Archbishop Nichols's position on civil partnerships is consistent with church teaching

(By Greg Daly)

Last month a Catholic journalist argued that remarks on civil partnerships made by the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols,  were at odds with the both the Vatican and previous comments by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

The remarks were made by Archbishop Nichols at a press conference in which he also spoke of the bishops’ opposition to the Government’s proposals to allow same-sex marriage. As reported by The Tablet, the Archbishop said:“(w)e would want to emphasize that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship (and) a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision.”

Because civil partnerships in the UK -- which were introduced in 2004 -- include adoption rights, William Oddie wondered whether Nichols was also in favour of same-sex adoption; and if so, why Catholic adoption agencies had been forced to close in 2007. His criticism was echoed by conservatives in the US, in a Catholic News Agency report and in critical remarks by George Weigel.

In Rome the following day, Nichols explained that he had been defending the Church’s teaching on marriage, with which civil partnerships – already existing as a fact in British law – should not be confused. "It is to defend marriage that the archbishop acknowledged the existence of 'civil partnership' between persons of the same sex that already offer the same legal framework of marriage," his spokesman told Vatican Insider, adding: "He did not speak 'in defence of unions between same-sex' nor did he ‘praise’ them, as some have suggested.  He simply acknowledged what has already been established by law". For the archbishop, said the spokesman, the key issue is to clearly present the "hallmarks of marriage" compared to unions between persons of the same sex, in other words "the union between a man and a woman is intended for the procreation of children and their education”.

This, Oddie countered, was not good enough. If civil partnerships weren’t based on sexual relationships between people of the same sex, then siblings could enter them; civil partnerships, he added, are like marriages in the crucial respect that couples in both cases have the legal right to adopt children.

On 7 December, Archbishop Nichols further spelled out his position following a lecture at the Thomas More Institute. In response to a question which quoted a Vatican document from 2003 -- ‘in those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty’ – he said his priority was to defend marriage while at the same time recognising “the existence of legal arrangements for same-sex partners who wish to avail themselves of protection to do with rights and property, inheritance and access to each other.”

He added that “when that legislation was put in place, to which we objected, there was a very very clear undertaking given by the government that this should not be confused with marriage. The actual scope of the same-sex union regulation is not the same as marriage because when it comes to the same-sex partnerships there is absolutely no reference to the sexual relationship or sexual activity which is obviously essential to marriage, so there is a profound difference in law in this country at present.”

While the Civil Partnership Act did modify adoption law in several respects, it did not give same-sex couples the right to adopt. That right has been available since since 2002 -- two years before the Civil Partnership Act became law.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2003 document, Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, reminded Catholics of the nature of marriage, the essential dignity of all persons, and the need to avoid unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. Distinguishing between homosexual behaviour as a private phenomenon and as an institutionalised public phenomenon, it exhorted Catholics to express consistent, clear, and firm opposition to 'legalised homosexual unions'.

In June 2003, the UK Government published a consultation paper entitled Civil Partnerships: a framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples, setting out proposals for what has become the civil partnership scheme. The Bishops' Conference response in September 2003 expressed concerns that the proposed scheme could elevate homosexual relationships to a legal status virtually equivalent to civil marriage, thereby giving a signal to society that the two states are equally deserving of public protection.

The bishops further argued that recent legal developments rendered the proposed scheme largely unnecessary, that it distracted from more serious problems undermining modern family life, and that it created anomalies with regard to other committed loving relationships which were not sexual in nature but which were equally deserving of state recognition and support. They gave the example of sisters who might have shared property over many years, but could as easily have made the same point by citing disabled people and their carers, or simply lifelong friends. Arguing that the proposals would not promote the common good, they therefore opposed them.

The Act creating civil partnerships, which came into law in November 2004, made them different from marriage in a number of crucial respects. Civil partnerships would come into effect through the signing of a civil partnership document rather than via publicly-made promises in a civil ceremony, as happened with marriage. 

Crucially, the Act was not phrased in such a way that same-sex partnerships should intrinsically be understood as homosexual unions. The law never mentions sexuality or sexual acts in any respect, and does not cite anything analogous to adultery as grounds for dissolution of civil partnerships; sexual fidelity is not even implicitly identified as an assumed feature of civil partnerships. In principle, therefore, the scheme can be entered into by any two people of the same sex, other than family members or those who are already married, without any expectations that the partnership contains a sexual or romantic component.

The bishops were opposed to the scheme as first proposed, and drew on the 2003 CDF document in making a case largely based on the need to defend and promote the traditional understanding of marriage. As codified, however, the 2004 law – while imperfect – does not undermine the unique position of marriage in British law as it does not presuppose that a civil partnership is a homosexual relationship. Treating sexuality and sexual behaviour as private phenomena, it denies homosexual unions a parliamentary imprimatur and does not enshrine them as institutions within the legal structure of the United Kingdom.

As the law continues to treat homosexual behaviour as a private phenomenon, it is entirely consistent with church teaching for Archbishop Nichols to support the civil partnership scheme as an existing and legitimate mechanism to help give stability to committed couples of the same sex, while strenously resisting any attempt by the state to redefine marriage.

Archbishop Nichols's critics, in short, were mistaken. There was and is no discrepancy between him and Rome and his fellow bishops.

(Greg Daly has been training with the second Catholic Voices speakers' team. He blogs as the Thirsty Gargoyle.)

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