Weddings, Marriages and why it matters

Bells, smells, the full Monty

Given the wealth of polemic flying about the internet with regards to same-sex marriage, I’m loathe to add my voice to the tumultuous din, particularly given that I already blogged a few months back, but some important points are being lost amidst the white-hot passionate rhetoric on both sides, which is becoming increasingly partisan and, from what I have observed today, disturbingly anti-Catholic in tone.

As there are so many intertwined issues, I am going to break my habit of lengthy screeds, by breaking up into sub-headings to address the various issues

Why the Anti-Catholicism?

Firstly Cardinal O’Brien’s article in the Daily Telegraph and subsequent disastrous interview on the Today programme shifted the terms of the debate from what constitutes marriage and its place in our society to Catholic doctrine regarding homosexuality. Whilst many Catholics and indeed Christians of all denominations may have intellectually accepted his argument and applauded him, his intemperate language raised the emotional ante. I was asked by Tom Chivers of the Daily Telegraph whether or not I condoned his “disgusting comments”. My response: I think they were unhelpful.

Whilst many Catholics are very poorly catechised with regards to the doctrine on human sexuality, this is a matter that needs to be addressed internally, the pages of a national newspaper and a radio programme with an audience of millions is not the most appropriate medium to expound the complexities and nuances of Catholic doctrine. As I have discovered to my cost, the nuances and complexities of doctrine are completely lost on the majority, who are unable to contextualise or see beyond philosophical and theological language and understandably take huge offence.

The extremely powerful letter issued by Archbishops Nichols and Smith has done much to redress the balance, many were glad to hear Archbishop Nichols state on the radio yesterday morning that it is not the intention of the Catholic Church to condemn anyone, Monday’s Gospel reading reminds us of the words of Jesus “Do not condemn and you will not be condemned”, (Luke 6:37) but due to its very persuasiveness and the potential audience of over 4 million Catholics, as well as being widely reported in the mainstream media, this has brought an element of anti-Catholicism to the fore, with the old familiar tropes, which do nothing to engage with the actual point at hand.

Does the anti-Catholicism matter? To a certain extent it doesn’t, Catholics in the UK are accustomed to centuries of recusancy, Christ himself said that it would not be easy to follow him, however whilst on the one hand we need to keep a sense of perspective in terms of persecution, we are not persecuted in the same way as Christians in Egypt, Iran or Pakistan for example, it is important that we fight against this perjorative smearing and distortion of our faith. To meekly accept it as our lot, accepts our own marginalisation, we need to defend our faith through the use of reason and apologetics, otherwise we rule ourselves out of all public discourse and cease to have any influence or voice in society. Though we are Catholics (and the same applies to all faiths) we should not isolate ourselves from society, we are members of it and thus have a right to participate and be heard if we want to impact the Common Good. It is extremely damaging and potentially dangerous to accept the often violent anti-Catholic/Christian sentiment of the type I have seen expressed today. Whilst there are shameful episodes in the Church’s history, not least the abuse scandal, we must not allow this to taint people’s perceptions of the Church and keep them from discovering the joy of faith. We must appeal to reason, not adopt a passive mentality. There is a difference between turning the other cheek and lining up one’s brethren for a good slapping.

Why are Churchgoers more important than bingo attendees?

This was the question asked by Hugo Rifkind today. Well in one sense they are not. All members of a democratic society should have equal say. It is not churchgoers who are more important, but churches/religions are more influential in society than bingo halls. If we are going to run with this analogy, bingo halls are simply there to generate profit for the owners. Religions are the embodiment of Cameron’s elusive Big Society. The Catholic Church is one of the largest charitable organisations in the world. It is the second biggest provider of humanitarian relief in Africa. The Catholic Church, along with the Anglican Communion and other religions actively work in society, in communities for the good of other people. Religious believers give more to charity and do more unpaid voluntary work, than non-believers. More people do unpaid work for church organisations than other organisations. Work, such as visiting the sick, setting up playgroups, lunches for the elderly and so on.

