You can almost hear the hysteria emanating from this LifeSiteNews.com 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.
Local 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:
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