Civil Partnerships – what does the Catholic Church REALLY think?

Jenni Murray stated on Woman’s Hour the other day, that the Catholic Church had completed a U-turn (much like this present government on so many matters) and now supports civil partnerships, therefore it seems worthwhile to outline the current position, as I perceive it.

As stated by the Bishops’ Conference in 2003, the Church welcomes and endorses the removal of unjust or discriminatory treatment against ALL people, as a civilised society must recognise that everyone retains their human and civil rights simply by virtue of their inherent dignity as human beings.

The reasons given by the government for introducing civil partnerships were to address an existing inequality between opposite and same sex couples, but as the Bishops noted at the time, many of the provisions made in the Civil Partnership Act were unnecessary – immigration rules and tenancy rights had already been altered in order to grant same-sex couples equality under the law. The Sexual Offences Bill in 2003 also removed discrimination by gender and orientation and employment law was also advanced in order to tackle discrimination and removed any remaining prejudice in the workplace.

As the Bishops said:

 It is very much to be welcomed that in recent years, there have been many significant changes to the law to remove unjust discrimination against people on grounds of their sexuality.

Given the changes to the law and the fact that individuals could make their own private arrangements with regards to inheritance matters, the Bishops questioned whether or not there really was a pressing need for civil partnerships.

As I noted in my previous post, the Civil Partnership Act is discriminatory, in that it is only open to same-sex couples, meaning that elderly relatives or close friends are excluded. Technically speaking there is nothing to stop my aunties from entering into a civil partnership because the act of forming a civil partnership does not require any vows or official wording, the partnership is formed once the contract is signed, whereas a civil marriage must include basic vows in addition to the signing of the register.

Unlike a marriage,a  civil partnership cannot be dissolved on the grounds of either adultery or non-consummation and therefore it is clear that it is a very different structure to marriage evidenced by the fact that it is controlled by a separate piece of legislation.

In 2003, the Bishops stated that they recognised the great value of close relationships which is not to be confined to marriage or family. Whilst Church teaching is clear that sexual relationships belong exclusively within marriage, the Bishops were explicit in noting that

“the Church does not thereby reject the love or friendship between homosexual people, the bond of friendship makes someone closer to us than we are to any family member. A deep friendship is something in which we can all rejoice. A failure to acknowledge this could lead to the wrongful exclusion of someone who should be informed and involved in cases of medical emergency or funeral arrangements”.

Without wishing to reignite all the furore, I believe it is these aspects of civil partnerships for which Archbishop Nichols was expressing support, which is entirely consistent with the Bishops’ statement in 2003.

So, with that in mind, can someone like Fr Ray Blake rush out and contract a civil partnership, as he mooted the other day? The answer is, of course not. Aside from the public scandal caused by the sight of a Catholic priest pledging his troth in Brighton registry office, a civil partnership would be the source of scandal for any Catholic, because though legally a civil partnership does not require any reference to sexuality, there is an implied conjugal bond given the exclusion of close family members. In 2008, the Conservative MP Edward Leigh, attempted to put through an amendment which would remove the existing inequality and disadvantage suffered by close family members, but was defeated as the sole purpose of the civil partnership act was to grant a state-recognised union to homosexuals alone.

As Archbishop Cranmer noted at the time, the state was therefore privileging erotic love over family or platonic love.

The other difficulty for the Church with civil partnerships is that they include rights pertaining to children and are therefore framed as being an equivalent to marriage, which is certainly how they are understood, even if that is not legally the case. A civil partnership includes the ability to gain parental responsibility for a partner’s children as well as a responsibility to pay maintenance for one’s partner and their children in the event that the partnership should dissolve.

In practical terms, the Civil Partnership Act did not change much. The Adoption and Children Act passed in 2003, already allowed single people to adopt, a gay person could already adopt and assume joint responsibility together with their partner. One partner would adopt and the other would apply for a residency order. Same sex couples have had the right to adopt since 2002, three years before the Civil Partnership Act came into force.

What the Civil Partnership Act has done, is elevate civil partnerships to a legal status equivalent to marriage, hence the public confusion. The scope of the Act is too broad and the group of the people to whom it is applied is too narrow.

All Catholics naturally applaud the removal of unjust treatment and inequality, which is why we recognise that some aspects of civil partnerships are to be welcomed, solving issues of natural justice, but we reject those elements which seeks to put civil partnerships on an identical footing to marriage, in terms of rights pertaining to children. It is not right to embark on a policy of which the long-term outlook can only mean that more children are deliberately brought into this world to be deprived of a mother and father.

I saw nothing in the Archbishop’s remarks that contradicted that.

Nick Clegg has opined that marriage is a private matter. He is wrong, marriage is a public institution, outside of the Church, its success or failure has impacts on society as a whole. It is right that proposals that could harm it are given rigorous scrutiny, the same as any other public policy. It is not simply between two people, but exists for the good of children and for society.

It is Civil Partnerships which should remain an entirely private matter of arrangements between two consenting  individuals.

9 thoughts on “Civil Partnerships – what does the Catholic Church REALLY think?

  1. I think you conflate ‘unjust treatment’ and ‘inequality’. I would not want homosexuals to be treated unjustly; but I would not want them given equality in every way with married couples. The Church rightly teaches that ‘Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’ (CCC §2357) but the word ‘unjust’ is their for a reason. There are some ways in which just discrimination should be exercised: eg on behalf of children who need adoptive parents. That is clearly an ‘inequality’ but is not, in Catholic eyes, ‘unjust treatment.’

    The issue, from a Catholic point of view, is really about acceptance of homosexuality and the homosexual lifestyle as simply another way of being, which is implicit in the legislation under consideration, and is the clear intent of those promoting it, or, on the other hand, recognising that all homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, as the Church teaches; and that a homosexual orientation is, for most, a trial, to which the correct response is chastity. (CCC §§ 2357-9)

    It is because the bishops are not clear on their teaching on this (and indeed seem to undermine it, not least by their allowing the dissident Soho Masses, for example) that their support for this legislation is so questioned by those who believe what the Church teaches.

    All heresy, it seems, springs from an imbalance: promoting one aspect of the truth at the expense of another. Many wonder if the English bishops, by and large, have fallen into an analogous error with regard to homosexuality.

  2. Agreed. Well thought out and presented. In Canada we have “gay marriage” but it isn’t nearly enough for the lobby. A massive push is now on to remake the very concept of family in the public and private schools. Oh and hardly any of the activists actually end up marrying anyway. Best of luck in the UK. Merry Christmas.

  3. Given that Jenni Murray thinks -or claims to think- that the Catholic Church has done a u-turn on civil partnerships, there would seem to be a prima facie reason for thinking that there is an urgent need for public clarification.

    Whatever the detail here, the Church needs to make it clear that it doesn’t support homosexual activity. Now the danger I suspect that the Archbishop was trying to avoid was having the media focus turn to ‘Catholic bigot hates gays’ rather than ‘Archbishop supports marriage’: I remember from distant past media training the need to avoid even mentioning subjects in case these lodged in an audience’s mind, whatever the speaker was going on to say about them. If this is the intention, then it’s not working. By not being clear, the Archbishop is causing confusion among Catholics and others about the church’s position on homosexuality. Moreover, the Church sounds shifty. I heard the Woman’s Hour interview and Ella Leonard the Catholic Voices speaker did not sound as though she was being frank ( about 11 minutes 45 secs in). I certainly don’t think she made the Church’s position on homosexuality clear and as a result, I’m not sure the Church’s position -which, as a whole is rationally defensible- made sense.

    I say all this knowing that it’s all incredibly difficult to get engagement with the media and wider society right on this issue. The Scottish bishops have been much clearer but, as a result, have possibly put non-Catholics off by their clarity. I don’t have the answers and I don’t want to go on criticizing people such as the Archbishop and Catholic Voices who are working in an incredibly hostile media environment far more effectively than I ever could. But my suspicion is that we need to be much more self-confident about the rationality of the whole Catholic position and the ability to explain much of it in terms which are recognizable to non-Catholic society. I am absolutely certain that we need to regard this as a long term war of cultures, and not leave the campaigning just to flash points such as the introduction of new legislation.