Though we cannot surmise that the average church-goer is a better person than the atheist bingo-player, it can be stated that religion can be a force for great good and members do a lot for society and thus deserve to be heard. The truth is that religions are better placed to be able to motivate an organised, strategic, campaign – churches, mosques, synagogues, temples are all cohesive communities with shared aims who are easier to mobilise. Religions are concerned with working towards the common good, bingo halls with individual profit. Religions also make up a greater proportion of the population.

Why is the Church so bothered – it won’t be forced to accept anything?

That’s not strictly true. We are entering unchartered waters here. It is true to say that were this proposal to go ahead then the Catholic Church would, in all likelihood, not be compelled to conduct same-sex weddings. The same cannot be said of the Church of England. Various Anglican canonists are concerned, given that Anglican vicars act as agents of the state, to use their official title, they are “clerks in holy orders”, that they may well be compelled to conduct same sex weddings or face legal proceedings. A local “Conservative” MP in Hove, Mike Weatherly, has called for churches who do not conduct same-sex weddings to be closed down. The former fresh-faced housewives’ favourite, Will Young, stated on Question Time this week, that Cardinal O’Brien should be up in court for hate-speech. When questioned whether this should necessitate religious leaders being called into police stations for their religious beliefs, Young replied “yes, rightfully so”. His views were shared by shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint and Will Self.

Whilst it is not yet clear whether or not churches may be compelled to conduct weddings, what is apparent is that religions will have a new definition of marriage imposed upon them. Ironic given the perennial accusations that the Church faces with regards to imposing its beliefs upon others.

Weddings and Marriages

Where people, including some Catholic commentators and it would seem, the government, are getting confused is in the difference between weddings and marriages. When bemoaning civil partnerships, various Catholic blogs have posted photo after photo of civil partnership ceremonies in a bid to prove that these are de-facto marriages, perceived as marriages and therefore must be condemned. Likewise gay and lesbian campaigners have bemoaned their lack of opportunity for a wedding. The government have been genuinely taken aback by religious opposition, because they believed that the exemption would be enough to mollify any opposition, so long as churches were not forced to conduct wedding ceremonies, they would be fairly sanguine about the change.

A wedding is a ceremony – be that religious or civil. For us it was a Byrd four-part Mass and lashings of incense. For others it might be humanist vows on the top of a London bus. A wedding is the ceremony that legally and in some cases sacramentally, joins two parties together. Some of those in civil partnerships feel aggrieved that their official ceremony simply consists of signing a register and want the full “wedding”. Technically there is nothing to stop people from doing exactly what they want. Most tolerant people don’t really care. If a religious venue wants to be able to hold civil partnership ceremonies, then that should be their choice. I can’t quite see how this could be done in the Church of England or Catholic Church and I do also think that it does unhelpfully blur the margins between the two institutions, but if Sharon and Michelle both want to don enormous fluffy white meringues and get an obliging minister to formulate vows and/or prayers in the setting of their choice, providing the denomination permits it, then that should be their choice in a free and liberal society.

Whilst I’m on the subject, I’d also relax the daft restrictions upon choices of music and readings in civil ceremonies that forbid specific references to religious symbolism or worst still God. I mean, fancy making reference to God in a civil wedding – saint preserve us, what next the collapse of secularisation? If folk, whether heterosexual, lesbian or gay want to belt out jingoistic songs about the repression of mill workers in order to celebrate their partnership, if they want theologically unsound ballads by former boy band members then that is entirely their affair. You want “Angels” by Robbie or the local rugby club wants “I vow to thee my country”, go ahead – fill your boots!

A marriage is an institution, a legally and sometimes sacramentally recognised partnership in society. It is the permanent and binding union of a man and woman, that acts as building block of society, in order to create family units and raise children. Though the conditions surrounding marriage eligibility may have altered over the centuries, the basic premise has remained the same – one man, one woman for love, companionship but primarily for the procreation of children.

Well the Church can believe what it wants? What’s the problem.

