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A Catholic Case For Blessing Civil Unions

With gay marriage back in the news, one may well ask (and I have been asked) is there a case for the Catholic Church to provide some form of church recognition for civil unions?

I have several objections, which I have frequently stated,  to the entire foundations of the Vatican doctrines on sexuality – but the question I want to deal with was very specific and moderate, from a person whose undoubted sincerity and respect for tradition I freely accept, and so, for the sake of argument, I want to address David’s question on its own terms – from strictly within orthodox Catholic tradition and teaching. My short answer is yes, undoubtedly; my slightly longer answer is that there should not need to be a case, as liturgical blessing of same sex unions already has an established place in Church history, complete with fixed liturgical rites and ceremonies. However, this traditional practice is no longer familiar to us, and so I need to update it, together with some background information,  for the modern context.

I begin with what is foundational to all questions of marriage – the words of Scripture, in Genesis 2 (which is the earlier of the two creation stories, notwithstanding the familiar numbering):

“It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a companion to help him.”

-(Gen 2:18)

Notice please: not a wife, to make babies, but a companion, to help him. So we have it on the very best authority, God’s authority, that humans need companions, not for sexual pleasure, nor primarily for procreation, but for help, companionship and support.

Why Not in Church, Too?

In the modern West, we are so obsessed with sex, and particularly with off-colour wisecracks and snickering at wedding receptions that we entirely forget that marriage is not only about sex. Yet every adult knows there is far more to marriage, once the wedding night and honeymoon are over and forgotten. What becomes far more important is simply working together to ease the trials of the day – by offering companionship and support, taking leisure or seeing friends and family together, and sharing in the costs and responsibilities that go into making a home: house, garden and car maintenance, paying the bills, cleaning, laundry and food arrangements – and raising children together if and when they arrive.

It is not only that sex is not the only part of marriage – we forget that it was once an accepted part of Christianity that sexual relationships need not be a part of marriage at all. Many early Christians renounced sex altogether and dedicated themselves to virginity, even in marriage, and even as married couples. So it is entirely accepted in Christian tradition that an emotionally intimate, recognized committed relationship between two people is possible without the need for a sexual foundation.

We also know, through the scholarship of John Boswell and Alan Bray, that for many centuries the early and medieval Church accepted and recognized the value of liturgical recognition of same sex couples, for which they used established rites of blessing. In the Eastern Church, these were known as rites for “adelphopoeisis“, or “making of brothers”, and in the Western Church, as “sworn brotherhood.”  Boswell’s work is controversial, and has been widely criticized in some quarters on the grounds that these unions were not “comparable” to modern heterosexual marriage – but that is precisely my point: modern civil unions are also not comparable to modern (sacramental) marriage (and nor were heterosexual unions in the early and medieval church “comparable” with modern marriage).

What cannot be denied is that these liturgical rites existed, and were used. Bray’s work is a lot more cautious than Boswell’s, and he is careful to describe these unions only in terms of “friendship” – but as he also makes clear, male friendship at that time is also not directly comparable with modern ideas of male “buddies”. Friendship between men then was  a far more serious affair than it usually is today, possibly of greater emotional and practical importance that mere marriage, which is why it was deemed worthy of liturgical recognition, and why a number of pairs of sworn brothers demanded and got joint burial in shared tombs in church – exactly as many  married couples. These unions were not always sexual – but some most certainly were.

The practice of liturgical blessing for same-sex unions gradually fell away, but continued in occasional use in the Eastern use, and I have heard a suggestion that although it has fallen into disuse in the West, it has never been formally abolished and so remains at least theoretically available (that would need checking, and I do not vouch for the claim.) However, the practice of shared burial continued rather longer. The best known and most recent example is that of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who insisted on being buried alongside his beloved friend St John, that they could be together “for all eternity”. There was no objection raised to the request, and they were indeed buried together, right in Birmingham Oratory, with no slight to Newman’s reputation. He is today on the path to recognized sainthood, and will be formally beatified next month, during the papal visit to the UK.

So, there is an established basis in scripture and in church history, for recognizing a human need for a companion, and for liturgical recognition of such relationships, even when between pairs of men, by the Church. So the case for modern liturgical recognition of some same-sex relationships would seem to be inc0ntestable – it has already been established church practice in both Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The question is – what kind of relationships? Are rites for making “brothers”, or of “sworn brotherhood”,  really appropriate for modern civil unions? The argument against might be, that the former were not sexual relationships, and modern civil unions are.