  4. When I read a comment on your previous post, I thought how ironic it was that so much religious bile could also be neatly summed up by the same ‘diagnosis’: “Negative comments: a psychologist friend of mine always says, on such occasions, that all feedback is projection. That is to say, the person launching the attack is really talking about himself far more than you. It feels very personal because it is: but the person under attack is really the writer of the negative comment. Something you have written causes a moment of pain because of dissatisfaction with some aspect of his own life, and that pain is then projected onto you…”

    Given such a small proportion of the population (0.5% or less) enter into civil partnerships, you’d think, given the scheme of things and the pain and misery in the world, you’d have more pressing matters to write about. But it often seems the case that when we’re feeling a little blue and bruised and perhaps feeling God has dealt us an difficult hand or that life is just not working out quite how it was supposed to work out, or we’re not the person we want to be, that the best thing to do is have a dig at the queers – it can make us feel better about ourselves if nowt else. Right of Centre American Christianity often does the same – the irony being it is in the most overtly Christian states that divorce, serial marriage, single parenthood, teen pregnancy, violent crime, social inequality etc. are much higher than in liberal states and far, far higher than Europe (particularly northern European liberal, secular democracies). You’d think they’d have more important things to deal with in their own backyard, but no, whine about the faggots and pretend that is where the problem is: it is always easier to point the finger than brave the mirror…

    I think homosexuality has become such a big issue for many conservative Christians simply because it is one of those subjects of easy condemnation; a ‘low investment (in that if you don’t happen to be homosexual there is little personal cost)/high return moral stance. It is something conservatives can present a united moral front – when if the subject was about other doctrinal issues, many would be at each other’s throat (esp. Catholics vs. Protestants) – and if they started looking at matters of personal morality (particularly what goes on behind closed doors or in the darker recesses of the closed mind) they’d really be into painful territory. No, thank God for queers – they are like a lightening conductor, drawing all that hatred and tension to a convenient and safe location. The Church building may be ruinous and dangerous, but as long as the lightening conductor is able to provide a safe discharge for all that atmospheric tension, it will stand for a little bit longer without the need for personally expensive scrutiny or repairs!

    I am not a big fan of gay-marriage, nor do I believe places of worship should be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies against their users’ wills. However at present it is a remote and distant possibility that ‘force’ would ever come to pass. I see much of the hype concerning ‘gay-marriage’ as yet another exercise in making a great deal of fuss about the inconsequential – more in the spirit of the lightening conductor noted in the previous paragraph than Matt 6: 34. I am sure there are far more worthwhile campaigns with which Christians could involve themselves. There is a pertinent example of this at present on the Anglicanmainstream blog concerning Tesco . There has been much that could be complained about concerning the ‘morality’ of supermarkets – esp. in light of Mal 3:5 – and the general injunctions concerning trade, commerce and employment in the Torah. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a lobbying campaign highlighting these moral evils – Tesco decides to support ‘Gay Pride’ and there is a mobilisation to mob the company with complaints (this is a company that freely breaks the 4th Commandment by the way, without comment or censure on the part of our Conservative, Bible Believing friends). A case of Matt 23:24 me thinks! But, hey, when you’re knocking the queers, you just know you’re going to get applauded and so everyone gets to feel better about themselves!


    Peter Denshaw

    1. Peter. This has nothing to do with “queer bashing”. I do not care what people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

      I do however care, if the institution of marriage is weakened and I also care about social breakdown. I believe very strongly that same sex marriage will undermine the concept of marriage – if you read previous posts you will see why, but not least the idea of deliberately depriving children of their biological parents is abhorrent.

      This does not make me feel better about myself, but marriage needs to be defended. Do the research.

      If you wish future comments to be published you need to desist from the pseudo-psychology. I am actually feeling great!

      There is nothing in any of my post which has anything to do with “queer bashing”.

    2. Peter, this sort of argument cuts both ways. Why are both the UK and Scottish governments spending vast amounts of time and money worrying about same sex marriage rather than how to improve the functioning of traditional marriage? Why are so many heterosexuals so obsessed with the issue of same sex marriage that the mildest criticism of it brings down accusations of bigoted stupidity? Why are representations of homosexuality so prominent in popular culture?