It is impossible, not only for the Catholic Church but for several other denominations and religious to believe that marriage can be anything but one man, one woman. The problem is, that once this becomes legal, the Church will have no choice other than to accept the legal definition. One way of demonstrating this would be in the case of a person in a same sex marriage, which the Church did not recognise. If a person in a same sex marriage split up from their partner, found a partner of the opposite sex whom they then wished to marry, then in the Church’s eyes, they would be free to do so. Legally, however this would not be the case, unless that person had received a civil divorce. The Church’s feelings on the matter would cease to come into play here, if an Anglian vicar or a Catholic priest were to marry someone who was already in a same sex marriage, they would face charges of being complicit bigamy. Furthermore there is also a moral issue coming into play. What if the person had adopted or artificially created children whilst married to their same-sex partner and then committed “adultery”. Whilst the Church would recognise the same-sex marriage as being fornication (any sex outside traditional marriage comes under the adultery commandment), should it be complicit in sacramentally blessing an infidelity that split up a family unit and created turmoil for a child? Whilst this does not tend to happen in the Catholic Church, the Church of England, when considering whether or not to marry divorcees, tend to go by the rule that infidelities are not consecrated, even the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall had a blessing and not a marriage.

Of more pressing concern, there is a danger, that Church doctrine on marriage, could actually become “hate speech” and an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order offence, which states that

(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

All of us who have defended the status quo, have at some point been accused of insulting others, of homophobia, of prejudice, of hatred. What caused me enormous distress in the incident a few weeks ago, was that one man, who has yet to apologise made the following call for me to be “hunted down” and my intimate parts to be “filled with cement like God intended”. The reason that the man is quite so unrepentant about this, is because he feels that my attitude deserves this kind of threatening response. He feels victimised and threatened and therefore wants me to be at the receiving end of similar treatment in order to change my ways. Regular readers know that I tend to be fairly measured in my use of language. In fact, the whole furore resulted from a statement in which I admitted that the use of the word “disorder” was unacceptable and could cause offence and that we should not be comparing ourselves to primates.

A few months ago, a commentator stated that whilst it was acceptable for me to hold certain views, I should not be allowed to promalgate them in public. As mentioned above, various public figures have called for the prosecution of clerics who preach what they deem to be “homophobia” or “hate speech”. No matter how much Catholics or Christians may emphasise the pastoral care that should be directed towards the LGBT community and condemn any unjust discrimination, no matter how much we may state that no-one is defined purely by their sexual orientation, it is reductive, no matter how much we point out that homosexuality is no worse than heterosexual cohabitation, this is not what is heard. What is heard is hatred and discrimination, a desire to harm and punish, despite the fact that this is so counter to any Christian doctrine that I know. Part of this stems from decades of unjust treatment and from the fact that true homophobia does still exist, homophobic attacks do take place, although they are not as prevalent as other forms of crime. Same-sex marriage is not going to alter flawed human nature, it is not going to stop damaged individuals who wish to attack and destroy those who are different.

One of the accusations levelled at me was that I am a hardline religious fundamentalist, made dangerous by the fact that I cloak my “hatred in the garb of reasonableness and pretend to be a nice Catholic mother” when underneath this is all about wanting to punish, persecute and diminish people with same sex attraction. This has now become the popular meme of the gay marriage lobby. Anyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot fuelled by hatred and to prove it lets personally discredit them and/or their religion, if applicable.

This is what is going to happen to Catholic catechists and other religious instructors. It will be taboo and potentially against the law to teach religious doctrine, either in parishes and certainly in schools. If the law states that marriage is a romantic relationship between two people of any gender, then religious teaching will contravene the law. On the one level this is dangerous, because it forces religions to either conform or marginalise themselves. Of more pressing concern, as outlined above, it could be seen to contravene the public order act or the Equalities Act. Ministers of religion may be exempt, but ordinary members of the laity will not be. Catholic teaching could be held as being discriminatory.

