Friday, December 09, 2011

The "Gay Civil Unions" Approach of Some Within the Catholic Hierarchy: Too Little, Too Late

Last week I suggested that the recent statements by English Archbishop Vincent Nichols in support of civil unions for same-sex couples may be his way of acknowledging the important distinction between the Roman Catholic hierarchy's understanding of matrimony and civil society's understanding of marriage. I also expressed the hope that other bishops would articulate both awareness and support of this distinction.

Well, I've yet to hear about another bishop doing so, but in a December 6, 2011 commentary in the Australian Jesuit publication Eureka Street, a priest, Frank Brennan (right), expresses agreement with the "civil unions approach" offered by Bishop Nichols.

Of course, such an approach actively avoids applying the word "marriage" to loving and committed same-sex relationships. Under no circumstances, it seems, can a gay relationship be considered on par with a straight one. I take issue with this, as the meaning of "marriage" in the civil arena should not be something that the Roman Catholic hierarchy gets to dictate and control. For instance, if an opposite-sex couple that cannot or choose not to have children are still able to call their union a marriage, why can't a same-sex couple – many of whom are raising children? The Roman Catholic hierarchy's fixation on biological procreation as the defining characteristic of "marriage" lacks both reason and compassion. People recognize this. Indeed, it's a major reason why the hierarchy's anti-marriage equality efforts are being met with such resistance and hostility.

It's important to note that increasing numbers of people in civil society (including Catholics) have no problem with viewing same-sex unions as marriages, hence the emphasis on marriage equality. All this "gay civil unions" talk by a few clerics within the church comes across as a type of concession. This makes it difficult for many to applaud these clerics. Yet they at least are offering something, as opposed to the majority of bishops who want absolutely nothing in terms of recognition of gay relationships. Yet, truth be told, most people perceive the civil unions approach as being too little, too late.

After all, the push is clearly for marriage equality – as
this widely popular Australian ad clearly demonstrates. (I even wonder if Brennan's statement of support for gay civil unions is in some way an attempt to counter this powerful and popular ad for marriage equality.) Ironically, here in the U.S., and no doubt elsewhere, it's been the hierarchy's overall intractability on this issue and, even more significantly, its blatant anti-gay and anti-marriage equality activism that has galvanized and strengthened the marriage equality movement.

I'll conclude by sharing excerpts from Frank Brennan's commentary, along with some additional responses on my part.

. . . How should the conscientious Catholic member of [the Australian] parliament vote [on the issue of civil unions for same sex couples]? If I were a member of parliament, I would support a law for the recognition of civil unions similar to the present United Kingdom law, and I would vote against any bill extending the definition of marriage to include the union of two men or two women.

I would do so because I think the State should not discriminate against couples who have a mutual commitment to a shared life (whatever their sexual orientation), while affirming that the bearing and nurturing of the children of the union is a constitutive good of marriage (even though not all marriages produce children). [Again the crucial questions must be asked: If an opposite-sex couple that can't or choose not to have children still get to call their union a marriage, why can't a same-sex couple – many of whom are raising children? Why should the Roman Catholic hierarchy's fixation on biological procreation as the defining characteristic of marriage be imposed on civil society and its understanding and definition of marriage?]

Sadly in Australia, there is not much interest in a national approach for the recognition of civil unions. It is a winner takes all approach: either same sex marriage or no national symbolic, legal recognition of same sex unions. Just as states and territories can legislate with their own variations for de facto partnerships, they could also legislate for civil unions — as Queensland has just done.

On the issue of civil recognition of same-sex unions it is not appropriate in the public square simply to agitate about the Catholic view of the sacramentality of marriage. [Unless, of course, the word "marriage" is used instead of "unions"! But, again, the hierarchy must let go of this delusion that it owns the word "marriage." It doesn't. And if it really wants a special word to denote its understanding of the sacramentality of opposite-sex unions wherein each and every sex act is open to biological procreation, it has one: matrimony.] Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: 'The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination ... constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.' [Indeed! Now, Frank, take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion: Civil marriage rights for all!]

How then could the law best express this respect, compassion, sensitivity, and non-discrimination for all persons including same sex attracted persons who commit themselves to loving, faithful relationships?

There is room even in the community of faith for a diversity of views. I have been greatly assisted by the line of Archbishop Vincent Nichols, elected president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales by unanimous acclamation in 2009, who last month after their Bishops Conference said, 'We were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognised that in English law there might be a case for those.' . . .

To read Frank Brennan's commentary in it's entirety, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
Catholic Support for Civil Unions Hops to Australia Bondings 2.0 (December 9, 2011).
How to Practice What We Preach – Michael O'Loughlin (America, December 10, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Archbishop Nichols' Support for Civil Unions
Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"
From Australia, "Possibly the Most Beautiful Ad for Marriage Equality"
Lanae Erickson on Taking a Lesson from Down Under


Anonymous said...

Michael, it’s fair enough to challenge Frank’s position on civil unions, but lest anyone think he is a feeble-minded, carping ideologue in league with our hierarchs, we should at least acknowledge he is a most generous and compassionate advocate for indigenous and other vulnerable Australians. He has a towering, independent intellect with which he fearlessly asserts their rights to social justice. As you know, he is widely and deeply admired for his endless work to further their welfare, frequently to his own detriment. No doubt he follows in the footsteps of his father who was a most distinguished jurist and member of the High Court of Australia.

Paula said...

Does that mean that all civil unions would be "civil unions" then and the word "marriage" would be reserved for religious unions? I wonder if that would work?