Catholic leaders often remind the public that while they are opposed to gay marriage, they affirm the dignity of all human beings, including gays and lesbians. They cite the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, number 2358, which states that, "they [gays and lesbians] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." This language is abstract, so what does being "accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity" look like in action, and how does the church simultaneously uphold teaching 2357, which calls gays and lesbians "intrinsically disordered"?
Archbishop Vincent Nichols has come under fire from conservatives in England and Wales (and the US) for trying to uphold the church's teaching on marriage while also creating space for gays and lesbians to be treated with dignity and respect.
In November, Nichols, who heads the conference of Catholic bishops in England and Wales, affirmed the church's stance against gay marriage in response to the plan by Prime Minister David Cameron to push for legal recognition of same-sex marriage before 2015. Currently, gays and lesbians can enter into civil partnerships with the state. What irked conservatives were Nichols' comments about civil partnerships:
According to the English religious journal The Tablet, the archbishop [Nichols] remarked that “(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.”
Among those criticizing Nichols is the American George Weigel:
“In my experience in the United States, this notion of civil unions has always been a kind of half way house to so called ‘gay-marriages,’” he told CNA on Dec 7.
Weigel added that while a “humane state is going to make appropriate provisions for human relationships, particularly in moments of distress, … those issues can be dealt with without going down this road of saying there is something in the nature of a stable or unstable homosexual union that the state should honor and lift up.”
The Vatican published guidelines about civil partnerships in a document called "Consideration Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons." The church calls on civil authorities to reject any formal recognition of gay relationships, and concludes:
The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.
The codes I referenced above, which label gay women and men "intrinsically disordered" but then demand they be treated with dignity and respected is confusing, and Nichols seems to be responding as best he can to these dual claims. He has unabashedly upheld the church's teachings on marriage, which puts him at odds with most in his country. And yet he offers a pastoral response to those gay and lesbian individuals who wish for legal recognition and rights to ensure safety and stability within their families. Are those on the right who attack Nichols concerned more with ideological or theological purity than pastoral concern and love of neighbor? How, then, should pluralist and secular societies treat gays and lesbians? Should their relationships be offered any legal recognition? What about hospital visitation, taxes, and the myriad other rights and responsibilities heterosexual couples take for granted? Is there any way for Catholics to affirm what the church teaches about marriage while respecting other family structures and situations in diverse societies?
Michael J. O'Loughlin