Many of us have encountered opponents of faith schools claiming that faith has no place in education, which must be purely about “facts”. It is not hard to envisage a situation whereby the law compels children to be taught the secular definition of marriage, even though this would contravene religious and individual conscience rights. Children will be taught a new orthodoxy, namely that marriage is between two people of any gender who love each other.

The situation is untenable for the government as this definition of law contravenes Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which specifically provides a right for men and woman of marriageable age to marry and provide a family. Despite a number of petitions the Court has refused to apply the conventions to same sex marriage. The law in England and Wales will therefore contravene the ECHR, which may well create problems which will no doubt be resolved by a series of messy court cases, involving Public Order offences, the Equalities Act, the ECHR and UN Declaration on Human Rights, which expressly allows manifestation of religious freedom of expression.

Today John Sentamu has highlighted the problem of the 1662 Prayer Book and Article 30 of the Church of England which both require the approval of the General Synod before they can be changed. Though Parliament could overrule this, it would require disestablishment of Church and State, which whilst the National Secular Society, with their membership equalling the National Sausage Appreciation society would applaud, it is really a worthwhile and necessary use of valuable Parliamentary and legislative time, when the country is facing an unprecedented global economic crisis? When the country is facing a welter of social and economic problems, unseen for decades, is it really helpful to be spending huge amounts of time and resources, tinkering around with something that has the potentially to radically alter society, a unique social experiment that goes against thousands of years of biology and sociology, to satisfy the demands of less than 1% of the community. The grassroots gay lobby have not campaigned for this, 70% of the population are against the redefinition of marriage according to the Com Res poll commissioned by Catholic Voices and 74% of people believing that it is wrong to fast-track these laws according to an ICM poll for the Daily Telegraph. Make no mistake, disestablishment could prove extraordinarily complicated, impacting upon how Parliament, the monarchy and even the armed forces interrelate. We would be unpicking the strands that constitute English society.

Thirsty Gargoyle has promised to blog the specifics of the legal implications, his razor-sharp analyses is second to none, but in short, this whole thing is something of a beggar’s muddle.

If you don’t want a gay marriage – don’t have one!

This sends me reaching for my self-disembowelling kit. That’s like saying, if you don’t like drink-driving, don’t drink and drive. The problem is that same-sex marriage will be imposed on me, whether I like it or not. It may not have a direct impact on my marriage, although it will certainly change the definition of my marriage, it will almost certain impact on my children and future generations who will be encouraged by society to think of marriage purely in terms of romantic commitment and thus bail out when it goes wrong.

Myself, my children and future generations will now be forced to be guarded in their thoughts and opinions if they are against gay marriage and risk prosecution or employment discrimination. The love of God – the love that dare not speak it’s name.

What about the children? Hiding behind an excuse?

Though there are exceptions, evidence overwhelmingly suggests that children do best when raised in stable relationships by both biological parents. That is not to denigrate the job that single parents, adoptive parents, gay parents, step-parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents and others do in often very demanding circumstances, but all the evidence suggests that the ideal of two biological parents is the one to which we should aspire.

Whilst non-biological parents do a marvellous and commendable job, the task is undoubtedly easier in a stable low conflict relationship. This is what marriage recognises, namely that every child deserves its two biological parents. There is no question of banning alternative arrangements, but equally it is not prejudiced or discriminatory to recognise that the purpose of marriage is to raise children. Society needs to aspire to ideals.

Discrimination of this nature surrounds us all the time and is deemed to be perfectly acceptable – couples over 45 are not accepted for IVF for example and family members are not allowed to enter into marriage. Though many find the comparison with incest, understandably offensive, the incest rule underlines the very purpose of marriage. By stripping out the procreative element of marriage, the government makes it purely about romantic relationships. If marriage is purely about romantic relationships, why should it be accorded any special legal or tax status or recognition. Why are romantic relationships more important than any other relationships, such as family relationships, friendships or relationships between carers, for example?

