Blessed John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, says he disagrees with the Bishops of England and Wales’ decision not to oppose legal recognition for homosexual civil unions as part of their campaign to uphold marriage.
“In my experience in the United States, this notion of civil unions has always been a kind of half way house to so called ‘gay-marriages,’” he told CNA on Dec 7.
Weigel added that while a “humane state is going to make appropriate provisions for human relationships, particularly in moments of distress, … those issues can be dealt with without going down this road of saying there is something in the nature of a stable or unstable homosexual union that the state should honor and lift up.”
Weigel’s comments contrast with remarks made by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, President of the Catholics Bishops Conference of England and Wales, following their bi-annual full assembly in Leeds, Nov. 14-17.
“We would want to emphasize that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship, a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection in legal provision,” Archbishop Nichols told journalists at a Nov. 18 press conference in London.
But he also cautioned that “to simply slip from that to marriage is not as simple a step as it might look and indeed it has a lot of ramifications and we would want to say these are categorically two different things.” Respecting “a lifelong partnership is one thing and to call it a marriage, if you like to annex the territory of marriage, is something quite different.”
Archbishop Nichols’ comments drew criticism from some high-profile Catholic commentators in the United Kingdom who pointed out that his statement seemed to contradict the 2003 advice of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
In their document “Consideration Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons,” it states that “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.”
In an interview with CNA last week, Archbishop Nichols expanded upon his thinking by explaining that while a civil union “gives a same-sex couple the same rights that a married couple have,” the key distinction between it and marriage is that same-sex unions do not “in law contain a required element of sexual relationships.”
“Same-sex partnerships are not marriage because they have no root in a sexual relationship which marriage does,” he said, “and that’s the distinction that I think it’s important for us to understand, that marriage is built on the sexual partnership between a man and a woman which is open to children, to their nurture and education.”
Archbishop Nichols was publicly backed this week by a former high-ranking Vatican official, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini.
The 88-year-old former Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches is quoted in an article entitled “Bufera sul Tamigi” (Storm on the Thames), which was published on the Italian newspaper La Stampa’s website Vatican Insider on Dec 4.
The article claims that Archbishop Nichols is being “forced to publicly defend himself against claims that have been made against him by Catholic groups in the United Kingdom, for his ‘excessive alignment with Rome’ when it comes to family ethics.”
Indeed, the article carries the sub-headline “British Catholic groups accuse the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, of following the Vatican’s guidelines, on homosexuality and civil partnerships, too closely.”
“These unfair accusations made against the President of Catholic Bishops reflect past prejudices and are the consequence of an inveterate mistrust that has its roots in past centuries,” said Cardinal Silvestrini.
The article describes Archbishop Nichols as “a bona fide Ratzingerian” who is “highly esteemed both in the Curia and among the ranks of European bishops.”
Cardinal Silvestrini argues that some in England still seem to suffer from “a legacy of old tensions with the central government of the universal Church, to the point where even its leaders must be careful not to look too ‘papist.’”
The content and tone of the article has created a degree of puzzlement among some inside the Vatican.
“Why has Cardinal Silvestrini decided to speak out on behalf of Archbishop Vincent Nichols?” asked one senior Vatican official, who spoke to CNA on the basis of anonymity.
“After all, the cardinal is an 88-year-old retired Italian cleric who lives in Rome and has no great knowledge of the Church in England, as far as I’m aware. It’s not surprising he seems to have got the story the wrong way round.”
“Anyway, who are these Catholic groups in the U.K. accusing Archbishop Nichols of excessive loyalty to Rome? We’ve certainly never come across any,” he said.
The official spokesman for the Archbishop Nichols told CNA that they did not want to respond to George Weigel’s comments, Cardinal Silvestrini, or the unnamed Vatican official.
The spokesman did acknowledge that “there is a proposal in the U.K. to change the definition of marriage and the Prime Minister has said that he will back it as he believes equality and commitment is to be applauded and that’s why he’s in favor of same-sex marriage.”
“But we’re simply saying that quality and commitment do not equal marriage – marriage is something specific to do with the union of a man and a woman for the procreation and raising of children.”
Same-sex civil partnerships became legal in the U.K. in 2004, but the issue of same-sex “marriage” has become more prominent in recent months. The Scottish government is currently wrapping up a public consultation on whether to legalize gay “marriage.” A similar consultation in England and Wales will take place next spring.