Thursday, December 01, 2011

Thoughts on Archbishop Nichols' Support for Civil Unions

"UK’s Top Catholic Bishop Endorses Gay Civil Unions."

You can almost hear the hysteria emanating from this headline. And it's not difficult to see why, given the ultra-conservative slant of this particular Catholic website. Yet what's the actual story behind the provocative headline?

Well, according to a December 1 LifeSiteNews
article, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, "while acknowledging that marriage and civil partnerships are not equal," nevertheless stated at a press conference last month 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."

It gets better, with the Archbishop going on to state that:

As a Church we are very committed to the notion of equality so that people are treated the same across all the activities of life. The Church holds great store by the value of commitment in relationships and undertakings that people give. Stability in society depends upon the reliability of commitments that people give. That might be in offering to do a job but especially in their relationships with one another. Equality and commitment are both very important and we fully support them.

In a piece in the United Kingdom's Catholic Herald, columnist William Oddie expressed obvious dismay that the Archbishop's remarks contradicted not only recommendations that the English and Welsh Bishops’ Conference issued in 2003, but also a Vatican decree against supporting civil unions released the same year. Back then the bishops unequivocally opposed civil partnerships as "a framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples." Furthermore, following the Vatican's lead, they declared that "the government’s proposals to create civil partnerships for same-sex couples would not promote the common good.” Oddie clearly sees the Archbishop's recent statements on civil unions as a betrayal, and demands an official explanation.

I actually hope that what we're hearing from Archbishop Nichols is a sign that reason and compassion have facilitated a metanoia experience for him and other members of the clerical caste.

I recently contended that the bishops of the Roman Catholic tradition have forgotten that truth (including the truth of human sexuality) is discovered through time, and that tradition (including the tradition of marriage) evolves. I also noted that the Catholic people have not forgotten these liberating hallmarks of our living Catholic faith, as evidenced in their support of loving and committed same-sex relationships. And since my hope is that I will soon be proved wrong about the bishops, I take heart in Archbishop Nichols' words. Others, however, do not.

Another perspective

artist and blogger Terry Nelson frequently writes about LGBT issues and the Catholic Church – so much so, that I jokingly refer to his Abbey Roads as the Twin Cities' other gay Catholic blog. Of course, Terry's perspective on gay issues is very different from that of The Wild Reed's Recently he wrote the following about Archbishop Nichols' controversial comments on civil unions.

. . . [E]ven if the Church were to approve civil unions – which a few other bishops have also stated that they would not oppose – it will not be enough for gay activists. Eventually – like concurrently – they will seek some sort of blessing, some sort of commitment ceremony . . . Inevitably, 'equality' as Nichols esteems it, will sooner or later require recognition of same sex marriage – and acceptance of same-sex adoption. 'Equality' has become a doublespeak term – with or without the 'marriage' qualifier.

Okay, first, I'm not sure what Terry means by "gay activist," a term that he and others opposed to gay rights toss around like a slur. I sense he has some stereotypical image in mind: a gay individual who shouts and rants a lot and is hell-bent on destroying "the family," "the church," or maybe both. Yet I wonder if he considers parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, co-workers, or anyone who loves and supports their LGBT loved ones as "gay activists." The idea that the only people who support marriage equality are those one-dimensional stereotypes outlined above is false (as these testimonies bear witness to). Insisting otherwise is both unhelpful and dishonest.

Distinguishing between matrimony and civil marriage

Terry is also confusing, perhaps unknowingly, the Catholic Church's sacrament of matrimony with civil marriage. For one thing, the former insists that every sexual act between spouses must be open to biological procreation. No such stipulation or expectation exists in civil marriage. It is because of differences like this that the vast majority of people want our government and society to distinguish between a given religious tradition's understanding of marriage and civil marriage. I can assure Terry that the Catholics I know who are working for marriage equality are focused on securing civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. In other words, we are not interested in forcing the Church's clerical caste to change its understanding of matrimony, but we are concerned by this same caste's efforts to impose this understanding onto civil society and its understanding of marriage. It is these efforts that we seek to lovingly and proactively respond to as Catholics for Marriage Equality.

