The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have defended the right of gay Catholics to remain in civil partnerships. They have told the Government that the abolition of civil partnerships by their automatic conversion into same-sex marriages “could cause great harm to lesbian and gay Catholics”. Many of them “do not wish to enter into civil same-sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only”.
This defence of the religious convictions of Catholics in civil partnerships is not quite a U-turn in church policy, but will appear that way to many. In a statement in 2003 the Bishops’ Conference warned: “We believe the Government’s proposals to create civil partnerships for same-sex couples would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them. They would in the long term serve to undermine marriage … ”
It logically follows that they would have to disapprove of any lesbian or gay Catholics entering civil partnerships. Despite this, some couples did so, and have asked the bishops for support in their opposition to what the Government is now proposing – that all civil partnerships would, at a stroke, be recognised as same-sex marriages. The bishops’ response is mature and generous. Instead of scolding those who did not heed their words in 2003, they have sided with them.
When Pope Francis remarked in the course of a press conference last summer, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” he probably did not realise the dramatic effect it would have. The Catholic Church’s teaching regarding homosexuality did not alter. But its attitude certainly did. In the public mind, his words caused a transformation.
It is fair to say that in all such matters, the bishops of England and Wales keep a careful eye on Rome. They are evidently less afraid of a rebuke from Rome than they might have been 10 years ago. The climate surrounding homosexuality in the Catholic Church has become altogether more relaxed and humane.
Narrowly, it could be said that having lost the battle to prevent civil partnerships and then having lost the battle to prevent same-sex marriage, the bishops are pragmatically making the best of it. But the effect is much more positive. It fosters a sense of inclusiveness – that nobody, because of lifestyle, sexual orientation or previous marital history, should be marginalised by the Church or feel that the Church is not behind them when their interests are threatened.
The Pope’s “who am I to judge?” remark could be applied to any other person who “seeks God and has good will” but does not precisely conform to the rules. It implies that if they are conscientiously searching for the right thing to do, the Church, having reminded them of its teaching, still makes space for them. That may be what Pope Francis really means by “mercy”.
Grown-up Catholics are perfectly able to go about their occupations and professions, and live their sexual, social and family lives, without referring, as if they were children, to a detailed list of “dos and don’ts” drawn up in the Vatican.
This is not a free-for-all, but how responsible, discerning adults normally behave. As St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
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