Well, not exactly. Some sworn brotherhoods most certainly did have a sexual basis, and some modern civil unions do not. More importantly, both sets of unions are or were very much about joint financial business or property relationships, and reciprocal obligations for mutual care and protection. Before considering modern partnerships which are sexual, I want to deal with those which are not. To do so, I want to consider the case of a Catholic man who has a “homosexual condition”, but who successfully strives to live strictly within the parameters of orthodox Catholic doctrine. Call him Chas, for chastity.

We know from Vatican documents that a homosexual man in himself is not sinful – only his homosexual “acts”, but being a dutiful Catholic, Chas does not commit any of those. We also know from Genesis that in the eyes of God, it is not right that he should be alone, that he needs a companion. We also know that the Church itself recognizes that a person like Chaz will have a difficult time living out his life of voluntary chastity – they describe this as a “cross” that such men must learn to carry, and also are careful to arrange support groups (in the Courage ministry) to help them to deal with this cross.

Now if Chas recognizes that it would be good for him to have a companion, someone who can offer help and support in carrying this cross on a full-time basis, not just in weekly Courage meetings, and can furthermore help with all the little practical details of living arrangements, as married couples do as matter of course when not making babies, and if Chas meets someone with whom he can find the right emotional connection, and who is just as committed to living within Church teaching (someone he met in his Courage group, perhaps) – what possible objection can there be to the two of them agreeing to live together as room-mates, sharing expenses, chores and responsibilities – and providing full-time companionship and support?

Once they do start living together, and develop deep emotional bonds, they may well see the need for legal contracts to protect their respective interests in the eyes of the law. As the relationship has been set up to honour and support each other in living out Church teaching in love, is there not also a need for such a relationship to secure some form of honouring within the Church community, so that God who has recognized their mutual need for companionship, and the faith community of which they are part, might bear witness to their love and commitment – and encourage them to maintain it obedience to the demands of their faith, as they see it? Such recognition should not take the form of “marriage”, with its association with child-bearing and raising, but it would have strong and obvious parallels with sworn brotherhood – based on deep friendship, but also incorporating legal, financial and personal mutual responsibilities.

So, it is clear to me that precisely as the early and medieval church saw the value of celebrating some same sex unions in sworn brotherhood, there would be value for the church in recognizing (celibate) civil unions with an independent, but associated, rite of blessing within the congregation.

What of unions that are not known to be celibate? Well, they may be.  Here in the UK, the law for civil partnerships closely parallels that for marriage, with very few exceptions. One important one that does exist, is sexual: unlike marriage, there is no legal requirement for sexual consummation for the union to be valid. In law, the partnership is essentially a matter of contract between two people, and in not a sexual arrangement.  For those cynics who doubt the possibility of a partnership which is not sexual, I simply point again to the example of the early church, and those married couples who were encouraged to practice virginity even within marriage. There certainly are modern male couples, living in close emotional partnerships, who claim to be doing so in complete chastity, just as our fictitious Chaz might do. Who are we to disbelieve them?

Even where we know that a particular couple are not celibate, we would be wrong to assume that they are living in sin. Although the Vatican documents and the Catechism are clear that homosexual genital acts are sinful, it is also established and accepted that the primary obligation is to one’s conscience. There is a parallel clear and established teaching that the use of artificial contraception is sinful – but that conscience may at times override that. So, the simple fact that two men are living together, in a relationship that is not celibate, does not mean that they are sinful. They too, just like Chaz and his hoped-for friend and partner, need companionship, mutual help and support in negotiating life’s difficulties, and the problems they will face together. They too, could do with some support from their congregation, and recognition for their love.

Before dismissing the possibility, consider once more the case of a married couple, one that has been married, say, for ten years, and remain childless.  When they present themselves for communion, does the priest assume that they are using contraception, and deny the sacrament? Of course, it could be that there are natural causes at work. Let us simplify the case further, let us say that both couples have had children by previous marriages, marriages which ended tragically in the deaths of their spouses. They are now in en entirely licit new marriage and each has established proof of   fertility. Still the priest, although he might have questions in his mind, will not refuse communion, because he will assume that the couple have worked things out in conscience and good faith.

Why can the church not approach modern same sex couples in the same spirit? The case for church recognition of celibate civil unions I showed above to be incontestable.  I submit that if we truly apply Catholic teaching on the importance of conscience, and on not judging the state of an other’s conscience, there is equally a strong case for Church recognition of unions that are not necessarily celibate.

