The opposition of the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy to marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is legendary. Not only does the Catholic Church lobby for anti-equality constitutional amendments and against marriage equality laws, it has been known to fundraise for those efforts and circulate referendum petitions during Holy Mass while the priest gives a homily on obedience.
Not satisfied with undermining marriage equality, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States also tries to undermine passage of civil union and domestic partnership laws by alleging that those second-class legal constructs somehow erode the “sanctity” of civil marriage for heterosexuals. Civil unions are “an assault on the sacrament and institution of marriage and the family” is how the Diocese of Bridgeport put it.
In light of all that, it is tempting to assume it was a foregone conclusion that the Illinois Catholic Conference would take a proactive position in opposition to the Illinois civil unions bill and bemoan the bill’s passage after the fact. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion at all, because in actuality the Roman Catholic Church indulges in moral relativism where civil unions and domestic partnerships are concerned.
In 2009 the Washington State Catholic Conference sent one man to a few legislative committees to quietly testify against SB 5688, the Domestic Partnership Expansion Bill of 2009. The man was not accompanied by supporters or sign-wavers.
After the law passed, WSCC posted an unsigned statement on their main web page in support of a referendum aimed at repealing it. The posting was made with no fanfare and beyond these acts the Catholic Church machine remained silent. Unlike in other states, Catholic parishoners were not rallied at church to sign the referendum petition, donate to the anti-equality campaign or vote a particular way.
Apparently the Catholic Church, like most of its religious-right colleagues in Washington, saw this particular referendum as a non-starter and thus gave it lip service but no solid backing. Indeed, Chief of Staff Siler of the Yakima Diocese stated that “our resources are limited, and we think the more important issue will be the question of gay marriage”. (Curious statement, given that the Catholic Church stated that the battle over the domestic partnership law was about marriage.)
Undoubtedly the Catholic Church’s minimal participation in the domestic partnership debate was also with an eye towards keeping people in the pews. Washington has a small Roman Catholic population, many of whom live in the Puget Sound region which heavily supports LGBT equality and sends pro-equality legislators to the state legislature.
Thus to all appearances the Catholic Church acted in Washington based on political and pragmatic calculations rather than standing on principle and boldly defending heterosexual-only marriage from what they said they considered a true threat.
The Catholic Conference of Illinois’ publication “Promoting Civil Unions to Undermine Marriage” was intended to explain their anti-civil union position but ironically the title can truthfully be read to mean that the Catholic Church in fact promotes civil unions when doing so might undermine marriage equality legislation.
On December 7, 2009 the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act“, a marriage equality bill (S1967). Committee chair Senator Paul Sarlo and Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference had the following exchange (emphasis added):
SENATOR SARLO: Thank you, Mr. Brannigan.
I have one question. Does the Catholic Church support– We understand there’s some potential — there’s loopholes in the Civil Union law — the current Civil Union law — that prevents same-sex couples from having the same rights as heterosexual couples. Does the Catholic Church support this Legislature amending the Civil Union law to close up every possible loophole?
MR. BRANNIGAN: Yes. The Catholic Church is– Within a week after the Civil Union Act was passed, I issued a memorandum to all of our institutions. As a matter of fact, when Seton Hall University then did a global e-mail to all employees notifying them that they should check with their health benefits because now the University was offering benefits to same-sex couples — and the University noted myself as the author of the direction — there was — I received quite a few calls from some individuals who didn’t agree with that position. But we do support the Civil Union Act.
This is a complete reversal from the New Jersey Catholic Conference’s opposition in 2006 when the New Jersey Legislature was working to pass the civil union law. By 2009 however the political landscape had changed and the Legislature was considering a marriage equality law. It seems clear that under those circumstances the Catholic Church chose to cut its losses and say it supported civil unions so it could declare that marriage equality was not necessary. As happened in Washington state, the Catholic Church in New Jersey walked away from principle after making a political calculation.
In 2009 the Roman Catholic diocese of Portland lent its public affairs director Mark Mutty to Stand for Marriage Maine to lead the effort to repeal Maine’s new marriage equality law by referendum. During a debate on the referendum, Mutty strongly endorsed civil unions:
However, it is totally unnecessary for marriage to be redefined in order for them to have those benefits. There are alternatives, and those alternatives I think we’re all familiar with, enhanced domestic partner legislation, and other like arrangements can be made that do not fundamentally change the definition of marriage but yet provides those same benefits that they seek. And I fail to see how those benefits would not be available through these alternative arrangements as well as they would through marriage and I think that is the ultimate compromise…
…and again, enhanced domestic partnership legislation, a number of other options, civil unions is certainly an option that will provide all those same benefits, yet recognize that the two relationships are fundamentally if nothing else biologically very different.
Of course this was contrary to the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and presumably Mutty’s boss Bishop Richard Malone of the Roman Catholic diocese of Portland: “We strongly oppose any legislative and judicial attempts, both at state and federal levels, to grant same-sex unions the equivalent status and rights of marriage – by naming them marriage, civil unions, or by other means.”
In the United Kingdom, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales openly supports civil partnerships despite pointed rebukes from Pope Benedict. ”Civil partnerships are precisely what they say they are. They’re not gay marriages or lesbian marriages. They’re simply a legal arrangement between two people so that they can pass on property and other rights in which they were discriminated against before,” said Bishop of Nottingham Malcolm McMahon earlier this year. His view was supported recently by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales who said “We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognized that in English law there might be a case for those.”
Despite many statements to the contrary, the Catholic Church clearly doesn’t believe that civil unions and domestic partnerships are intrinsic threats to heterosexual-only marriages or they would be fighting them hard at every turn rather than quietly ducking the issue (Washington) or outright endorsing civil unions (New Jersey, Maine and United Kingdom). Call it pragmatism, call it moral relativism, either way the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t always practice what it preaches on the “assault to the sacrament” that allegedly is civil unions.