The National Catholic Review

I posted last week on the British government's announcement that it intends to allow the registration of same-sex civil partnerships on religious premises, if these are happy to allow it. (Currently they can bless before or after the registration, but the registration itself must not take place in a church or synagogue). I saw it as an issue of religious freedom. My argument, essentially, was that the state was seeking to redefine marriage when it had no right to do so. Without actually saying so, I implied that the definition of marriage -- a sacred institution -- was essentially safeguarded by religious tradition.

Speaking on behalf of the bishops of England and Wales, Peter Smith (pictured), Archbishop of Southwark and a canon lawyer, said this morning that, indeed, Parliament has no right to alter the definition of marriage -- but not because that definition lies with religious bodies. "Marriage does not belong to the State any more than it belongs to the Church," he says, noting that "a fundamental change to the status of marriage" was never envisaged by the Equality Act "or any other legislation passed by Parliament."

He describes marriage as "a fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself" entailing "a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to each other, publicly entered into, for their mutual well-being and for the procreation and upbringing of children." And as such, he adds, "no authority – civil or religious – has the power to modify the fundamental nature of marriage."

He then announces the bishops' determination to fight this one. "We will be opposing such a change in the strongest terms," he says.

Some of those who commented after my post last week could not understand why the Catholic Church would be exercised by last Thursday's announcement. No church would be forced, after all, to perform such registrations of civil partnerships; and the Catholic Church has made clear it would not allow them on its premises. But surely others (Unitarians, Quakers) should be free to do so? 

Yet the issue is not about whether Catholic, Anglican or evangelical churches would be forced to solemnize what will in effect be gay marriage. The government is making clear that such compulsion will be ruled out -- although I said it would be hard to imagine the Church of England, which represents the state registrar, not facing at some point a discrimination challenge. The issue is about the state redefining marriage. When civil partnerships were first created five years ago the law specifically excluded the possibility of them being registered on religious premises -- precisely to avoid confusion with marriage. Now the state is removing that distinction.

But Archbishop Smith has gone further. He is saying, in effect, that nor do Quakers and Unitarians have the right to redefine marriage. As a "fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself", in its fundamentals it cannot be redefined by any human agency -- whether temporal or spiritual.  That raises the stakes considerably higher.

It is fascinating to contrast the vigour of this morning's statement with the hesitancy and confusion of the bishops' previous responses to equality legislation, both to civil partnerships in 2005 and to the 2007 anti-discrimination laws which resulted in the closure of the 13 Catholic adoption agencies.

What a difference a papal visit makes. Pope Benedict's trip to the UK last September emboldened the bishops specifically to stand up against equality laws which had the effect of diminishing religious freedom. Here is another example, emanating ironically from a government committed to giving faith a bigger voice. This time, it seems, the bishops will not be caught napping.

Comments

Anonymous | 2/24/2011 - 9:00am
@Mareczku -

Cleary you're making a red herring argument designed to shut down discussion of the issue and move to ad hominem attack. 

But I'd be remiss if I didn't address the fact that your argument fails at line 1: no one mentioned sex with animals; and line 2:  YES, humans are animals.  Perhaps that accounts for those who establish close relationships with animals from other species, and why the slippery slope argument is not as far-fetched as homosexual advocates try to portray it.


Mark Davenport | 2/23/2011 - 10:25pm
What is it with some of these posters talking about sex with animals and marrying animals?  Do they consider gay people to be animals?  Do some Catholics believe that homosexuals are not fully human?  Do any Church teachings say that gay people are not fully human? 
Anonymous | 2/23/2011 - 10:27am
25 years ago the notion of a two people of the same sex getting married was unheard of.  Today:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/2010/12/02/2010-12-02_joseph_guiso_marries_pet_dog_honey_in_wedding_ceremony_in_toowoomba_australia.html

We all know people who have bizzare relationships with their pets.

Legal consent can be assigned, either by power-of-attorney, parental relationship, or ownership.  An dog's owner surely has the right to consent on the dog's behalf.

No-fault divorce laws have already taken a toll on marriage and rendered miillions of children stripped away from a parent; we don't need to further degrade the institution and orphan countless more children by breaking the link between marriage and procreation.
Vince Killoran | 2/23/2011 - 1:32am
Abe from P.Q. has it right.

Michael's is playing the same beastiality card that Rick Santorium and some of the good folks over at FIRST THINGS were trotting out (sorry, bad choice of words) a few years back. As for someone marrying Mr. Ed the Horse, Anglo-American law is grounded in consent. Gay marriage passes the test; animals et al. don't.

The state has no business caring about procreation as an essential function to marriage (of course, plenty of heterosexual couples can't procreate).
Katherine Lawrence | 2/22/2011 - 6:45pm
Isn't the point that we are supposed to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as our selves? Isn't love the whole point about the Gospel?

With that as my guiding premise, then, i think that any act that promotes love, between a man and a woman, or two men, or two women - consenting adults of course - should be supported by the Church Community.