      My own view is that society’s treatment of homosexuality is an occasion for thinking through deep issues about intimacy, freedom and the relationship between the sexes and that’s why the debate is so charged on all sides. But, on a more straightforward level, from the Catholic point of view, you can hardly blame those of us who want to hold to orthodoxy for opposing challenges to it -and the fiercer those challenges, the fiercer the response.

  5. As the originator of the comment Peter quoted, I should like to chip in.

    I think Peter is right that some of the religious bile one sees spewed out on the Web can be accounted for in this way, not least some of the extremely unpleasant and uncharitable comments made by Christians about homosexuals (and the other way around, of course).

    I think he is quite wrong to suggest that applies to what Caroline has written on this blog, which is a measured contribution to a continuing debate within society on an issue of some complexity.

    There is a huge difference between queer-bashing and believing that homosexuality is disordered; and whilst the two can, of course, co-exist, either can exist without the other.

  6. Caroline et el:

    Yes, reading my comment over it does appear to be talking about ‘thou’ rather than ‘you’(a limitation of modern English – Oh to bring back the 2nd person verb form!) – which is not my intention, nor is I am in habit of practicing amateur psychology on scant evidence of a blog post… To fill you in on the background to how my comment came to be written, yours was the last of several blogs I dipped into last night and oddly enough each had some comment on homosexuality and allied topics – and my first thought on seeing the picture was: ‘Oh no, here we go again…’.

    And yes, I know that you are not homophobic – I have read a good deal of your blog.

    “marriage needs to be defended. Do the research.” This raises several issues, the first is that the introduction of Civil Partnerships has actually meant heterosexual cohabiting couples have more incentive to marry, because only married heterosexual couples can gain the legal and financial advantages of marriage – there is certainly some suggestion that this has been found to be the case in Ireland, since it introduced Civil Partnerships. Hence the introduction of civil partnerships reinforces the legal value of marriage.

    Secondly what numbers are we talking about here? You state: ‘It is not right to embark on a policy of which the long-term outlook can only mean that more children are deliberately brought into this world to be deprived of a mother and father.’ According to ONS around 1.5% of the British population is gay; of these around 11% live in or have lived in a civil partnership – well, I’ll let you to the maths, but 11% of 1.5% is pretty miniscule proportion of the population ( Given marriage has been on the rocks long before civil partnerships were ever mentioned, I really think there are more important things to be discussed than roaming into the world of ‘easy’ ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’. Far, far more children are raised by heterosexuals without a father and (less so) a mother. Given your research in this area, I would love to hear an explanation for the fact that many Western societies with high levels of Christian practice (i.e. congregational Christianity) tend to have far higher rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and single parent families? As I note above, it is ironic that the US States most vehemently opposed to legal recognition of same-sex partnerships in any shape or form, are also the states with the highest levels of church attendance – and often higher than the US average of divorce, single parent families and teen pregnancy (not to mention violent crime and murder!).

    I am not mentioning this to be a smart arse – I just think great care is needed not to present syllogisms as, or the cause of ‘social problems’. I was invited to an event held at Parliament a few weeks ago by Theos: ‘Is the church addicted to the welfare state’. The event revealed the huge shift to the Right in much Christian thinking at present. Many there showed a frightening ignorance of both social history and social policy and advanced the idea that the Welfare State is, in part at least, responsible for an increased immorality in our society. I didn’t comment, but thought it curious that much was made of American volunteerism, yet little was said on the fact despite it very weak welfare state and high church attendance (50%) the US scores far worse on social problems or social indicators than countries with secular democracies which have comprehensive welfare states. I think this demonstrates that in this instance some were using religion as a premise in a weak syllogism, without taking into account other factors, such as culture. e.g. Finland has a comprehensive and liberal welfare state, but has the highest proportion of two parent families in the Western world. Hence it is probable that there are complex and diverse factors which effect the ‘wholesomeness’ of a society – religion being one. Though it is also possible to present a similar syllogism and use quantitative research and social indicators to suggest high levels of religious belief and practice in a society, make for a less wholesome society. e.g. By doing a comparison between the USA (50% church attendance, weak welfare state) with northern Europe (8-12% church attendance and strong welfare state) – the latter again and again comes out top with regard to ‘social indicators’. Britain of course breaks this trend by having low church attendance, a comprehensive welfare state and fairly appalling statistics when it comes to ‘social indicators’ (tho’ still far, far better than the USA).

