National Catholic Reporter
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Special Report
Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

A religious, civil hornet's nest

Emotional baggage connected with the word marriage complicates debate over gay unions


In the official teaching of the Catholic church, gay marriage is an oxymoron, a logical impossibility. Yet, in the judgment of many Americans today, Catholics included, it is, by its very nature, a necessity, an inevitability.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on the subject: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish a partnership of the whole of life, is … ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”

Since a same-sex union cannot procreate children, it cannot be called marriage. The Vatican’s recent declaration that Catholic politicians have a duty to oppose legalization of gay marriage is an application of that conviction.

The idea was affirmed explicitly by Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania in an appearance Aug. 3 on Fox News Sunday. Santorum, an outspoken Catholic on the issue, said, “It’s common sense marriage is between a man and a woman. Why? Because of children. It is the reason for marriage. It’s not to affirm the love of two people. That’s not what marriage is about. It’s about uniting together to be open to children.”

Yes, but it’s about other things too, and that’s why gay marriage has become a hornet’s nest in the church and in the public at large. Though the magisterium may be united, the larger Catholic church is “conflicted,” said Timothy O’Connell, professor of Christian ethics at Loyola University in Chicago. The roots of the conflict, he said, are found in the Second Vatican Council, at which the bishops very deliberately avoided restating the old dictum that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation and education of children. Instead, they began their presentation on marriage in the document Gaudium et Spes by emphasizing the relationship of the couple, “their covenant of personal consent,” and “their conjugal love for one another.” And even when speaking about marriage’s generative purposes, the document noted that “other aspects of matrimony” should not be considered “of less account.” The elevation of these “other aspects,” said O’Connell, opened a debate on the fundamental meaning of sexuality, a debate the Vatican neither participates in nor acknowledges. In Catholic universities today, “we present the best wisdom of the leaders of the church, which states that the relational and generative functions of marriage are inseparable, but we have to acknowledge that this teaching is less than convincing to many,” said O’Connell.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, a former U.S. congressman, said he is reluctant to support any diminishment of marriage from its traditional position as a unique relationship of men and women. “We shouldn’t lose any of that,” said Drinan, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. But he added he too is “conflicted” about efforts to dismiss gay marriage because that “could mean a denial of basic rights and benefits to some couples who truly love one another.”

There is no doubt that the theoretical esteem in which marriage is enshrined in the American legal system does leave same-sex unions at a considerable disadvantage compared to heterosexual unions. Michael Adams, an attorney with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, cited a variety of situations involving disparity:

  • Income tax: Gay partners cannot obtain the benefits of joint filing available to married couples.
  • Health insurance: Unless an employer’s policy makes special provision, gay couples are not eligible for family coverage.
  • Social Security: A surviving gay partner cannot receive any benefits earned by the deceased partner.
  • Adoption: Unless a state has authorized co-adoption (about half the states have not), a surviving partner has no legal claim for custody of the child of a deceased partner. Her relation to the child is legally that of a “stranger.”
  • Visitation rights: Unless a partner has previously obtained legal power of attorney for health care, he can be barred from visiting his partner in a hospital by blood relatives of that partner. Such instances are common where certain family members have opposed the gay union.

Adams acknowledged that some of these benefits can be gained by obtaining the necessary legal documents, but others are not available under any circumstances. The federal government and some 37 states have passed a Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that more than 1,000 special benefits are automatically provided to heterosexual married couples simply because they are married.

Adams cited more than a dozen cases in which Lambda Fund attorneys in New York attempted to intervene on behalf of gay persons who lost their partners in the 9/11 terrorist attack. “We had to fight for everything -- state, federal, even Red Cross assistance -- that married survivors received without question,” he said.

Martin Grachola, a board member of Dignity Chicago, declared, “It is time to deal with the reality that gays and lesbians can form long-term relationships. Society has a vested interest in extending to same-sex couples the same kind of legal benefits, responsibilities, safeguards and protections it extends to married persons.”

Public opinion
Results of recent polls on same-sex civil unions and marriages:
Do you think marriages between homosexuals should not be recognized by law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?

Should not 55%
Should 39%
Don't know/refused to answer 6%
Would you favor a law that would allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples?

Oppose 49%
Favor 49%
No opinion 2%
Source: Human Rights Campaign, Gallup telephone interviews of 1,005 U.S. adults, May 5-7, and 1,003 U.S. adults, June 27-29; 3 percent error margin.

Grachola said he has no problem with the principle that the family is the building block of society, but “we must widen the definition of what constitutes a legitimate family.”

Obviously, one way to get around the emotional baggage connected with the word marriage is by legalizing gay relationships as “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions.” The state of Vermont has already done this, and measures to do likewise are under consideration in Massachusetts and New Jersey. That would be a way to go, said Grachola, but many gay advocates will be satisfied with nothing less than “marriage.”

New designations will not provide the protection that the term “marriage” does, said Lambda’s Adams. “Marriage is simply the basis on which all entities today provide benefits to citizens,” he said. “Domestic partnership is a whole new institution. Under the most favorable circumstances, it will be treated as novel and strange,” he said, “and in many cases ignored or scoffed at, while a legitimate marriage license is not so easily dismissed.”

Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA, said much of the opposition to gay unions stems from the tendency to fuse together marriage as a religious commitment and marriage as a civil contract. “And this makes for an incredibly complex debate,” she said. If marriage can be viewed as a legal contract between two people making a permanent commitment, there should be no problem, she explained, adding that religious dimensions of the relationship should be addressed exclusively within the belief system of each religious denomination.

That does not mean Dignity would be satisfied with “domestic partnership” or some similar designation for gay unions. As an organization with a Catholic constituency, it is committed to a change in church doctrine that would allow gay unions to be regarded as valid, permanent, even as sacramental marriages. There are signs of progress, she said: Catholic parishes where gay couples are openly acknowledged and involved in ministry, where same-sex unions are liturgically (though privately) celebrated, where gay couples and gay families are even pictured in the parish family directory.

But opposition to legalizing gay unions under any title is also widespread and deep-seated among some segments of society. Baptists and several other large Protestant denominations remain vehemently opposed, as do some secular leaders and publications. The pressure for legalizing such unions is just the latest item in a nationwide “gay agenda,” according to Stanley Kurtz, a contributing editor of the National Review. Gay marriage would create a “slippery slope” that will lead to the justification of polygamy, adultery, and other forms of immorality, he said in a recent article. Ultimately, Kurtz contends, the gay agenda is designed to undermine and destroy monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Others who do not go that far argue that gay parents are unable to provide the balanced nurturing of children that comes in a home with a male and a female parent; they also fear that gay parents, by their everyday example, will rear generations of gay children. Concern about children was clearly a major point in the Vatican’s recent statement, claiming gay adoptions should be opposed because they do “violence to children by placing them in an environment not conducive to their full human development.”

That position, like much of the anti-gay marriage argument, is totally without empirical data or foundation, said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe. It makes no sense, said Sipe, to insist that a committed relationship between two men or two women automatically creates an unhealthy environment for children. Sipe has written widely on celibacy and other sexuality-related issues.

“The church’s teaching on sexuality is pre-Copernican,” he said. “It fails to take into account what we know today and what we are learning.”

Sipe added that the preponderance of evidence today indicates that sexual orientation is determined in the womb and therefore cannot be considered “disordered,” as the church claims. The biggest mistake, he said, is the refusal by the Vatican to discuss or dialogue on any of these sensitive sex-related issues.

Robert McClory, an NCR contributor, writes from Chicago.

Here is a list of stories exploring reactions to the Vatican’s document opposing legal recognition of same-sex unions and reports of public opinion on this topic.
Vatican document dated for feast of Ugandan martyrs
The Vatican’s new document opposing legal recognition of same-sex unions bears the date June 3, the memorial of 19th-century Ugandan martyrs killed for refusing a king’s homosexual advances.

Survey finds support of gay marriage is growing in U.S.
According to a recent poll by the Pew Forum, support for gay marriage has grown from 27 percent in 1996 to 38 percent today.

Vatican criticized for opposition to gay adoption
Some say the Vatican’s gone and stuck its foot in its mouth.

Irish council warns against using Vatican document to promote hatred
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties warns that people using the Vatican’s document to promote hostility toward homosexuals would violate the Incitement to Hatred Act.

A sampling of world opinion
NCR has created a Web blog sampling opinion from around the world on reactions to the document.

Ontario bishops launch petition campaign against same-sex marriages
The Ontario Catholic bishops are calling on members of Parliament to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

At parish for gays in Montreal, reaction to document muted
At the Church of St. Peter the Apostle in central Montreal, the priest and parishioners process into Mass with the distinctive rainbow flag of the gay community.

U.S. bishop says Vatican reaffirms marriage’s ‘unique character’
The U.S. bishops’ conference president said the Vatican document expresses “the church’s teachings about the unique character of marriage.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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