The coalition government at Westminster announced in 2011 that it is to launch a consultation in the spring of 2012 on proposals to change the law in England and Wales to allow gay marriage by 2015. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government began its own process of consultation in 2011 calling upon interested bodies and organisations to submit their comments, etc by 9th December 2011. Reaction from the Catholic bishops on both sides of the border was immediate and critical of the proposals.
Catholic doctrine of marriage
The most common argument against the proposals is that same-sex marriage redefines the meaning of marriage, i.e. a social institution under which a man and a woman freely consent to live as husband and wife by making a public, legal commitment. The Catholic Church expands this bald definition, teaching that marriage is divinely ordained and is a permanent, exclusive and indissoluble bond between a man and a woman who complement one another, and that procreation is the specific and intrinsic perfection of marriage. Marriage is regarded as sacramental when both parties are baptised Christians. Underpinning the sacramental theology of marriage is the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ drawn from the writings of St Paul (Ephesians 5); an image originating with the prophets to describe God’s relationship with his unfaithful people.
The marriage of baptised Catholics in a civil ceremony is considered invalid or non-sacramental by the Church because it lacks canonical form, i.e. it was undertaken without the permission of the Catholic authorities and not according to an authorised Catholic rite. Marriages to be officiated by a non-Catholic minister require a dispensation from canonical form. It follows that baptised gay Christians who undertake a civil marriage are not confecting a sacramental or valid marriage, not only because they are have failed to obtain the necessary dispensation but because the ‘accidents’ or ‘symbols’ are wrong, i.e. they are not of the opposite sex.
Complementarity and sociological/psychological developments
Quest respects the centuries-old teaching of the Church and recognises the distress that many Catholics experience as our secular society increasingly challenges traditional Christian values and moral principles. At its most basic, the stress placed on complementarity as the exclusive domain of heterosexuals by those opposed to same-sex marriages relies almost exclusively on biological arguments based on anatomy to defend the complementarist position. However, significant advances in social sciences, psychology and of the natural world in recent decades have led us to see same-sex attraction as a perfectly natural, minority variant in the world of human sexual preference. Lesbians and gay men in relationships are often heard to articulate that their partner complements them, that they feel more whole and fulfilled when they are with that person. Critically, if one asks this of a religious lesbian or gay couple, they are likely to adopt language which has its roots in spiritual terms. Such people “give thanks to God” for the gift of their partner, they feel called to bear witness to God and the divine life in the context of their relationship.
In everyday language gay men and women, their families, friends and colleagues often refer to the registration of civil partnerships as ‘weddings’. Since December 2005 when the first registrations took place many of the rituals associated with heterosexual weddings have been adopted. Traditional arguments in favour of same-sex marriages have frequently been rooted in secular terms that take as their inspiration the equality of all before the law. If all human beings have entitlements to be treated with respect and dignity, it is argued, there can be no justification for discrimination against groups of people solely on grounds of their sexual orientation. Marriage, in civil terms, carries with it a number of taxation and benefits rights which, if exclusively the domain of heterosexuals, amounts to unfair treatment of thousands of lesbian women and gay men.
If, as we believe, all love and fidelity between human beings has its ultimate grounding in God, then Quest sees no inherent reason why the dedication of two human beings, committed in a public act of self-giving and devotion, should not take place in an explicitly religious setting. Indeed, for people of faith, not to include that element in an act of public devotion would be to exclude an essential dimension, the dimension of faith. These considerations are primary for a lesbian and gay Catholic group like Quest since they have very serious implications for questions not only on marriage in the civil context afforded and supported by the State, but also on the extra dimension of whether places of worship should become the settings for marriage ceremonies.
Same-sex marriages in places of worship
It will be the good fortune of those gay sisters and brothers whose faith groups welcome them as a greater or smaller part of their communities that same-sex marriage ceremonies on religious premises may become the norm where permitted by the principles and practices of those faith groups. Quest nevertheless recognises that the history of Christianity is the history of different traditions, beliefs and practices and that the Catholic Church in the light of its current teaching on homosexuality will prohibit such ceremonies.
In his visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI drew attention to “worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.” Coercion by the state in requiring faith-based groups to solemnise same-sex marriages in places of worship and the use of other premises would be clearly contrary to democratic values and respect for religious freedom.
Quest believes that the proposed introduction of same-sex marriage in parts of the United Kingdom is an opportunity for a more radical change in the marriage laws and we therefore call for a separation of civil registration of marriages from faith-based ceremonies. We advocate a system similar to that found in France, where only civil marriage is recognised. Religious ceremonies are optional and have no legal status; they may only be held after the civil ceremony has taken place (which can, but need not be, on the same day). In this way, faith-based groups will be under no obligation to marry same-sex couples and may continue to abide by their own traditions.
At present a heterosexual marriage is civilly registered in the context of a religious ceremony. If this practice was to continue following a change in the law allowing same-sex marriages to take place in religious buildings, a divergent situation would arise between those faith groups that allow such ceremonies to take place in its buildings and those which do not. In essence, the state would legitimise discrimination by faith groups opposed to same-sex marriage whilst those same groups are fulfilling state functions in respect of heterosexual marriages.
At the very least, it would be better for those faith groups that will not solemnise same-sex marriages or allow their premises to be used for such ceremonies on an equal basis with opposite-sex marriages, to forfeit the right to civilly register opposite-sex marriages in the context of a religious rite, i.e. a complete separation of the civil registration in space and time from the faith-based celebration of a marriage.
Quest supports the proposed legislation to redefine marriage to allow homosexuals to marry in civil ceremonies in Scotland and England and Wales. Quest wishes those faith groups well who consent to civil partnerships being registered on their premises.
Catholic lesbians and gay men who choose to make a public and formal commitment in a civil marriage ceremony do so in full knowledge that they live in contradiction to the Church‘s teaching and thus risk official censure. The best that might be hoped for in a pastoral sense is that the law of gradualism would apply. As defined in Father Kevin T. Kelly’s influential work, Divorce and Second Marriage (Collins, 1st edition 1982): “The law of gradualism refers to the kind of dilemma situation in which two different points of focus have to be kept in view even though for the present they cannot be fully aligned with each other”. In effect, as Fr Kelly goes on to explain, the first focus is “the universal value or law which is concerned with the good of human persons in general and which challenges the individual regardless of his particular situation. The second focus . . . involves the individual’s capacity at this stage in the history of his personal development and also any features in his particular situation which may have special human significance.” The aim is for an eventual growth towards alignment of the universal with the particular. Of its nature this process of alignment can take time, even many lifetimes.
Encouragement and support for a couple entering into an exclusive physical and emotional relationship serves to strengthen that relationship. In turn they, by their loving union, are living witnesses to divine love, drawing us all more deeply into God’s wondrous design of love; bringing love and harmony, peace and friendship to our world.
- Germain Grisez, Living a Christian Life (The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2). Franciscan Press, 1993.
- Kevin T. Kelly, Divorce and Second Marriage – Facing the Challenge. Collins Liturgical Publications, 1982.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. Geoffrey Chapman, 1994.
- Quest, Response to the Consultation on Civil Partnerships on Religious Premises, 23 June 2011.
- The Canon Law Letter and Spirit, Geoffrey Chapman, 1995