After a bill allowing same-sex “marriage” passed in the U.K.'s House of Commons, local Catholic bishops have warned that the legislation will have profoundly negative effects on society.
“Marriage is rooted in the complementarity of man and woman. For these reasons the Church opposes the Government’s Bill to re-define marriage,” said Archbishop Peter D. Smith of Southwark Feb. 5.
“Despite claims by supporters of the Bill that the central issue is one of equality, the Bill actually seeks to re-define marriage and will have consequences for society at large.”
Late in the day Feb. 5, the lower house of the British Parliament voted in favor of the Marriage Bill, allowing marriage for same-sex couples. It passed by 400 to 175, and was backed by prime minister David Cameron.
The issue split the ruling Conservative Party: 127 voted in favor, 136 opposed the bill, and 35 abstained from voting on the bill. The other major British parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, were more uniformly in favor of the bill.
Archbishop Smith, who serves as vice president of the England and Wales bishops' conference, noted that “the Catholic Church continues to support marriage understood by society for centuries as the significant and unique lifelong commitment between a man and a woman for their mutual well-being and open to the procreation and education of children.”
He said the vote showed “the government has not thought through a number of profound problems in the Bill” and that concerns over the bill need to be “fully and carefully considered” as the bill continues through Parliament.
The bill has yet to be considered by the upper house, the House of Lords. It also faces a third vote in the House of Commons before it can become law. Stronger opposition is expected in the House of Lords.
Bishop Philip A. Egan of the Portsmouth diocese echoed his brother bishop, telling Vatican Radio that “I am very disappointed that Parliament wishes, in an Orwellian manner, to redefine the concept of marriage.”
“The proposed change will have catastrophic consequences for marriage as an institution, for family life in Britain, and for all human relationships, not least among our young.”
He said the bill might lead the Church to remove itself from civil marriage: “One possible consequence of this is that the Church will be forced to withdraw from the civil registration of marriages, as in some European countries, where couples fulfill the civil requirements in the Town Hall before heading to church for Matrimony.”
The legislation was debated for six hours ahead of the vote. Edward Leigh is a Conservative Member of Parliament, and a Catholic, who made a reasoned argument against the bill. He pointed out that marriage is not primarily about the wedded couple, but their resulting children.
“If marriage were solely about the relationship between two people, we would not bother to enshrine it in law, and nor would every culture, society and religion for thousands of years have invested it with so much importance. Marriage is about protecting the future,” he said.
“Marriage is not about 'me, me, me', nor about legally validating 'my rights' and 'my relationships'; it is about a secure environment for creating and raising children, based on lifelong commitment and exclusivity.”
The bill allows for churches to conduct weddings for same-sex couples, raising concerns over religious liberty. Less than a month ago, the UK government assured that “no religious organization could conduct a religious marriage ceremony on religious premises for same-sex couples.”
Steve Baker, a Conservative Member of Parliament and a Christian, wrote that he opposed the bill out of concerns for religious freedom and pluralism. He suggest the Marriage Bill is not a way to provide for “tolerance of diverse views.”
“I am not relaxed about muddled law, democratic consent or freedom of religion – whose protection is by no means certain – and I believe strongly that defining marriage is no business of the legislature.”
The Church of England, the U.K.'s established church, has opposed the bill. The Marriage Bill will not allow the Church of England to conduct marriages for same-sex couples, and its passage may lead to the church's disestablishment.
The Catholic Church and the Church of England have been joined in the opposition to the bill by British Muslims, Sikhs, and some Jews.
The Marriage Bill would only affect England and Wales. Scotland has a similar proposal, but there is none in Northern Ireland.