Do children really need two biological parents? The really polemic bit

The evidence suggests that yes they do, this is the ideal. There is something primordial about the bond between parent and child that is very difficult to define or artificially recreate. My family is broken, my daughter lives with myself and her step-father, but it is precisely because I recognise the importance of the relationship between her and her biological father and his family, not only for her, but also her father, that over the years we have all worked extremely hard to keep relations extremely cordial, pleasant, friendly and above-all open and honest. Fortunately there is no conflict, but despite having the almost “ideal” situation, it is still not ideal for her. It is better than it could otherwise have been, it is better than the alternative, but the ideal for her would have been for her biological parents to stay together in a low conflict stable relationship.

Whilst her stepfather adores her and has done so since the moment they met, having gone on to have two biological children of his own, he admits that there is something undefinable about biology. Whilst he loves them all identically, there is an instinctive biological closeness from the very beginning with his natural offspring, that whilst not affecting the quality of his relationship with his older daughter, is perhaps missing. The same could be said of my daughter. She loves her dad enormously, but he is not “daddy”. The outcome for my daughter, will hopefully be good, because we have other factors in our favour to compensate.

What same-sex marriage does is to put same sex relationships on the same footing as heterosexual ones. Sound the prejudice klaxon. Stonewall can probably scent blood. Most reasonable and tolerant people have no problem with this in terms of equal civil rights. But a child is not a civil right. Gay relationships are naturally unable to produce children. There is no escaping this fact. For a gay couple to produce a child, they either need to adopt or artificially reproduce and increasingly couples seem to be plumping for the latter – sexuality is no bar to the often overwhelming natural urge to have one’s own biological children.

Gay couples argue that this is the only way that they are able to have children and that it is discriminatory to “deny them their rights to children on the basis of sexuality. It is homophobic”. Discrimination in its modern sense is unfair. What is more fair? That a child has an opportunity to be born from the natural procreative act of its parents and to be brought up by both of its biological parents, or that a child is deliberately denied its rights to a biological parent in favour of the rights of its other biological parent? All of us have an innate sense of identity, we want to know who we are, how we fit into the world and where we are from. Our biological and cultural roots are tremendously important. Adoptive couples are given intensive and specialist support in terms of dealing with adoptees’ identity issues as they grow up. It is recognised that adoptive parents potentially have a rockier road in terms of parenting than biological parenting.

Yet all of this, the rights and needs of the child are swept away in favour of the needs of the parent. At the moment due to the costs of artificially creating children, this option is only open to monied or middle-class gay couples, therefore it can be argued that the children’s outcomes will be similar. Whilst this is yet to be proven, what does come into play is the rather disturbing notion that at least the child is wanted, loved and can be materially well-provided for. These are all good things, but it implies that children are only worthwhile if they are desperately, wanted, loved and have material things. Better the middle-class gay couple going for IVF, than say, the single-mother on the rough housing estate. It perpetuates inequality and puts a value upon human life. It takes no account of the needs of the child for its biological mother and father and sends out the message, a child doesn’t need a mother and a father, gender is unimportant.

Gender agenda

This is the heart of the objection to same-sex marriage. It says gender and biology are irrelevant when it comes to children. What they need is loving parenting. A child does not need a mother and a father. It just needs an adult (s) to love it. This runs counter to thousands of years of biology. Two dads cannot be a mum. They cannot breastfeed, neither of them have carried the baby in the womb for 9 months, the person whose every intonation of voice the baby has heard for nine months, their smell, their heartbeat, the person to whom they have been a part of, is cruelly and intentionally taken away from them. Bonding and attachment happen instinctively between mothers and babies. When all of my children were newborn and crying, just the act of picking them up or lying them on my chest was enough to calm and settle them. My babies knew it was me and were happy. Mothers are a baby’s entire world. It is an undisputed fact that babies need their mothers and should only be removed in the direst of emergencies and circumstances. Mothers are pre-progammed biologically respond to their crying babies and infants. It is instinctive, intuitive, not learned behaviour.

