British Bishops Write Positively on Gender Transition and Civil Unions

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) has had a reputation for being more pro-LGBT than most of their counterparts in other nations.  From the days in the 1980s when Cardinal Basil Hume spoke favorably about same-gender relationships up until recently when Cardinal Vincent Nichols spoke out in support of civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, this conference has not been afraid to speak pastorally rather than dogmatically.

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in 2011

Though they opposed the legalization of same-gender marriages in Britain last year, the CBCEW has recently made two statements which show that there is still a strong current of thought in the conference that is sympathetic to LGBT people.

In the first instance, the CBCEW issued a draft of a directive to Catholic institutions about how to respond to the UK’s 201 Equality Act, which added many strong protections to minority categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity.  The directive is intended to give advice to Catholic institutions and organizations about how they can comply with the law.  In the section on “Gender Re-Assignment,” they state:

‘Transsexual people face many difficulties before, during and after transitioning to another gender. As such it is recommended to seek guidance on how to make the transitional process as easy as possible. This could include training for co-workers, as well as reference to medical and social advice.”

This may be the most positive and pastoral statement about transgender people to come from the Catholic hierarchy.  (If anyone knows anything equally or more positive, please let us know about it in the “Comments” section of this post.)  Let’s hope that it remains in place through the drafting process.

In the area of same-gender marriage, the bishops caution Catholic groups against showing discrimination to same-gender married couples because the new law prohibits such behavior.  They state:

“Treating a same sex married couple less favourably than an opposite sex married couple will amount to direct discrim-ination. Therefore it is not possible to argue that such behav-iour is a proportionate means to a legitimate aim, . . . and as such will be unlawful unless it falls within the exceptions out-lined in Chapter 5.”

To read the entire text, click here.

In the second instance, the bishops responded to a new UK proposal which, in light of the new marriage law, may convert all previous civil partnerships into legal marriages.   The bishops oppose such a transformation, and in the process they speak highly of civil partnerships and of the needs of lesbian and gay Catholics.

Bishop Peter Smith

Bishop Peter Smith, of Southwark, wrote to Parliament on behalf of the CBCEW’s Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship.  In his statment he talks about

“lesbian and gay Catholics who have entered into civil partnerships in order to secure important and necessary legal rights, but who do not wish either to become married in the eyes of the state, or to have their civil partnership automatically ‘converted’ into a marriage.”

Smith went on to explain:

 “We have received representations from some lesbian and gay Catholics stating that they would not wish to enter into a same sex marriage, and who fear that their legal rights will be removed if civil partnerships are abolished. . . .Some lesbian and gay Catholics do not wish to enter into civil same sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only, but still wish to have the legal rights that are contained in a civil partnership. The removal of the option for same sex couples to enter into civil partnerships could cause great harm to those Catholics and others.”

I find two things remarkable about this intervention.  First, the bishop recognizes the importance and necessity of civil partnerships for legal protections and safety of these couples.  Second,  the bishop acknowledges that the position was developed after listening to lesbian and gay Catholics, a process which is rarely, if ever, done here in the U.S.

There is one caveat.  Because many have interpreted Smith’s comments positively, he issued a qualification which included:

“My recent comment on civil partnerships was solely in response to a specific government consultation on whether to abolish civil partnerships or convert them all into marriages in law. . . .The question at issue is one of individual conscience for those who are in same sex civil partnerships and who do not want to enter into same sex marriage because of their deeply held belief that marriage is between a man and a woman only. In requesting the government to respect their consciences by leaving the existing civil partnership law unchanged, I was dealing solely with this issue of conscience which has now arisen given the current law, and my response should not be misinterpreted as a wider commentary on civil partnerships in general.”

Yet, even this statement deserves some praise because of the bishop’s endorsement of conscience.   Others in the UK also see the original statement as very significant.  The Tablet, a leading Catholic UK publication stated:

“The support for civil partnerships appears to be a shift from a submission made by the hierarchy over a decade ago opposing the planned introduction of civil partnerships which stated: ‘We believe [they] would not promote the common good, and we therefore strongly oppose them.’

“However, in 2011 Archbishop Vincent Nichols, now a cardinal, acknowledged that civil partnerships provide gay and lesbian Catholics with legal rights. ‘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,’ he said although he later clarified that he was simply recognising the ‘existence’ of these partnerships.”

The Cutting Edge Consortium, an interfaith group in the UK which works against homophobia and transphobia put Smith’s remarks into context:

“The Catholic Bishops affirm both the importance of civil partners’ legal rights and that civil partnerships should be retained as a future viable option for same-sex couples.

“The Statement is consistent with what a number of individual bishops, including Pope Francis, have said in recent years, that these legal rights contribute to both stability of relationships, and to the common good of society as a whole.”

For a comprehensive list of positive statements made by hierarchy and other church leaders, click here.

Whether Bishop Smith has backtracked on his comments seems irrelevant since there was so much about his statements that was positive even if they don’t fully endorse civil unions. In the future, I think Catholics and others will interpret these statements as steps along the way to the full equality of LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry




7 replies
  1. Terence
    Terence says:

    I’m less enthusiastic about the English bishops’ statements than you, and the Tablet, appear to be. As I read the statement on civil partnerships, the tone (rather than the specific content) struck me as reluctant, grudging acceptance of civil partnerships only as a less bad alternative to marriage. Although there is recognition of the value of conscience, this seems to apply in their view only to those who choose not to have their civil partnerships converted to marriage, “as a matter of conscience”. I doubt if they would be equally supportive of conscience, of those who believe that as a matter of conscience, they should marry, and make a formal, public and life – long commitment, in preference to informal, casual cohabitation.

    There is much more useful real meat in the equality draft – and applicable more widely than just to trans people. The trouble here is rather different: I was originally enthused, and planned to prepare a post in celebration – until I read it more closely, and found that the most sensitive area of LGBT discrimination by the church, that of teachers in Catholic schools, is simply and explicitly excluded from the draft.

    While accepting that the Church is bound by equality legislation, which it must accept (and in fact directly endorses in respect of other forms of discrimination), when it comes to discrimination against LGBT teachers, the document says, in effect, these equality principles just don’t apply.

    So – I gave up on my intention of writing about this disappointing document.


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