As the island nation of Taiwan in southeast Asia continues its debate of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples, one Catholic opinion leader has entered the debate encouraging Catholic bishops to withhold their opposition to the measure.
Fr. Michael Kelly, SJ, executive editor of UCAnews.com, an Asian Catholic news service, penned an essay in the international Catholic publication La Croix, entitled “Civil law has nothing to do with Catholic sacraments.” While he does not endorse marriage equality, he makes a strong case that the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to legalizing the relationships of lesbian and gay couples does nothing to dissuade people and only helps to assure that marriage equality is enacted.
Kelly begins by declaring his amazement that Catholic bishops get involved with marriage equality debates in civil society. He explains the reason for his amazement:
” . . . [T]he issue of how a secular state defines marriage has nothing to do with bishops or what is their area of focus and responsibility – the sacrament of marriage. The sacrament is a mystery that is regulated by the church’s internal system – the Code of Canon Law.
“But it is something to which a man and a woman have access if they are Catholics or one is marrying a Catholic and the non-Catholic is happy to be married according to Catholic rites. And it may or may not have civil significance – depending on whether the state recognizes a Catholic marriage as legally binding.”
Kelly describes civil marriage as a contract which has “only the most approximate relationship to what Catholics believe the sacrament is.” He cautions the bishops against unjustly trying to impose Catholic morality on others:
“Catholics need to be very careful about agitating to have our morality legislated for all to abide by. In some instances advocating that Catholic morality become the law of the land would be deeply unjust. For example, agitating to have Catholic morality on divorce and remarriage become law applying across society, to Catholics and non-Catholics – would rightly seen as a violation of the human rights of the wider population. . . .To impose our morality on others is a misunderstanding of the proper jurisdiction of the church and the proper jurisdiction of the state.”
This last argument is a very important one when we consider how often bishops are asking that the Church’s religious liberty be protected. If they want to make such a request, they also have to practice the virtue of allowing others in society to practice their own liberty, religious or secular, which includes the right to marry according to their consciences and community’s standards.
Kelly examines the varieties of ways that civil and religious marriages are legally connected or disconnected in various cultures and nations. In some countries, even heavily Catholic ones, religious and civil marriages are totally separate, with separate ceremonies required for each. In other countries, religious officiants also serve as the legal officiant for marriage. And history has shown that in some places, only officially recognized national churches were allowed to marry a couple legally.
Because of this variety, Kelly argues for pluralism:
“With such a mixed history and so much contemporary variation, why do bishops the world over make the mistake of assuming they are the keepers of the treasures of marriage? Why do they get very upset when some things proposed that will apply to the majority of people in their societies and who in Asia mostly aren’t Catholics? Redefining marriage in no way limits or restricts Catholics from acting according to Catholic teaching on marriage? What is the basis of episcopal displeasure?
“The simple answer must be they seem to think we still live in Christendom where church morality should be law. That social and political paradigm ended for secular, pluralist democracies with the French Revolution over two centuries ago. And it never happened in countries in Asia.”
He also chastises bishops for opposing civil unions, noting that their strong opposition to such an arrangement often paves the way for legalizing marriage equality–the arrangement which they oppose more! Kelly states:
“In some parts of the world, some bishops sought to have civil unions recognized as ‘the lesser of two evils’ – the other being gay marriage. But in almost every instance, successful opposition to civil unions among same sex couples led to the more highly developed gay marriage provisions applying in many jurisdictions.”
In the past, Bondings 2.0 has posted material about Catholics from both sides of the church’s political divide arguing for the separation of definitions for sacramental and civil marriages. You can see those posts below. Fr. Kelly’s argument, however, is the first that I have seen which makes the point that the bishops’ opposition to these measures works counter to their intentions and, in fact, facilitates the passage of marriage equality.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 10, 2016
Bondings 2.0: “Should Civil Marriage Be Separated from Sacramental Marriage?“
Bondings 2.0: “Separating Civil and Sacramental Marriage–Part 1“
Bondings 2.0: “Separating Civil and Sacramental Marriage–Part 2“