Whilst Lesbian couples may be at more of an advantage biologically, there is still overwhelming evidence that children ideally need to be parented by both genders as though equal, male and female are undeniably different. Male and female are complementary, both with strengths and weaknesses. Children need to be exposed at close quarters to the behaviour of both genders. Research indicates that fathers help to reduce delinquency in teenage sons and daughters who have a positive relationship with their father are more likely to establish good relationships with males as adults. All recent studies to the contrary which attempt to portray gender as irrelevant such as Gartrell/Bos and Biblarz/ Stacey have been shown to be significantly flawed in terms of methodology and therefore their conclusions are highly suspect.

What about older or infertile couples – aren’t they married then?

The age and/or fertility status of a couple is irrelevant, it does not change the purpose of marriage which is complementary and ordered towards having children. A couple will marry and age, meaning that they will no longer be able to produce children. Age does not dissolve the legality of the marriage therefore it follows that older couples are not disbarred from entering into marriage. Although they may not be able to have children of their own, they may still be able to adopt, or they may end up rearing grandchildren. It is the complementarity that is at stake, which is why the same applies to infertile couples. The marriage is not legally altered by any intention not to procreate, but it brings us back to the issue of why marriage is elevated by society.

More equal than others?

Two same genedered people in a relationship is not the same as two different gendered people in a relationship. One set will not be able to biologically produce children. Provided there are no underlying fertility problems, the other set will. This is an inescapable reality and why society has been ordered along the lines of biology for thousands of years. Marriage exists to ensure that children have mothers and fathers.

Recognising biological differences in couples is neither discriminatory, prejudiced or bigoted. Bigotry is imposing your will upon other people and refusing to tolerate legitimate divergence of opinion. Such as criminalising those who can not accept that same sex relationships can be a marriage, or that marriage is able to be redefined. Or deciding on the basis of no evidence that a child does not need a mother and a father and deliberating contriving a situation that removes the biological parent to satisfy personal desires. Bigotry is inciting violence and hatred against people on the basis of their opinions and/or faith. Prejudice is pre-supposing motives and intentions.

Inequality in its modern sense, means to treat people in an unfair way. LGBT couples are not being treated unfairly. They are not being denied any civil or human rights. Any perceived “inequality” results from a biological reality. Only different gendered couples can produce children. Children need their biological mothers and fathers. No amount of legislation or semantics can change those realities. Sometimes life just isn’t “fair.”

The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal – Aristotle.

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Well done for making it to the bottom.

Any abusive comments or threats will be met with a swift Hail Mary and a prayer for your conversion of heart, followed by the delete key.

Now for something completely different

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.

Into the maelstrom

The remarks of Archbishop Vincent Nichols regarding civil partnerships have stirred up a lot of controversy on the Catholic blogosphere this week, led by the respected columnist for the Catholic Herald, William Oddie. I won’t re-hash the debate, but Oddie’s pieces may be read here and here. Archbishop Nichol’s response to the criticism may be found here.

I don’t want to add too much to the debate, other than to wonder whether this is something of a storm in a teacup, I’m not going to deny that the Archbishop’s statement was ambiguous, but I think there is a tendency to be guilty of a lack of charity here. I am quite uncomfortable with the concept of automatically assuming that the leader of Catholics in England and Wales has some agenda which runs contrary to that of the Holy See which he is intent on pursuing. I know all sorts of commenters will now rush to tell me about a whole host of scandals in an attempt to demonstrate that there is a consistent trend and underlying proof that secretly the Bishops are seeking to do xyz, but I am also aware that there is always two sides to every story, and so far, I’m only aware of one side, namely that of the very orthodox Catholic blogosphere. I know that things don’t look great on paper, I am not disputing the veracity of various claims or calling into question the integrity of anyone who comments on these things, but in the case of, for example, the Cardinal Vaughan school, it’s quite difficult to comment from the sidelines, only having been party to one side.

Another thing I will note is that I can’t summon up the enthusiasm for ecclesiastical politics. I don’t know anyone from the Bishop’s Conference and if I’m honest, I don’t really want to know either. Networking, schmoozing, knowing who’s who, isn’t my thing, which is probably something of a failing for a former vicar’s wife. I like to write my blog, talk about Catholic social issues, discuss a bit of politics, what’s going on in the twittersphere and in the media, occasionally venture into a bit of theology, hoping that I don’t launch into heresy, but I’ll only call people to account when I feel able and qualified to do so. I genuinely don’t feel comfortable about publicly questioning Archbishop Nichols, for a multitude of reasons, none of them to do with sycophancy or self-advancement, but simply that I am yet to be convinced of certain things, such as whether the Liverpool Care Plan, is back-door euthanasia for example or whether or not it gives ammunition to the euthanasia lobby, so I’m not going to go down that route. Call me naive but I trust in the Holy Spirit whom I believe has a hand in episcopal matters.

In terms of civil partnerships, I think we have to remember, that were Archbishop Nichols grossly in the wrong here, we’d have heard about it already from the likes of Archbishop Cranmer, who wouldn’t have passed up an opportunity to criticise the Catholic Church if he thought that they were in any way supporting the issue of same-sex marriage. I admire the dead heretic enormously, but he isn’t exactly Rome’s greatest advocate.

The other thing that I think it is worth remembering, is that civil partnerships do solve some issues of natural justice, without necessarily undermining marriage. It is only right and just that people who are not in a marital relationship should be able to have similar access to various legal privileges, formerly only available to married couples, such as inheritance rights, or the right to nominate someone as your next of kin, or name them as a beneficiary on a pension. Though there are arguments to be made for keeping certain things as being exclusive privileges of a married couple, actually it is no bad thing for people to be able to legally formalise close relationships.

Where civil partnerships have failed and are utterly discriminatory is that they are only open to same-sex couples and necessitate an official public ceremony similar to a wedding ceremony. I have two elderly aunts, Auntie A and Auntie B. Unless my parents have finally got around to changing their will, they are still named as our official guardians in the event of my parents’ death. My Aunties were a part of our family when I was a child, they attended every family party or celebration, were part of Christmas, came to look after myself and my sister for a week when my grandmother died and were the first people my parents called to help when we were involved in a horrific car accident when I was ten, which incapacitated my mother for a year, at one stage all of the family were in different parts of the hospital being treated for our injuries with the aunties switching from theatre to theatre to check on our progress.

Auntie A and Auntie B were both teachers at my mother’s school which is how she came to know them. She immediately clicked with Auntie A and a lifelong friendship was born, I don’t ever remember them not being in my life. Auntie A moved in with Auntie B when she was a newly qualified teacher in the fifties and needed temporary lodgings. She never moved out. I honestly have no idea whether or not they were involved in a sexual relationship, but my instinct tells me that they were not. Schoolchildren being what they are, found out that Misses A and B lived together and constructed their own narrative, but I can honestly say, I never witnessed anything that would lead me to believe that. To a certain extent it doesn’t really matter, I’m not interested, it doesn’t affect my feelings towards them. Auntie A is probably one of the wisest and most perceptive women I’ve ever met. Over the past 60 years the aunties have done everything together, they have a lot of mutual interests, probably one of the reasons behind such a close enduring relationship, and are much loved in the local community, still attending Scottish Country dancing together in their 70s and 80s. They have travelled the world over and had an enormously full life. Auntie A once confided to me however were she to have her time again, she would have liked to have got married, that she would have liked to have had a husband and children, something that surprised me.

