Bishops’ Opposition to Civil Unions Helps Enact Marriage Equality

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, 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.

Fr. Michael Kelly, SJ

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

Related posts:

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




10 replies
    • Wilhelm Wonka
      Wilhelm Wonka says:

      Why? He is not in favour of either marriage equality or civil unions. He is simply calling on bishops in general, and Taiwanese bishops in particular, to act tactically: not to oppose publicly civil unions because, on other occasions, opposition to them “led to the more highly developed gay marriage provisions.”

      This is precisely how Pope Francis behaved when he was a cardinal in Argentina: he didn’t oppose legislation for civil unions in order to pre-empt, in his eyes, morally more objectionable legislation for marriage equality. And the tactic worked.

      Neither Pope Francis nor Fr Kelly are LGBT friendly.

  1. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    The reason bishops act the way they do is they put on those fancy red robes and jewelry and think it makes them princes who don’t need to deal with the real world around them. Rather than being the servant as Christ instructed leaders to be, they go into any situation as those who know all without getting to know the lives of those around them and I don’t mean their court.

    The writer is quiet correct. It isn’t the Middle Ages anymore. The spirit of the Lord is among us and respect is due to all humanity.

  2. Susanne M Cassidy
    Susanne M Cassidy says:

    Excellent article, many of us Catholic parents have been saying this for years, only we didn’t have the elegant use of language that is a gift Fr. Kelly has

  3. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I respect, appreciate and see the value of his argument; however, I need to add a thought. Sacraments do not despense magic but give meaning. We know that just because a couple is married in the Church doesn’t guarantee a happy, healthy or lasting marriage. Similarly, just because a couple has a civil marriage doesn’t mean it is not happy, healthy and lasting.
    But for Catholics of all stripes I think we pretty much understand that the sacraments give meaning, i.e., it publicly states that God is in this marriage, the couple should be aware that they are committing before God, not just a human being, that they recognize that they need the love of Christ in this marriage. Yes, those same sentiments are and can be present in a civil ceremony, but let’s face it. We would not even have this blog if it wasn’t for a deep seated conviction in Catholic theology grounded in the Paschal Mystery articulated in the Creed. I am weary and angry that too many in the hierarchy hold the sacraments hostage. We are a sacramental people. Baptism celebrates that we belong to God. Baptism doesn’t give us to God. We are already God’s. Sacraments matter.

    As for religion infusing it’s morality into civil law, let’s pause. All major religions and even those not aligned with religion per se share a universal code of morality. I recently heard a commentator say that human beings by their very humanity are compassionate and thus seek religion to affirm and practice that with others as opposed to religion making people compassionate. That’s what I mean about universal morality.

    Do we really want our civil laws to be void of basic morality? I think the distinction has to be made between universal morality and imposing an interpretation of those morals that discriminate, harm and kill.

    Thanks for reading.

  4. John Hilgeman
    John Hilgeman says:

    From what I saw and heard when lobbying in Illinois for marriage equality, Francis’ comment “who am I to judge” had more impact than the condemnations issued by the Cardinal in Chicago and the bishop in Springfield.

    • Wilhelm Wonka
      Wilhelm Wonka says:

      That’s because Francis’ famous comment was misconstrued as LGBT friendly.

      We have learned a great deal more in the meantime about what Francis’ really thinks of LGBT people and the drive for equality. It is why many are now so disillusioned with this pope.


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