The revolution of family
In recent weeks several Church leaders have indicated that they might not oppose legislation that would extend civil union rights to same-sex couples, with the legal prerogatives that apply to traditional marriages, but without characterising such unions as marriages.
In early February Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, said that while the Church cannot consent to anything that treats other unions as equivalent to marriage between a man and a woman, “private law solutions” for protecting people’s rights could be permissible.
This view has since been echoed by influential prelates such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Cardinal Rubén Salazar of Colombia (where same-sex legislation is pending) and Archbishop Piero Marini, liturgical master of ceremonies under Pope John Paul II.
Under Pope Francis there seems to be an increasing openness to saying such things. Indeed, these statements might reflect the pope’s thinking: a senior official in Argentina’s bishops’ conference has confirmed that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio favoured civil unions as an alternative to the legalisation of gay marriage in his country in 2010.
These comments will be welcome by Catholics and others who have supported the extension of full civil rights to homosexuals, but are opposed to changing the traditional definitions of marriage.
However, an acknowledgment that the legalisation of same-sex civil unions is not irreconcilable with Catholic teaching and represents a tolerable alternative to the redefinition of the traditional family might be coming too late in stopping the inexorable move towards the legalisation of gay marriage in many countries. Worldwide, 13 countries have legalised same-sex marriage, including South Africa.
Questions may be raised whether the concept of same-sex civil unions is actually acceptable to those who advocate same-sex marriage, and whether the Church can keep intact its definition of marriage and family if it consents to same-sex civil unions.
In a broader context, can the Church’s model of the traditional family retain currency in societies where the meaning of marriage and family has been thoroughly revolutionised over the past half century, with divorce, cohabitation and raising children outside marriage increasingly being seen as acceptable and normal?
In practice, the function of procreation has been diminished as the primary purpose of marriage, and not only in the West. It is within this context that the notion of same-sex marriage has become acceptable to so many people throughout the world.
These realities merit open and candid discussion as the Church seeks to formulate its response.
It may also be productive to study the effects of the tone in which Church leaders state their opposition to gay marriage. For example, have the more strident forms of rhetoric—on either side—precluded reasonable dialogue and compromise?
It must be acknowledged that in its engagement against gay marriage, the Catholic Church has inflicted wounds, and sustained some itself.
The Church has been accused of homophobia and hypocrisy. While opposition to same-sex marriage obviously is not intrinsically homophobic, some of the trenchant rhetoric has been interpreted as being hostile to homosexuals. Sometimes the lines between defending marriage and attacking homosexuals have appeared to be blurred.
Some intemperate protests from Church leaders have been hurtful to the LGBT community, in contrast with the Catechism of the Catholic Church which demands that homosexuals be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (2358).
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who himself has offered ferocious opposition to gay marriage, acknowledged this failing last month when he said on US television that the Church must ensure that its “defence of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people”.
He acknowledged, with admirable frankness, that the Church has not “been too good at that” and has failed to be consistently welcoming to gays and lesbians.
This failure to fully extend Christ’s embrace for all requires correction. The discussion about how to do this must begin now.