Now Auntie A is approaching her late 70s and Auntie B is ten years older, in her late 80s. Auntie B has increasingly been suffering health problems. Auntie A has become her full-time carer without complaint. Auntie B recently suffered a rectal prolapse which has necessitated very intimate and compassionate care. They are not in a civil partnership because neither of them want to put themselves through a ceremony that does not reflect the nature of their relationship. This means that when Auntie B dies, Auntie A will have no legal claim (not that she wants one) on Auntie B’s estate, despite having jointly contributed to the upkeep and maintenance of the house as well as the household shopping and so on for almost the past 60 years. She also has no social security rights, no tenancy rights and no right to be consulted in terms of treatment, as next-of-kin. I should imagine that being the canny ladies they are, that the correct arrangments have been made, but it seems nonsensical that Auntie A could well face a claim from Auntie B’s various nieces and nephews and could lose her house. It also seems unfair that Auntie A has no legal status. This could all be rectified with a civil partnership, but this option is not available to them as they don’t wish to formally recognise their relationship as being a same-sex one. Auntie A said that she wouldn’t put Auntie B through it and the pair of them would find it deeply humiliating and embarrassing. They don’t want it on permanent record that they were in a romantic relationship and besides Auntie A feels, it would be a lie or a sham.

This is where civil partnerships fail, because they do not give people like my aunties, or several other people, such as cousins, brothers and sisters, or platonic friends similar rights. Civil partnerships frame these relationships as only being romantic or sexual and are therefore discriminatory. But the principle of offering equal legal and employment rights to those in chaste loving relationships is a noble one, just as it is noble that whilst Catholics should not be seen to support same-sex sexual relationships, we cannot assume that all those who are in a civil partnership are necessarily indulging in sexual relationships. Though the Church of England allows its clergy to be in civil partnerships they are, technically speaking, supposed to be chaste and refrain from sex.

Civil partnerships are, excuse the pun, a b*gger’s muddle. The Church of England is in exactly the same position as the Catholic Church. Civil partnerships were seen as a compromise that served the legal needs of the gay community, but were not seen as undermining marriage as they were separate to them. The rules of democracy mean that views that are seen to be in the minority, and opposition to same-sex partnerships is a minority view, don’t hold sway. Most people were concerned that gay couples were not being treated on a par with married couples and held this to be grossly unfair. A much better solution would have been to create a legal process which meant that all couples could go to a registry office and register another person as their official next of kin. If gay couples had wanted all the extra bells and whistles there was still absolutely nothing to stop them from doing this, with a humanist minister or whatever they wanted, but civil partnerships discriminate nonetheless against those who are in a chaste relationship.

There are many arguments for keeping marriage special and according it unique status, civil partnerships should not, for example, include parental responsibility, which should remain as being the exclusive right of married couples, or put more precisely the right of children to be brought up by a biological mother and father, but done properly civil partnerships might not have undermined marriage.

The problem for both the Church of England and the Catholic Church is that neither wished to be seen to deny legal equalities and rights purely on the grounds of sexuality. The homophobe label still carries immense power, it’s Stonewall’s entire raison d’etre. Also at the time of the consultation on civil partnerships, the gay rights groups stated that they were not pushing for marriage, simply that they wanted equality.

This is one of the reasons why the CDF specifically spoke out against civil partnerships in 2003, they could see that civil partnerships were marriage by the back door – the slippery slope and that civil partnerships could very much be seen as an inferior option. Had all parties pushed harder for a wider definition of civil partnerships, then perhaps we would not be in the mess that we are in today.

In any case, it should be remembered that Archbishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor was in charge in 2003 when this was discussed. I am unable to offer comment as to what the church should or should not have done as I was not in communion with the Catholic Church at that time. I was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and traumatic birth. Had the Church mounted a more concerted campaign, it is unsure whether or not this would have been successful, given how split the Anglican communion was over the whole issue, but the Bishops Conference was very clear in 2003, when it stated that “civil unions would not support the common good and we therefore strongly oppose them”.

Whatever else he might have said, Archbishop Nichols has stated that equality and commitment do not amount to marriage. Surely that is the main thing. Surely what matters now is sticking together to defend marriage, rather than this internecine squabbling, which does no-one any good. We are all part of one body in Christ. Wounds and divisions hurt us all.

*PS I know I will probably regret this and the internet will explode as a result. That’s the problem with trying to please everyone, you please no-one, but my loyalty lies in Christ and the Church that he founded. I am not convinced that hitching my wagon to the “church isn’t catholic enough” train is the way that I might best serve her. Don’t be too horrid in the comments.