I would rather see a loving gay couple than see an unloving hetero couple.

It's easy to generalize about people who are in a collective that is not one's own. For instance, i'm not a Quebec Catholic, I'm a Texas Catholic. When dealing with 'foreign collectives,' e.g., Canadians, Gays, Protestants, any thing I am not, it is easy to stereotype and over generalize. WE ALL DO IT.  I'm sure a Quebecian reading this could see lots of stereotypical Texan ideas and behaviors in my post! :o)

Leaving gays out of the sacrament of marriage is really based on fear and is manifested in negative stereotyping, and prejudices. But knowing loving Catholic gays as I do, I can tell you that I would be honored to have them marry in my Church where I was married.
Kang Dole | 2/22/2011 - 5:28pm
Clever.
ROBERT NUNZ MR | 2/22/2011 - 12:54pm
I think the issue here realy  is the catholic identity one.
It strikes me as anotrher way to show that our brand is quite different from the Anglican one and the fallout will be on the hot button marriage definition issue for lots of people.
But, as a policy matter (BTW, I'm not sure what expertise canon lawyers bring especially to this discussion) I think the real undergirding issue is the continued movement toward "Catholic identity."
Matthew Pettigrew | 2/22/2011 - 10:39am
These conversations about what is and what is not a marriage make me smile. One of the many reasons I've turned away from the Church of my youth is because of a priest who heard my "confession" about six years ago - the first time I had been to confession for probably thirty years. Things were going fine until the priest found out my wife and I were married in a simple civil ceremony while visiting Scotland about twenty years before. He insisted that we were not married and would not be unless we had the marriage blessed by the Catholic Church. My initial response was a bemused "Are you serious?" When he assured me he was, I was insulted and angry. How dare he unilaterally void a loving and faithful marriage? I called him a fool, walked away, and, except for an occasional funeral, I've never again set foot inside a Catholic Church. By the way, my attempted confession occurred in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (where I've lived for forty years) and I have no way of knowing if what the priest told me is actually Church doctrine or just some goofy interpretation by a idiot.
Terence Weldon | 2/22/2011 - 4:23am
The hysteria in this post and the previous one against the supposed restriction of religious freedom and the so-called redefinition of marriage are entirely misplaced.

The British proposals will not in any way restrict religious freedom, but are specifically designed to expand it. This initiative was specifically requested by some churches, who objected to the current restriction in the legislation that prevent them from conferring religious recognition on their members who enter civil partherships. The attempts by Catholic and Anglican bishops to oppose the legislation do not represent the protection of religious freedom, but instead restrict that freedom by attempting to impose their own religious views on other faiths.

The complaint of redefining marriage is simple hypocrisy. Marriage takes many forms in different parts of the world, and has been constantly redefined throughour history - from a polygamous, patriarchal institution in the Old Testament, to a contractual arrangement to protect property and inheritance rights, through intervening forms to the very modern idea of marriage as the culmination of a romantic relationship between two people. Why should it not continue to evolve, to include relationships between two people of the same biological sex?

The church itself has constantly redefined its own view of marriage - for more than half its history, it did not treat it as a sacrament, or even require marriage in church - except, oddly, for priests. One of the most fascinating chapters in Salzmann & Lawler's "The Sexual Person" demonstrates how the Catholic Church redefined the process of marriage - from one that began with a personal contract and the start of cohabitation, and culminated in a public wedding ceremony (possibly with the onset of pregnancy), to the modern idea that marriage is an event, focused on the marriage ceremony that previously came rather late in the process. This is just one more of the many ways in which something that is too often desctribed as "traditional" marriage is in fact a very modern invention.

Obviously, physical procreation is one of the ends of marriage, but not the only one - or even the most important one, as both Vatican II and Pius XI's Casta Connubii make clear: there is no hierarchy in the goods of marriage.  As I read Pope Benedict's praise of marriage and family, it is clear to me that the value of marriage, as an institution that contributes to social stability, to the sound rearing and moral education of children, and as the protector of the elderly, apply as much to families headed by same sex couples as to any other.


Crystal Watson | 2/22/2011 - 3:19am
Wikipedia has an interesting page on marriage and its history ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage .... that will give an idea of the variety that has existed.  And that's just marriage - what about unions before marriage evolved?
Crystal Watson | 2/22/2011 - 12:01am
David,

I'm not saying the church should sanction anything it doesn't want to.  What I disagreed with was the statement made by Archbishop Smith that   marriage is  ....

<I>"a fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself" entailing "a lifelong commitment of a man and a woman to each other, publicly entered into, for their mutual well-being and for the procreation and upbringing of children."</I>

If marriage is defined as being between one man and one woman, lasting forever,   and entered into for the bringing up of children, then marriage is a pretty recent  (and Christian) invention, which seems to belie the idea that it's "rooted in human nature". 
Crystal Watson | 2/21/2011 - 5:46pm
"As a "fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself", in its fundamentals it cannot be redefined by any human agency - whether temporal or spiritual. "

This statement about traditional marriage, one man and one woman bound together forever in order to have offspring,  isn't historically accurate.  I think what's being obliquely refered to here is actually a  relationship based on the heterosexual sex act ....a sort of natural law argument for traditional marriage ...  but I don't see any reason to believe there haven't always been other relationships based on same-sex attraction as well.
Kang Dole | 2/21/2011 - 3:32pm
David, I suspect that the bishops of Quebec fantasize about getting anything close to a majority of Québécois Catholics to agree with them on these sorts of issues! 
Mark Davenport | 2/21/2011 - 3:24pm
The Pope's trip "emboldened the bishops specifically to stand up against equality laws"?  That is a sobering comment.  I wonder how many US bishops stood up against equality laws during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960's.  The Church shouldn't be against people being treated as equals and with respect.
Anonymous | 2/21/2011 - 3:00pm
"....the idea that marriage is something that has long since been a fixed constant for societies."


Actually, while the reasons for marriage have varied between societies over time, there is but one defining element that has been consistent forever: that it is the union of a man and a woman; that, of course, because - also consistent forever - male-female is the only combination of humans that can produce offspring.

Chris Sullivan | 2/21/2011 - 2:16pm
I can't really see much wrong with the state allowing religions to do what their faith (misguided though it may be) guides them to.

Isn't that merely allowing religious freedom ?

God Bless
Kang Dole | 2/21/2011 - 1:41pm
It's quite the opposite, Mr. Smith: I'm saying that some historical realism about how marriage has been defined makes it less simple to accept the idea that marriage is something that has long since been a fixed constant for societies.

Also, I do not live in America. I live in Quebec. Why assume that there is some default American perspective?
Kang Dole | 2/21/2011 - 12:25pm
I still find myself pretty underwhelmed by the protestations of the bishops. Your arguments do not convince me: I still see in the efforts of representatives of one faith group to curtail this legislation as serving only to restrict the ability of other groups to live out their religions.

Here's the (main) rub:

'''As a ''fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself', in its fundamentals [marriage] cannot be redefined by any human agency - whether temporal or spiritual.''

This notion of marriage as something that was, in a way universally applicable to all people groups, defined in some hoary past that can bear no interpretation by any secular or religious agency strikes me as being incredibly ambiguous, as well as lacking any real roots in the historical journey of marriage as a social institution. Marriage has been a lot of things to a lot of different groups. (Actually, let's be explicit in using the present tense: marriage is a lot of different things to different groups).

Whence this fear of one religious group redefining marriage for all religious groups? It seems to me that all that this measure will do is allow religious groups to openly and freely define for themselves what is marriage. This claim that marriage is a ''fundamental human institution rooted in human nature itself'' is just a sly way of identifying this supposedly fixed, natural institution with a value system that, as time-honored and widely-held as it may be, is by no means shared across the board in terms of religious groups.
David Nickol | 2/21/2011 - 12:19pm
I find this strange. The complaint is about changing the definition of marriage. This kind of civil union in the UK is not marriage, so the Catholic Church is saying it is so like marriage that it is marriage. But of course the Catholic Church says that marriage between same-sex couples is impossible, so how can they say that this civil union is so like marriage that it is marriage. It sounds like the Church is the one blurring the distinction between what is and is not marriage. And it does indeed seem to me it is interfering with the rights of other churches who may wish to hold ceremonies for civil unions.
Vince Killoran | 2/24/2011 - 10:33am

No, Michael, it really is far-feteched. Your argument is not grounded in an understanding of Anglo-American law or logic.
Mark Davenport | 2/24/2011 - 10:32pm
Michael, I will give you that.  Human beings are animals, we are mammals.  However, it seems to me that some Catholics view gay human beings as inferior and defective.  In my opinion, when words like disordered and intrinsically evil are used to describe a group of people, it lessens their humanity. 
Vince Killoran | 2/23/2011 - 1:39pm
Allowing a couple to commit to a long-term, loving relationship is not "degrading" the institution.

Michael, I can't pretend to explain your obsession with beastiality but the person getting married actually has to give consent.  That's why the law doesn't allow parents to consent to their nine year olds getting married.
 
Anonymous | 2/22/2011 - 5:46pm
"Or between a man and his sheep..."

Here's the slippery slope argument that should be able to withstand a legal challenge based on same-sex "marriage" arguments:

1.  Since we allow homosexuals to marry and homosexuals are incapable of procreating with one another, then there is no link between procreation and marriage.

2.  What's left of marriage is the mere commitment of two humans to want to call themselves "married."

3.  But there is no reason for marriage to be limited to humans.  As the owner of the sheep, I can legally consent/commit on its behalf.  I can commit sexual acts with the sheep; I love the sheep; I want the sheep to be my heir. 

4.  People who want to marry their animals should not be denied the marriage rights given to those who choose to marry a person.  It's an unconstitutional violation of equal protection.

And that, my friends, is how you destroy marriage by removing the procreative, male-female element that has been its basis for thousands of years.