The Church is opposing a move to abolish civil partnerships and replace them with same-sex marriages, arguing that “great harm” would be caused to those who opted for the unions but believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
In a submission to a government consultation on civil partnerships in the wake of the introduction of same-sex marriages, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has warned that some same-sex Catholic couples who did not want to marry could lose their legal rights because they do not wish to do so.
The 12-week consultation, which closed last month and allowed submissions from interested parties and members of the public, investigated whether civil partnerships should be abolished and automatically converted into same sex marriages which were introduced in March. The review also questioned whether opposite-sex couples should be allowed to enter into civil partnerships.
The Church’s submission to this year’s consultation, written by the Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, said: “We have received representations from some lesbian and gay Catholics stating that they would not wish to enter into a same sex marriage, and who fear that their legal rights will be removed if civil partnerships are abolished.” He added: “Some lesbian and gay Catholics 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, but still wish to have the legal rights that are contained in a civil partnership. The removal of the option for same sex couples to enter into civil partnerships could cause great harm to those Catholics and others.”
The support for civil partnerships appears to be a shift from a submission made by the hierarchy over a decade ago opposing the planned introduction of civil partnerships which stated: “We believe [they] would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them.”
However, in 2011 Archbishop Vincent Nichols, now a cardinal, acknowledged that civil partnerships provide gay and lesbian Catholics with legal rights. “We would want to emphasise 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,” he said although he later clarified that he was simply recognising the “existence” of these partnerships.
Archbishop Smith, who is chairman of the bishops’ conference’s Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, added: “To remove the legal right of these same sex couples, who do not wish to ‘marry’, to enter into a civil partnership would mean removing legal rights for such people in future. We are opposed to any automatic conversion of civil partnerships into same sex marriages. The two realities were established differently in law with distinct meanings. Same sex couples who entered into civil partnerships may not wish to have their relationship labelled in this way.”
The Church of England has also opposed the move to replace civil partnerships with same-sex marriages on the grounds that, for religious reasons, gay and lesbian couples may not wish to marry.
More than 60,000 people have been registered in civil partnerships since they were introduced in 2005.