Controversy has arisen over whether Pope Francis advocated for a civil unions law in Argentina in 2010 while he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The New York Times and CNN quote sources saying that he did, while a source quoted by Catholic News Agency refutes those claims.
If then-Archbishop Bergoglio didn’t advocate for civil unions, he should have, according to the Vatican document “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons“.
The document, which was written in 2003 by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, and approved by Pope John Paul II, clearly directs Catholic politicians to “support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done” by proposed pro-equality legislation.
In 2010 Argentina, when passage of a marriage equality bill was increasingly probable, “limiting the harm done” would translate into supporting the substitution of a civil unions bill for a marriage equality bill. By Vatican standards, same-sex civil unions are a lesser “evil” than same-sex marriage.
Since support for civil unions is clearly a fall-back position, any support for civil unions by the Catholic hierarchy constitutes a tacit admission that they have lost the proximate marriage equality debate. With this in mind, it is interesting to see how frequently they and their lay cover groups like National Organization for Marriage have shown support for existing civil unions laws or neglected to oppose civil unions bills when marriage equality was in the offing. The examples are mounting. Here is an incomplete list:
- 2009 – Maine – 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, saying “[I]t 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.”
- 2009 - New Jersey – During the December 7, 2009 hearing on the marriage equality bill (S1967) by the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference Patrick Brannigan was asked by Sen. Paul Sarlo whether the Catholic Church supported the state’s Civil Unions law. “Yes. …[W]e do support the Civil Union Act,” Mr. Brannigan replied. The NJ Catholic Conference opposed the marriage equality bill.
- 2009 – Washington State - In 2009 the Washington State Catholic Conference barely opposed the domestic partnership bill under consideration in the legislature, sending only one man to a few legislative committees to quietly testify against it. After the law passed, WSCC posted an unsigned statement on their main web page in support of a referendum aimed at repealing it but did not rally parishioners to sign the referendum petition, donate to the anti-equality campaign or vote a particular way. Despite their equating of the domestic partnership law with marriage, the WSCC like most of its religious-right peers in Washington apparently saw the referendum as a lost cause and thus gave it lip service but no solid backing.
- 2010 – United Kingdom – The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales supported 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. His view was supported 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.”
- 2010 – Argentina – See discussion above.
- 2012 – New Hampshire – In an effort to repeal the state’s marriage equality law, New Hampshire state Rep. David Bates proposed an amendment to his marriage equality repeal bill that would reinstate civil unions. Despite vehemently opposing civil unions in the past, the Diocese of Manchester, which constitutes “The Catholic Church in New Hampshire”, supported Rep. Bates’s amendment, saying “The Diocese of Manchester consistently has opposed legislation that would establish civil unions. However, the proposed amendment to HB 437 falls into a category of legislation which the US Bishops have previously considered: bills in civil law which may not reflect the fullness of the Church’s teaching, but which nonetheless provide an “incremental improvement” in the current law and a “step toward full restoration of justice.”"
- 2012 – Washington State – The NOM-affiliated group Preserve Marriage Washington relied on the existence of domestic partnerships in their argument against the same-sex marriage bill, saying “Same-sex couples ALREADY enjoy all the same rights and benefits as married couples in Washington under the domestic partnerships, “Everything But Marriage,” law from 2009.”
- 2012 - England and Wales – NOM’s sister organization in England and Wales, Coalition For Marriage, relies on the existence of UK civil partnerships in their argument against the same-sex marriage bill, saying “Same-sex couples already have equality. All the legal rights of marriage are already available to same-sex couples through civil partnerships.”
- 2012 - Scotland – NOM’s sister organization in Scotland, Scotland For Marriage, uses the exact same language as Coalition For Marriage to rely on the existence of UK civil partnerships in their argument against the same-sex marriage bill, saying “Same-sex couples already have equality. All the legal rights of marriage are already available to same-sex couples through civil partnerships.”
- 2013 – England and Wales – In their briefing to Members of Parliament on the proposed marriage equality bill, the the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales used the existence of UK civil partnerships in their argument against the same-sex marriage bill, saying “We note that same sex couples already effectively enjoy equivalent legal rights as heterosexual couples by virtue of the Civil Partnership Act 2004. …Therefore the changes proposed in the Bill are not needed in order to provide legal recognition to and protection for same sex relationships.”
- 2013 – Rhode Island – In its argument against the same-sex marriage bill, NOM-Rhode Island claimed to support the state’s civil unions law despite previously fighting its passage. NOM and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Providence apparently have since became highly doubtful of their ability to stop the marriage equality bill and have shifted their efforts to backing a bill that would send a marriage referendum to voters. The referendum would allow voters to enshrine the marriage equality law in the state’s constitution, while at the same time allowing small businesses and other entities to openly discriminate against gay customers. That NOM and Bishop Tobin would support a bill that could lead to a constitutional guarantee of marriage equality is the strongest tacit admission yet that the Catholic hierarchy is losing the marriage equality debate.
Marriage equality laws have been passed in numerous Catholic-majority countries and states with the assistance of Catholic voters, Catholic lawmakers, and Catholic governors or heads of state, illustrating that the Catholic hierarchy is losing the worldwide marriage debate. The numerous cases listed here of the endorsement of civil unions by the Catholic hierarchy and their proxy organizations make clear that they’re admitting it, if only tacitly.