    What I am saying, is that great care is needed not to look at something as inconsequential as civil partnerships and point the finger and say ‘this is the problem’ – when clearly it isn’t. There is something sick at the heart of British society and to be frank, I think civil partnerships have little if anything to do with the present problems with marriage as an institution. The example I give above of ‘Tesco syndrome’, whereby several right-wing Christian blogs and organisations have got their knickers in a twist over a policy of a public limited company concerning homosexuals illustrates just how foolish and hypocritical it can be to moralise about a topic. Yes, I am all for free speech on such issues, but here Christians are branding themselves as bigots simply because there is much in the morality and business practice of large multinationals such a supermarket chain that rightly deserves opprobrium – the fact that right wing Christian blogs and organisations have been silent on these yet mobilise when the topic of homosexuality comes just shows the moral bankruptcy and ‘easy’ morality of these right wing Christian organisations.

    In the same vein, I think it is very difficult to maintain the argument that the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships will undermine heterosexual marriage – to do so is a case of shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted!

    @Lazarus – yes I fully agree – as I note ‘I am not a big fan of gay-marriage, nor do I believe places of worship should be forced to conduct same-sex ceremonies against their users’ wills.’. And I do think that there is an over interest in this topic from both sides of the divide and politicians. However, if same-sex marriage became law, I still think it is VERY doubtful it will have any impact on what the success or failure of heterosexual marriage as an institution. The latter has been under strain for decades and the reasons for its problems are diverse and lie within our culture – as I note above, the places in the Western world where homosexual unions are most fervently opposed are also the places where there are high rates of marital breakdown, divorce and single parent families – which I think suggests there is more to this issue than simply ‘homosexual unions are undermining marriage’ – it is rather like saying someone with a cough is the cause of a TB epidemic…

    @Ben – thanks for your comment, I found it helpful. As for believing ‘homosexuality is disordered’ it is curious to look at the ONS on the demographic breakdown of homosexuals vs. wider society and see that the former are far more likely to be educated to degree level, work in professions or managerial work, be in employment and have not been long term unemployed – which of course means they disproportionately contribute to society – in our present economic climate, it is the kind of disorder that helps rather than hinders… (My tongue is in cheek, at this point….)


    Peter Denshaw

  7. Peter, I agree with much of what you say here. But to note that there are bigger threats to traditional marriage than same sex marriage does not show that ssm is not a threat. My own experience of combox debates on this subject on non-Catholic political sites is that two points are regularly made against the Catholic position: a) marriage isn’t about children, it’s about celebrating love. b) Marriage isn’t the best institution for bringing up children. Now, in a sense, it’s those reasons for ssm that I’m more exercised about than ssm, but it’s in the context of ssm that they’ve been raised, and I think it is crucial for the health of our society that they’re challenged.

    When I look at the threats to my children’s marital stability, I’d probably put modern working practices at the top of the list. But how does one combat those? Certainly not easy, not as easy as responding to a single, ill thought through proposal to change the law as in the case of ssm. Moreover, to the extent that I have an answer to the problem of modern capitalism, I’d point to the church’s social teaching and also to the institutional church as itself a partial realization of the kingdom of God. Now I think a lot of people might be surprised to find that, if they were aware of it, they would agree with much of the Church’s teaching in this area. But to do that, they’d have to get past the cultural block of thinking that the Church’s authority is completely undermined by its ludicrous sexual teaching. So to get to the point that people might listen to the Church in this area of social policy, you’d have to convince them that the Church’s sexual teaching isn’t in fact ludicrous but an integral part of a larger, coherent whole.

    A point I’ve tried to make consistently is that the struggle against SSM isn’t (just) a matter of a political campaign: it’s part of a more general cultural war (or dialogue for the more irenically inclined). That Catholics get worked up about SSM isn’t just because they want to win the campaign: they want to win the culture war which stands behind the campaign -and that I think is absolutely of the first importance.

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