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Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

A demonstrator shows off a pro-gay poster during a protest outside St. Peter's Square in Rome July 31. Italy's Radical party protested against the Vatican's strongly worded document condemning gay marriage as immoral and a grave threat to society and instructed Catholics everywhere, especially politicians, to oppose moves to legalize it.
-- Reuters/Dylan Martinez
Vatican calls on all Catholics to oppose same-sex unions


While the Vatican’s recent declaration on homosexual unions introduces no new moral teaching, analysts say it does mark a clear intensification of the church’s resistance on the political and cultural levels, with a call to arms to resist social “legitimization” of gay relationships.

Although early media attention focused on the document’s challenge to Catholic politicians, its sweep is much broader than just the legislative arena. The document calls on all Catholics, in any walk of life, to refuse to cooperate with measures that suggest an analogy between same-sex unions and traditional marriage between a man and a woman.

In theory, this could mean that any Catholic whose work intersects with marriage issues -- adoption counselors, civil registrars of marriage, even inheritance and retirement specialists -- could find themselves facing a choice between the civil law and the demands of their church.

If such conflicts materialize, Catholics who work in the field of marriage rights and law could find themselves in much the same situation as Catholic health care professionals, who have long had to negotiate matters of conscience on issues such as abortion, birth control and sterilization.

The document’s call for resistance is unambiguous.

“In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” it states.

“One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”

Vatican sources told NCR July 31 that the document, titled “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” had been in the works for almost two years. Hence it was not a response to any recent events, such as a Canadian move to legalize homosexual marriage on a federal level, or debates within the Anglican Communion on the recognition of homosexuality.

More broadly, Vatican sources said, the document was motivated by the growing international trend towards civil regularization of same-sex relationships. Twelve European nations today have laws under which gay couples enjoy at least some of the civil benefits of marriage. In some cases, such as Holland, same-sex relationships are considered the full legal equivalent of heterosexual marriage. In other cases, such as France, a Civil Solidarity Pact (PACS) allows homosexual couples to register their partnerships with the civil authorities. They benefit from the same fiscal and social rights as married heterosexuals, such as inheritance and divorce rights, housing and social security.

The 12 nations are: France, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Croatia. (In Spain, there is no federal legislation, but autonomous regions are free to craft their own policies. Catalonia, for instance, recognizes same-sex unions, but not adoption rights.)

Croatia adopted its law in mid-July. This was taken in the Vatican as an especially worrying signal, since Croatia is the first state from the former Soviet bloc, and one of the few predominantly Catholic states in Europe, to regularize same-sex relationships.

In that context, the Vatican’s insistence that Catholic politicians bring their voting behavior in line with the moral teaching of the church marks an intensification of efforts to resist the social legitimization of homosexuality. It also, however, calls Catholics to resistance where that legitimization is already a fact of life.

Underlying the document, said Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, a specialist in moral theology at Rome’s prestigious Alphonsian Academy, is the belief that the law of the state should reflect the natural law as propounded by the church.

“This is being emphasized more strongly,” Johnstone said, pointing also to the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Jan. 16. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Fr. Angel Rodriguez Luño, a moral theologian at the Opus Dei-run University of the Holy Cross in Rome, said that the duty of conscientious objection to same-sex unions flows from the fact that such laws represent “gravely unjust political norms.”

A brief commentary by Rodriguez Luño was released by the Vatican press office along with the document itself on July 31.

Johnstone said the language on conscientious objection in the document is “exactly the same” as has traditionally been applied to abortion.

“It’s the same theory of material and formal cooperation,” Johnstone said. “Anybody who’s involved in the application of the law could be called upon to refuse to cooperate.”

In moral theory, material cooperation refers to a circumstance in which someone does something necessary for an act to occur, but without willing that act. Formal cooperation, on the other hand, is when the author of the first act also wills the second. For example, the driver of a getaway car would be said to formally cooperate in a bank robbery.

Johnstone said that Catholic adoption agents would clearly face a conflict of formal cooperation if the law were to give adoption rights to gay parents. The new Vatican document comes down hard on the adoption issue, stating that such measures “would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”

Similarly, Catholic marriage counselors would be in a difficult position if a same-sex couple were to seek their services.

A bit more complicated, Johnstone said, would be the case of a Catholic who works as a civil registrar of marriages.

“You could argue that both ways,” Johnstone said. “You could argue that this person is uniting his will with that of the same-sex couple and hence is cooperating with the marriage. Or you could take the view that he is simply willing the civil effects of that act and not the ‘marriage’ itself.”

Still more complex, Johnstone said, would be a case in which a same-sex couple wishes to enroll their child in a Catholic school.

“It’s hard to construe accepting that child as formal cooperation,” Johnstone said. “But there could be a problem under the heading of scandal.”

In this case, Johnstone said, he meant not the popular sense of “scandal,” meaning shocking people, but the technical sense of inducing someone to commit sin against the faith or morals of the church. In that sense, he said, someone might be able to argue that by accepting the children of homosexual unions, the church was in effect legitimizing those unions and hence inducing people to accept them.

Rodriguez Luño agreed with Johnstone that the document marks a “tightening up” on the relationship between civil and natural law.

“Certainly the scope of the civil law is more limited than that of the moral law,” Rodriguez Luño said. “But in no case is it possible to legislate against the Creator, whose intentions on this issue are manifest and undeniable, based on incontrovertible biological, anthropological and social data.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

The full text of the document can be found at the Vatican Web site in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith part of the Roman Curia section, look under the heading "Doctrinal Documents."

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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