Now I must admit that I sometimes wonder if the rigid and narrow expression of Roman Catholicism that currently reigns supreme may actually be needed as a refuge for those incapable and/or unwilling to evolve beyond a certain level of faith development – a level that is obsessed with conformity to rules and rubrics, craves coercive and punitive authority figures, and has a seemingly insatiable lust for certitude. I don't like thinking of this primitive level of faith actually controlling and defining the Church. If this indeed is the case, then it would signify a terrible betrayal of Catholicism's rich intellectual heritage and, I'd argue, its profoundly sacramental nature – one that is forever seeking to discern and celebrate God's presence in all things. And, yes, that includes gay lives and gay relationships.

Speaking of which, it should be noted that not everyone who advocates marriage equality is Catholic. Far from it. Accordingly, Terry Nelson's contention that "gay activists" are also seeking "some sort of blessing, some sort of commitment ceremony," seems to be a rather pathetic attempt to inflate the stature and importance of Roman Catholicism in the lives of those who may not even identify as Catholic! (Sorry, Terry, but the days of papal control of nation states are long past.) And, of course, when "the Church" is falsely equated with "the hierarchy," there is ample evidence that, in one way or another, the majority of Catholics have moved beyond needing or wanting from such a church recognition and/or permission. As liberating as this is, it's also somewhat tragic as there should be a role for the bishops. Yet the genuine authority they should be embodying is now to be found elsewhere – both within and beyond Catholicism. I have to hope that this is the work of the Spirit, moving it its own mysterious way.

Beyond legal rights and benefits

Finally, Terry notes that "non-married couples, straight or gay, have for years arranged matters legally in order to take care of their friend-companion-partner after one of them dies. Marriage or civil union contracts are not necessary."

This may well be true, but it fails to acknowledge the fact that for most same-sex couples and families, the legal rights and benefits of civil marriage are secondary to the reality that only the word “marriage” conveys to all of society the joy, connection, and deep commitment that is made between two people who love each other. Accordingly, same-sex couples want to join in marriage, not redefine it.

I think it would be fair to say that this understanding of "marriage" that same-sex couples want to be part of is what most people understand as civil marriage, and not the understanding of matrimony championed by the Roman Catholic clerical caste. Perhaps Archbishop Nichols' recent statement on civil unions is his way of acknowledging this important distinction. Only time will tell if this is indeed the case, and if other bishops will similarly articulate both awareness and support of this distinction.

Update: Archbishop Nichols Responds to Critics of His Civil Union Approach – David Kerr (Catholic News Agency, December 2, 2011).

Recommended Off-site Links:
Bishops of England and Wales Endorse Civil Partnerships New Ways Ministry Bonding 2.0 (December 2, 2011).
Gay Marriage: Catholics and the (Selective) "Common Good" – Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, November 28, 2011).
Archbishop's Balance, Sane Response to British Gay Marriage – Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, November 25, 2011).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Facts
Distinguishing Between Roman Catholic Theology and Civil Law in the Struggle for Marriage Equality
Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues: An Overview
Quote of the Day – August 6, 2010
Kristen McQueary: "Yes to Civil Unions and Yes to My Catholic Faith"
Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Gay Marriage
An Ironic Truth
Steve Chapman: "Time is On the Side of Gay Marriage"
Two Attorneys Discuss Same-Sex Marriage
Americans' Acceptance of Gay Relations Crosses 50% Threshold


Bob said...

Wow, at least there is some compassion and sanity among some of the Roman hierarchs.

Ray from MN said...

"Okay, first, I'm not sure what Terry means by "gay activist"...."

Do you suppose he meant Philip Willkie? I would have thought you'd have written about his letter to the Strib yesterday. I'm under the impression that heterodoxy is not tolerated in the homosexual community.

And you didn't comment on Abp Favalora in Miami, either.


If the Church thought that "redefining marriage" was your only issue, Michael, they might agree to sit down and talk.

But you know you have an entire encyclopedia of issues, starting with some of the Ten Commandments, the Creeds, the Catechism, Liturgical Practices, ordination of women, clerical celibacy, lay celibacy, etc.

There, the Church will not give one inch on "re-defining marriage" because they would know that you would have another issue the next week.

Yesterday I read now that DADT is going down, the Transgender lobby wants to get into the Army, too.

William D. Lindsey said...

