How Bishops Teach—Differently
Fr. Richard P. McBrien

The state legislature in Vermont recently passed a civil-unions bill that provides various marriage benefits to gay and lesbian couples. The governor signed it into law, which took effect on July 1 (2000).

Meant to respond to a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples deserved the same legal rights as heterosexual spouses, the bill stopped short of calling such unions marriages. On the contrary, it specified that marriage could only occur between a man and a woman. Nevertheless, the legal benefits it granted are virtually the same.

Same-sex couples may apply for a license from a town clerk and receive a certificate of civil union. Such unions carry all the benefits and responsibilities that spouses have in a marriage. If the same-sex couple should choose to separate, their union must be dissolved in a family court.

The new law affects child custody, inheritance, workers’ compensation, family leave benefits, hospital visitations and immunity from being compelled to testify against one’s partner.

The law also provides a more limited set of benefits to blood relatives in yet another institution which it calls reciprocal beneficiaries. This addresses situations in which, for example, widowed sisters live together and are effectively life partners, yet the state has heretofore recognized no special relationship between them.

Other states, including California and Hawaii, have domestic partnership systems, but these are much more limited in scope than the new Vermont civil-unions law. Moreover, nearly 30 states have passes laws against gay marriage.

Under the leadership of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, the 16 Catholic bishops of upper New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts) condemned the new law in language that was particularly sharp.

They accused the Vermont legislature of mounting an attack not only on the institution of marriage but on the “well-being of society itself.” Predicting that the bill was a “stepping-stone” to the legalization of same-sex marriages, they suggested the need for an amendment to the state’s Constitution to prevent such a course of action.

Many Catholics (and many non-Catholics as well) may assume that the 16 New England bishops could have taken no other stand. As bishops, they have a duty to proclaim official Catholic doctrine, regardless of its political unpopularity.

While the latter point is correct, it is not a matter of official Catholic doctrine that a state may grant no legal rights to couples in same-sex unions. What is official Catholic teaching is that homosexual behavior (as distinguished from a homosexual orientation) is immoral, and that a sacramental marriage can only be contracted by a man and a woman. How the state determines the legal rights and benefits involved in various types of partnerships is a matter of political prudence, not of absolute morality.

And this was exactly the position taken by the entire Episcopal conference of New Zealand. At almost the same time that Vermont passed its civil-unions bill, the Catholic bishops of New Zealand were expressing public support for a system of registration that would give homosexual couples the same legal rights as married couples, short of the right to marry.

The bishops began their statement, which they submitted to the Ministry of Justice in response to a government discussion paper, with an insistence that marriage is defined by sexual differentiation, and can therefore apply only heterosexual couples. Nevertheless, the bishops informed the government that they supported allowing same-sex couples to claim rights in such matters as income support, tax-credit entitlement, legal aid and the division of property.

Although the New Zealand bishops opposed the right of same-sex couples to adopt children, they supported their right to parental leave when they are, in fact, involved as a couple in the care of a child.

For the New Zealand bishops, there is a clear distinction between the requirements of morality and of law. “The existence of a sexual relationship,” they insisted, “is not a matter which should be inquired into by the courts.”

As the president of the New Zealand Conference of Bishops, Peter Cullinane of the Palmerston North Diocese, pointed out, “There are other aspects to these relationships besides sex. These other aspects sometimes need to be governed by justice and equity….To uphold justice and equity is not to condone unchastity.”

Did the upper New England bishops, therefore, strike the only magisterial pose that one could expect from a group of Catholic bishops? No. The New Zealand hierarchy has shown that there is another, less pastorally rigid way to way to approach this controversial issue—a way that is at the same time consistent with Catholic doctrine.

(Father Richard P. McBrien is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. This article is reprinted from the July 7, 2000 issue of The Tidings, the Catholic newspaper for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)