of lifestyle, sexual orientation or previous marital history, should be marginalised by the Church or feel that the Church is not behind them when their interests are threatened”
Now there can be little doubt that this movement towards the relaxation of the R.C. Church’s initial opposition to Civil Partnership for monogamously-partnered Gay people has been accelerated by the arrival of legal Same-Sex Marriage in England and Wales.
However. it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and the Church’s dramatic change of attitude – in resisting the abolition of Civil Partnership – has brought about an extraordinary relaxation of historic opposition to Same-Sex marriage-style relationships that will no doubt surprise many Roman Catholics who had given up on the Church’s official view of homosexuality – as offensive to God.
A lot of thanks for this new understanding of Gay people can be attribute to the new Head of the Roman Catholic Church – Pope Francis – whose eirenic statement to the press on this issue, wherein he made this remark – “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” – must have caused some fluttering in the dovecotes at the Vatican, while at the same time signalling the possibility of a new polity recognising the human rights of homosexual people to form monogamous relationships.
The Church of England has been caught by the very same dilemma. When we realise the fervent opposition that was evident against the institution of Civil Partnerships for Same-Sex Couples in the U.K., we now begin to understand the seeming relaxation of this policy – as the only alternative to the Church having to facilitate Same-Sex Marriage, rather than the couple undertaking Civil Partnership.
When faced with the threat of having to re-visit the possibility of re-defining the extant basis of Marriage – as being only between and man and a woman – a prospect seemingly repugnant to the Church, and yet needing investigation – it is easy to see why the Church prefers the seemingly easier option. Whether or not the Church of England will eventually recognise Same-Sex monogamously -partnered couples with an official Church Blessing is yet to be decided.
Similarly, how the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales will eventually find itself able to offer an official Blessing Service for Same-Sex couples who have resorted to legal Civil Partnership, is a matter that only the Church itself can decide. In the meantime, presumably there will be Same-Sex Couples in the Church who will go ahead with their legal entitlement to be civilly married – with or without the Church’s official sanction or blessing.
Jesu, mercy; Mary, pray!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand