Friday 30 December 2011

Civil partnerships (again)

                       Another amicable exchange of views on how best to share the gospel

I had intended to leave off blogging for the Christmas octave/New Year, but an exchange on the question of civil partnerships has sucked me back in!

Caroline Farrow and The Thirsty Gargoyle  -two of my favourite Catholic bloggers- have been defending Archbishop Nichols' statements on civil partnerships on which I have blogged previously. Whilst I tend to agree with much of what they say about the tone of the attacks on Catholic Voices and the Archbishop in the Catholic blogosphere, I don't agree with them on the substance of those attacks, namely, that there is a lack of needful clarity about the Archbishop's views on civil partnerships.

The Gargoyle provides a thoughtful defence of the Archbishop's statements based on the argument that, as interpreted by law, civil partnership legislation does not undermine marriage. He concludes in his article for Catholic Voices:

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.

Now, I'm not at all sure that I accept his argument, even as it stands: it seems to me, even within its own very narrow terms of legal interpretation, to be a moot point whether it is true to claim that the civil partnership legislation does not presuppose a homosexual relationship. Certainly, this is the view of the barrister, Jacqueline Humphreys as reported by John Smeaton.  Moreover, the Gargoyle's argument rather slides over the change of view implicit in the move from clear opposition to civil partnerships expressed in the English bishops' original response to the consultation to Archbishop Nichols' current statements, noting simply that the response was to the proposed legislation whilst the Archbishop's statements were in response to the enacted legislation. This raises the question: what changes of substance were included in the actual legislation which allowed such a change of view on the part of the bishops?

But it is the narrowness of the Gargoyle's perspective that is my chief objection here. We have, surrounding the legislation, a clear statement of opposition by the English bishops to the draft proposal. We have an entire culture of civil partnerships which blurs the distinction between marriage and civil partnerships (see John Smeaton's blog entry for photos illustrating this). We have confusion among Catholics with same sex attraction as to the Church's position. If -and it's a big if- the Gargoyle's analysis is correct, then it would be helpful, at the least, for clarity to be introduced along the lines of: 'Well, we don't think the legislation itself is necessarily a bad thing, but we certainly don't wish to endorse the use of it to blur the distinction between marriage and civil partnerships, nor do we wish to endorse sexual relationships between same sex partners.'

Behind all this stand, I think, two bigger background issues. First, there is the question of Church politics, particularly a sense among some Catholics that there is almost a war within the Church between the faithful, orthodox Catholics, and a group of sixties', liberal hangovers, with a particular hold on power through an episcopal Magic Circle. To be honest, I have little interest in this sort of debate: as I've said before, having been an Anglican, any local disagreements within the Catholic Church look positively minor, and, to the extent that they are not, I'm really not interested in slagging off fellow Catholics who are trying to be faithful according to the consciences.

Second, however, there is a genuine, theological and moral issue. A great many Catholics seem to have lost confidence in the reasonableness of the Church's traditional moral teaching. There is a feeling among many that there is very little to be said in favour of, eg, teachings on contraception, homosexual activity and pre-marital sex other than 'Rome says so'. And to the extent that this teaching is based simply on authority rather than reason, there is the expectation that it will, eventually, be updated. (Rather like the expectation that an aged uncle's casual racism at the annual Christmas dinner table will solve itself when he eventually drops dead.) Although these Catholics may be happy to defend marriage, they are rather less happy at condemning homosexual activity because, really, they don't believe it can be defended except on the grounds of tradition and authority (which, to the modern mind, are worse than no defence at all).

I am absolutely certain that the Church's teachings on sexual issues can and should be defended on natural law, ie, philosophical grounds. Moreover, I am absolutely certain that a more vigorous articulation and defence of her teachings in this area is an essential element in the culture war that exists between secularized modernity and traditional understandings of human flourishing. To the extent that the question of civil partnerships raises issues surrounding human sexuality -and it clearly does- the position of the Church has generally to be articulated clearly and robustly, even if, on particular occasions (eg particular interviews) the whole story can't be told.

I've already articulated my own view of the Archbishop's statements. I think they are unclear rather than clearly wrong. But to the extent that they are to be clarified by the sort of defence offered by the Gargoyle -ie not (as I would suggest) that the Church (purely on the grounds of practical politics) is not focusing on civil partnerships just now, but rather (as the Gargoyle suggests) it is not focusing on them because, in principle, it is not opposed to them- I think they are wrong or, perhaps more accurately, introducing still further confusion into an area which now needs clarity.

And in doing this, I am perhaps in the enviable position as compared to my English readers of being able to do so both as a defender of Catholic truth and of episcopal authority. As reported recently in the Catholic Herald:

Scotland’s most senior Church leader has reiterated his opposition to the introduction of civil partnerships, which were legalized across Britain in 2004. Cardinal Keith O’Brien said this week that the introduction of civil partnerships  was ‘not in the best interests of our society.’


  1. There is no way of making sense of our attitude to civil partnerships without looking at our attitude to state marriage. We have accepted that the state can legislate for marriage, even though that marriage is far removed from the concept of Christian marriage that the Church upholds. Civil marriage, which is not permanent and can be dissolved at the whim of one party against the wishes of the other does not undermine our concept of marriage. We have learned to recognise two wholly different institutions and accept that we apply the same name to them. Catholics would be unlikely to demand that all marriages in Britain should conform to the standards to which we aspire even though it was once true
    that state marriage and religious marriage were both governed by the same rules. In that same way, we cannot demand of the state that it take a religious view of
    civil partnerships if we do not demand that of the state when it considers
    heterosexual marriage.

    We can warn of the dangers, uphold the Christian norm, demand of the faithful that they live according to that norm, and deny the
    sacraments to those who don't but we cannot reasonably refuse to accept that
    civil marriage exists and we can even suggest that it is better for people to be
    married even in this limited way than to live together having taken no serious
    promises at all.

  2. The general pattern here should be that the (positive) law reflects the natural law. Put another way, human nature flourishes under certain social conditions, and the nearer the social conditions (including the positive (state) law) are to the ideal, the better.

    So I agree with your final paragraph: better that the positive law reflects the natural law imperfectly than that it doesn't reflect it at all. But that shouldn't have any implications for the recognition of civil partnerships: to the extent that they represent an encouragement to vice (and I've argued that before in our previous exchanges) it cannot be argued that those partnerships represent an imperfect good. They represent no good at all.

    That said, I certainly agree that we shouldn't pretend civil partnerships don't exist at all. That would be silly, rather like pretending other unfortunate facts (fierce dogs, holes in the pavement) don't exist. But I find it hard to see what that acknowledgment should consist in besides, at the least, silent regret and. more plausibly, some sort of explicit opposition.

  3. If you have no truthful way of sexual expression except with one of your own sex then continence is only possible if you accept some higher authority. The Church can therefore demand what the state can't. It is not reasonable for the state to make demands of people which can only be made in the light of revelation. The state must therefore seek rules which can be applied to those for whom revelation is not part f their experience. If those rules encourage fidelity and reduce promiscuity they must be better than rules which do not. In that sense they can be given some limited support,

  4. Frederick, I've made a new post in reply to you as it raises some important issues I'd like to take beyond the combox.