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New Zealand bishops support civil unions

NCR Staff

New Zealand’s Catholic bishops support legal registration of same-sex unions, though not as a steppingstone to legal marriage, in a position that contrasts with recent statements by Pope John Paul II condemning civic unions.

The 10 members of the New Zealand conference responded in late March to a request for comment on the legal status of same-sex couples by the country’s justice ministry.

The bishops told the government they supported allowing same-sex couples to claim rights similar to those of married couples in income support, tax credit entitlement, legal aid and the division of property. Where same-sex couples share responsibility for child care, the bishops said, they should have a right to parental leave like married couples and unmarried opposite-sex couples.

The bishops also supported allowing a former partner in a registered same-sex union to apply for access to a child if he or she is either the child’s parent or guardian. Under current New Zealand law, a same-sex partner cannot apply for access to a child even though a court can impose child support obligations on the partner.

At the same time, the bishops said legal registration should apply only to civic rights and should not be a simulacrum of marriage. Any ceremony should not involve an exchange of vows, they said, because “marriage is defined by sexual differentiation.”

The bishops said same-sex couples should not have the right to adopt children, and they oppose such couples having joint legal parent status even when one partner is the child’s biological parent. They also oppose giving same-sex couples the right to use reproductive technology.

The criteria for legal registration should be mutual care and support, financial interdependence, duration and shared property, the bishops’ statement said. “The existence of a sexual relationship is not a matter which should be inquired into by the courts,” they said.

Though some media reports suggested the bishops had backed a form of “gay marriage,” Bishop Peter Cullinane of the Palmerston North diocese, president of the bishops’ conference, told NCR that was not accurate.

“The Catholic bishops teach that a sexual relationship between homosexual persons is wrong. At the same time, there are other aspects to these relationships besides sex,” Cullinane said. “These other aspects sometimes need to be governed by justice and equity. These involve legal, civic and proprietorial matters. To uphold justice and equity is not to condone unchastity. We had explicitly disavowed any idea of homosexual ‘marriages.’ ”

The New Zealand bishops’ position nevertheless strikes a different tone than recent statements from John Paul II. In late 1999 the pope said, “Other forms of relationships and togetherness between the sexes” were not a “true legal alternative to marriage but rather its devaluation.”

Same-sex unions “are, in my opinion, a regrettable distortion of what should be a communion of love and life between a man and a woman, a mutual gift open to life,” he added.

Background materials to the discussion of same-sex unions in New Zealand may be found on-line at www.justice.govt.nz/pubs/reports/1999/same_sex/index.html

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000