4 Responses

  1. Terence,

    I find this article impressive. While I don’t have the time to respond now, I do have a question.

    When you talk of the Church “recognizing civil celibate unions” (and, in time, civil unions that are not necessarily celibate) what kind of recognition are you talking about?

    • David, thanks for the kind words.

      I’m not a liturgist and do not want to get too specific on the form, but I would think an excellent starting point would be precisely the existing liturgies for “making brothers” described by Boswell and Bray, updated for modern language. The texts exist, they have ancient lineage, and they refer that history in much the same way as the liturgy for the Mass, with which they have much in common.

      A number of modern writers, both Catholic and other, have also developed entirely new modern liturgies, but I’m not familiar with their form – I’m far more interested in the principle than the exact content.

  2. Terence,

    I have a number of comments to your post:

    1. I have often said, to anyone who is willing to listen, the gay movement could be a great opportunity to promote the sancitiy of marriage. It is my observation that the institution of marriage, within the civil context, has fallen so far from its meaning that it now represents little more than a hollow contract.

    For the more orthodox civil marriage adherents, it presents an opportunity to engage with the gay community in an effort to promote the most fundamental principles that should underlie marriage. Specifically, issues of faithfulness, fidelity, and care of offspring have become insignificant parts of the civil contract. I can provide you example after example in my law practice where spouses have left their partner for another person – often emotionally and financially destroying two families, including innocent children who want nothing more than to have both parents raise them. There is no civil consequence for this kind of destructive behavior.

    From the gay community’s standpoint, a unification with the orthodox straight community, especially along the lines that you propose may be the only true hope for recognition of something sacred (as opposed to the profane definitions in the civil community). And, it may be the only true hope for the straight community to preserve what is good, right, just, loving, and Christian about marriage.

    2. I don’t know how the Church can create a good, right, just, loving, and Christian marriage without defining some of the parameters that constitute such a relationship. I don’t see a theological impediment to the Church recognizing loving, committed, and exclusive relationships. But, these gay relationships (just like the straight ones) have to be what they claims they want to be. I think this is what the ELCA was trying to do with their resolution. Unfortunately, the “publicly accountable” portion of their missive has been largely ignored.

    3. One of benefits of a “brotherhood union” is that removes the sexual component from the discussion.

    4. However, theology should require and philosophy demands that the sancity of sexual intercourse as a means of reproduction and spiritual unity, be given it proper place at some time within the modern theology and philosophy of “unions”. It is insufficient to claim that a same-sex marriage is the equivalent of an opposite marriage without proper consideration being given to the natural biological function, and its undeniable creative function.

    As you note, while God declared that it is not good for man to be without a companion, he did not create another man. Rather he created woman. That is the reality of creation, not a mere happenstance of any individual’s will. Any “gay” theology or philosophy has to address this issue in order to be taken seriously.

    5. I have some issue with the Catechism’s conclusion that because homosexuality is an intrinsically disordered act, that homosexual acts are always grave moral sins. It appears to me that the first premise is a philosophical premise, and that the conclusion is a theological conclusion.

    For example, drinking alcohol could be considered an intrinsically disordered act. (Obviously, alcohol is a kind of poison for the body). However, one can’t conclude that drinking alcohol is therefore immoral. The implied premise is that all disordered acts are immoral. (An untrue premise.).

    It seems to me that heterosexual acts outside the marriage relationship, while not intrinsically disordered are nevertheless disordered, and that the Catechism makes this clear. Furthermore, acts within the marriage relationship are also disordered to the extent that the purpose or order does not advance the spiritual being we call the family. Hence, chastity is not the overriding consideration in a committed relationship; ordered sexual relations is more important.

    I will repeat myself – it was an impressive article. I find little deserving of quarrel, and offering much for common discussions on fruitful soils. Your efforts and your spirit are, in my opinion, worthy of further consideration by me and other “catechismophiles”.

    • David, thank you for taking the trouble to make a lengthy and thoughtful response.

      I do not want to add anything further just now – except to assure you that I would never class you in the category of “catechismophile” – a term which to me denotes someone who does not simply like and respect the catechism, as I know you do, but someone who quotes it as a simple substitute for reason. That rules it out. While I often disagree with you, I could never claim that you ignore reason, and so we do sometimes come to agreement as well.

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