Michael, thanks for this thoughtful and well-reasoned analysis of the distinction between civil and sacramental marriage. I'm struck above all by your very sane observation that some church leaders today seem to have forgotten a point central in our Catholic tradition: namely, that we arrive at the through over time, though a dialectic process of reflection, prayer, and discussion.

A process radically undermined by those proponents of Catholic "truth" who want to read some people right out of the conversation--since they and they alone have the "truth." (But that kind of truth has to be idolatrous, doesn't it, since no one owns God or divine transformative truth . . . . )

Anonymous said...

From Chris Morley

There's an excellent detailed commentary on all Archbishop Nichols' comments about gay marriage at the UK based blog Queering the Church

Archbishop Nichols is the new head of the Church in England and Wales since 2009. The opposition in 2003 from the English and Welsh Bishops Conference opposition to gay civil partnerships was led by his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

We've had civil partnerships in the UK since December 2005 and the majority of Catholics support these as well as civil gay marriage, (which the government plans to introduce before the next election).

The Archbishop is being pragmatic; and it's worth noting that he also provides for gay Catholics in central London with regular masses in Soho (the gay heart of the city).

No such accepting pragmatism is shown in Scotland by the hierarchy, even though Catholic public opinion is similarly favourable. There, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, of St Andrews and Edinburgh, is leading a USA-style trenchant campaign of outright opposition to gay marriage, distributing 200,000 postcards to all the parishes. Most of these postcards are wasted. The Scottish government has only received 14,000 of them in opposition.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks so much for the link and your clarifying points and background information. It's all greatly appreciated.



Phillip Clark said...

Thank you so much for sharing this news! Encouraging news that change and reflection at the grassroots level of the Church can move some of its hierarchical leaders to reconsider their previously held positions.

Because, in the theological lens of the bishops, marriage will always be an institution irreperably sealed only between a man and a woman - such a statement endorsing civil unions form Archbishop Nicholas is a huge step forward.

Now, how long will it take to hear such a declaration from the USCCB? One can only imagine...

James C. said...

"Now I must admit that I sometimes wonder if the rigid and narrow expression of Roman Catholicism that currently reigns supreme may actually be needed as a refuge for those incapable and/or unwilling to evolve beyond a certain level of faith development – a level that is obsessed with conformity to rules and rubrics, craves coercive and punitive authority figures, and has a seemingly insatiable lust for certitude. I don't like thinking of this primitive level of faith actually controlling and defining the Church."

Talk about offensive and dishonest stereotypes!

Ray from MN said...

James C.

That's why those of you who have "evolved beyond a certain level of faith development" should prayerfully consider whether you should join the 35,000 other protestant denominations and go and form your own denomination.

Of course then, the press won't pay any attention to you and you'll have to purchase your own incense, bells and artwork.

Terence Weldon said...

Michael, I agree that this is a thoughtful and useful analysis.

I'm particularly interested in your observations - undoubtedly correct - about how church teaching evolves. "Redefinition" of marriage is not new. Both secular and Christian understanding of marriage have evolved continuously over two millenia: the current popular understanding of "traditional" marriage is a relatively modern invention, going back only a few centuries.

Our understanding of marriage will continue to evolve, and with it, the entire body of orthodox teaching on sexual ethics.

We already know from empirical research that on almost every single element of Catholic sexual doctrine, most Catholics disagree (the only exceptions I can think of, are things like incest, paedophilia and bestiality which are outlawed in secular law).

Anecdotal evidence is that a substantial proportion, possibly a majority, of professional theologians agree there is an urgent need for reform.

My suspicion is that most priests in pastoral ministry also agree, and with them many bishops.

The only real question, is not whether change will come, but how are they to announce the change, and say clearly "We were wrong" - without losing face.

Claudia said...

It is true that most Catholics have had their consciences informed by secular society and are opposed to Church teaching on sexual ethics. Yet, their disobedience is not a problem. When half of Europe fell away from the Church at the Reformation, Our Lord brought millions of Aztecs into the fold through Our Lady of Guadalupe. And, these humble Catholics are a blessing. It will be the same when the great apostasy arrives and the arrogant American Catholics who reject Church teaching will fall away and choose their own "Pope". Our Lord will bring others into the fold who are humble, faithful and loving. St. Juan Diego: pray for us.