The Catholic debate about marriage equality has been heating up in the United Kingdom lately. With proposals to legalize same-gender marriages in both England and Scotland, both sides in the debate have been issuing strong statements.
The BBC reports that on Sunday, March 11th,
“A letter written by the two archbishops representing London’s Roman Catholics – to be read in churches this weekend – alerts churchgoers to a potential future political fight to preserve traditional marriage.
“The letter – by Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Peter Smith – tells Catholics that changing the nature of marriage would be a “profoundly radical step” which would reduce its effectiveness and significance. . . .
“The letter – to be read out in 2,500 churches this weekend – ends by telling Catholics they have a ‘duty to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations.’ “
Martin Pendergast, a leader in Britain’s Catholic LGBT movement, offered a response to the letter in an essay published in The Guardian. Part of his argument against the archbishops’ letter rests on clear historical fact and part rests on an important distinction between marriage and civil unions:
“State and church have regularly redefined marriage and its structures over centuries due to changing cultural patterns, religious influences, and insights in social and human development. The structures of marriage are rooted not in biology or gender difference per se, but in relationality. If not so, those with clearly no potential for fertility could not enter a valid marriage. Faith communities have countenanced and rejected polygamous marriage, allowed nullity, divorce and remarriage, and the 20th-century Catholic church developed its earlier teaching that marriage was solely for procreation, declaring its purpose is twofold, including the mutual relationship of the couple.
“Yet I am not a supporter of same sex marriage for myself. Marriage essentially depends on the subjection of one person to another, even if it’s a mutual subjection, in the exchange of vows. So I don’t seek such status. Civil partnerships are based on equality, legally expressed in a joint signing of a contractual covenant, rather than through vows. This value of equality is what those of us in same-sex civil unions bring to the common good. For those of us who are people of faith, the sacramentality of such unions is what we strive to live out. Many parents, families, friends, and members of congregations have grasped this message even if, sadly, much religious leadership has not.”
In Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien has been speaking out forcefully–and recklessly–against marriage equality in that nation. Recently, he compared the legalizing marriage for lesbians and gays to legalizing slavery:
“Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of Catholics in Scotland, described gay marriage as a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” and said the Government’s plan to reform marriage laws was “madness”.
“In a stinging response to the Government’s assurances that no church would be compelled to conduct gay marriages, he wrote: ‘No government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.
” ‘Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that ‘no one will be forced to keep a slave’. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?’ “
O’Brien’s grossly insensitive remarks prompted The Tablet, Britain’s leading Catholic publication, to publish three opinions from prominent Catholics, under the heading “Can Marriage Ever Change?” Below are excerpts from each of them:
Timothy Radcliffe, OP, a former master of the Dominicans world-wide:
“Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility. Without this, there would be no life on this planet, no evolution, no human beings, no future. Marriage takes all sorts of forms, from the alliance of clans through bride exchange to modern romantic love. We have come to see that it implies the equal love and dignity of man and woman. But everywhere and always, it remains founded on the union in difference of male and female. Through ceremonies and sacrament this is given a deeper meaning, which for Christians includes the union of God and humanity in Christ.
“This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why church leaders are slowly coming to support same-sex civil unions. The God of love can be present in every true love. But “gay marriage” is impossible because it attempts to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life. If we do that, we deny our humanity. It would be like trying to make a cheese soufflé without the cheese, or wine without grapes”
Martin Pendergast(quoted at the beginning of this post), a founding member of the Cutting Edge Consortium:
“I believe Timothy Radcliffe risks idealising marriage too strongly, seeing it through his own dedicated prism of vowed celibacy. He states that “marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility”. But the social and anthropological structures of marriage are rooted not in biology but in relationality. As the Hebrew Scriptures say: “It is not good for a person to be alone.” Also, what of those who clearly have no potential for fertility – are they to be prevented from marrying, limited to a version of civil unions?
“Faith communities have redefined marriage throughout their history, countenancing and rejecting polygamous marriage, allowing divorce and remarriage, and the Second Vatican Council stated that the ends of marriage are twofold, not solely based upon procreation. In medieval times the focus was so strongly on betrothal rites that marriage, in some places, was a rarity, since so few people could fulfil the social and economic requirements for a marriage to take place before the altar. And what of all those “sworn brotherhood” rites, adapted also to include same-sex female partners, identified by researchers such as Alan Bray and John Boswell?”
Professor Tina Beattie, director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton:
“If we want to understand the sacrament, we need to look to Christ and the Church, not to the abundant diversity of participation within that sacramental love that constitutes our bodily human relationships. I’ve been married for 37 years and I have four children, but the loving relationships of my gay friends have helped me to understand more deeply what marriage means as a partnership of equals. I hope that they in turn have been enriched by their married heterosexual friends, and have better understood what their love means within the sacramental love of Christ and the Church.
In these times of radical change in our understanding of sexuality and human dignity (especially the full and equal dignity of women in this life and not just in the life to come), maybe we heterosexuals need the marriages of our homosexual friends to help us to understand what marriage looks like when it’s not corrupted by traditions of domination and subordination.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry