The teaching of the Church on civil unions is clear enough: does the archbishop support it or not?

I begin with a question, one which has a surprising answer: who, last week, pronounced the following words?

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… As a Church we are very committed to the notion of equality so that people are treated the same across all the activities of life. The Church holds great store by the value of commitment in relationships and undertakings that people give…

Well, the answer is that these words were uttered by Archbishop Vincent Nichols last week at a press conference following the English and Welsh bishops’ conference. That’s the same bishops’ conference which in 2003 published a document in response to a government consultation on “civil partnership – a framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples”, in which the bishops stated their unequivocal view that “the government’s proposals to create civil partnerships for same-sex couples would not promote the common good” and that they therefore opposed them. Their reasons, in brief, were that these proposals would in the long term undermine marriage and the family, and that they were “not needed to defend fundamental human rights or remedy significant injustices for same-sex couples, as these have either already been substantially addressed or can largely be addressed by the couple entering into contractual arrangements privately.”

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So, what has changed? It simply won’t do for the archbishop to cover himself by asserting, as he did, that “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage” and that civil partnerships were “categorically different” from gay marriage – which, he asserted, the bishops oppose. He said he was “very disappointed” that the Government had decided to introduce gay marriage. But this is surely mere cant (a word which according to the Oxford dictionary means “hypocritical and sanctimonious talk, typically of a moral, religious, or political nature”), since civil partnership as actually now defined in English law have virtually all the characteristics of civil marriage except the name – including, crucially, the right to adopt children. So this looks to me very like a volte face, at least on Archbishop Nichols’s part. In 2003, the bishops gave the most cogent and, in sharp contrast to many Vatican documents, lucidly expressed reasons for opposing the legislation the Blair government went on to enact, legislation which Archbishop Nichols apparently now supports:

The signal the law would send to rising generations is that marriage as husband and wife, and a same-sex relationship, are equally valid options, and an equally valid context for the upbringing of children. By publicly elevating same-sex relationships to a legal status virtually equivalent to civil marriage, the signal given to society would be that these two states of life are equally deserving of public protection and respect, when in fact they are not.

Clearly a few same-sex couples do bring up children, though they cannot both be their biological parents. But same-sex parents remove from children’s immediate family experience and context either the male or the female experience… The general psychological male/female complementarity in parenthood is not directly witnessed… It is in this long term context that we have to consider the rights of children. It is wrong to embark on a policy whose probable long-term outcome will be that more children are deliberately brought into this world only to be deprived of having both a father and a mother. This will be the most likely long-term result of a public policy which promotes same-sex couples as parents by giving them a public status equivalent to marriage.

It isn’t just that this document gives the most eloquently expressed rational arguments against civil unions. It also supports (which Archbishop Nichols in effect apparently no longer does) the explicit teachings of the Catholic Church. The following comes from a document which I quoted only a week or two ago in this space, entitled “Considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons”, issued by the CDF when the present Pope was its prefect. This can be taken therefore as representing authentic pontifical teaching. Like the English bishops, the CDF document stresses the need for children to be brought up in the conditions which marriage provides, with both a father and a mother:

As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood. Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions 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. This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle, recognized also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case.

Really, my own personal view is irrelevant. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has expressed the Church’s view: that the adoption of children by people in civil unions is “doing violence” to these children by placing them “in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development” and that this is “gravely immoral”. My own bishops have stated that “It is wrong to embark on a policy whose probable long-term outcome will be that more children are deliberately brought into this world only to be deprived of having both a father and a mother”. So firmly has the Church in this country believed this that rather than obey a law which would have compelled their adoption agencies to collaborate in adoption by gay couples they have actually closed these agencies down.

And now we are told, by the chairman of the bishops’ conference, that the English Church supports civil unions between homosexual persons, unions which have been given the legal right to adopt children. What are we to think? That the archbishop (to employ a Bush-ism) “mis-spoke” himself, that actually he didn’t mean the kind of civil union we actually have but another kind, which would envisage all the rights such unions now enjoy except for the right to adopt children?

The trouble is that it doesn’t actually look as though he does mean that, since he also made it clear that “we are very committed [question: who is this “we”?] to the notion of equality so that people are treated the same across all the activities of life”: that’s all the activities of life, presumably including adoption. So what does he believe? Just what is he saying, on behalf of his brother bishops and presumably the rest of us?

That’s a real question, to which we who are members of the English Church need, and I believe have a right to, a considered response. I really hope we will get one.

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