What About Civil Unions?

The following post is sort of a hot-button subject, and I’m not sure if I’ve handled it with the amount of tenderness I should have. My concern isn’t that there’s a lurking hatred or anything, but just that this post is one of my more coldly analytical ones (in that I’m talking about canon law and stuff a lot): I just wanted to make clear that for anyone struggling with the issues I’m talking about here, this post is intended more to address, “What is the Church’s stance on this?” rather than, “What should I do if I’m struggling with this?” So without further ado:

Kerath25, responding to yesterday morning’s post, has a suggestion:

I wonder what people think about C.S. Lewis’ proposal to this problem: that we find a clear way to denote a Christian marriage versus a civil marriage.

This is fraught with all sorts of problems, such as “good Catholics” demanding that they be allowed a Christian marriage for a gay couple. On the other hand, it may draw the line a little more clearly and force people to think about what they are getting into when they get married.

This is not to say that the idea of calling a gay couple “married” is a good one. It merely serves to clarify a line between Christian life and civil life, which blurred more as countries adopted Christian ideals, and was then not seen or understood when those countries began to drift from those ideals.

Any further thoughts? Please correct me if I’m missing something obvious.

A distinction between civil and Christian marriage is a good idea, and one which canon law already practices. But I think you’re ignoring an equally important (if not more important) distinction: the distinction between a valid and an invalid marriage. Non-baptized individuals can validly contract marriage. After all, that’s most of human history. But there’s no such thing as a “marriage” or “union” between two people of the same sex.

I. The Canonical Distinction

As I mentioned yesterday, marriage is found throughout antiquity, and clearly exists even in the absence of Sacred Scripture and direct and explicit Revelation. However, Our Lord wasn’t silent on the subject. He says, for example, “What God has joined, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:5). Some marriages are divinely-recognized, while others are simply the product of their society: bonds to be honored, but not vowed made before God. Can. 1055 ยง1 says that “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.” So Christ turned marriage from simply a civil union into a sacrament. Can. 1134 hints at the distinction: “From a valid marriage there arises between the spouses a bond which by its nature is perpetual and exclusive. Moreover, a special sacrament strengthens and, as it were, consecrates the spouses in a Christian marriage for the duties and dignity of their state.” So all valid marriages, whether between the baptized or not, are ordered to be perpetual and exclusive, but the sacrament adds both added responsibilities (consecration before Christ) and add capabilities (sacramental graces).

A valid, sacramental marriage between baptized Christians is called ratum tantum before it is consummated. Afterwards, it’s called ratum et consummatum, and the Church is clear that, as Can. 1141 states, “A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.” No exceptions, period. The “Pauline exception” (Can. 1143, based upon 1 Corinthians 7:10-17) applies only to marriages between two non-baptized persons, while the Petrine privilege (Can. 1142) applies only to ratum tantum marriages. Annulments don’t dissolve a valid ratum et consummatum marriage: they declare that one never existed. That is, the bond you thought you’d consummated was actually just fornication – although perhaps unintentionally so (cf. Matthew 19:9).

II. The Difference for Gay Civil Unions

As Part I hopefully made clear, I’m predisposed towards categorizing pagan (natural) marriages and Christian (sacramental) marriages differently: and more importantly, the Catholic Church is, too. But there’s a fundamental difference between heterosexual natural marriages and homosexual “marriages.” The latter are fundamentally impossible. Two women attempting marriage to one another will never succeed. Not under natural law, and certainly not under canon law. I think I’ve clarified the reasons why for that in yesterday’s post, but if not, let me know.

So the question then becomes, should these relationships be enshrined in some way, with a title other than marriage? Should we, as a society, say “we can’t afford you the title ‘marriage,’ but here are a bundle of rights and benefits other available only to the married”? I long sympathized with this latter benefits. “Why,” I “thought, should a man in a long-time relationship be denied hospital visitation rights, just because his partner is also a man?” And indeed, if this were an accurate representation of the legal situation, I’d probably still feel that way. But it just isn’t so. Long-time boyfriends aren’t automatically afforded visitation rights for their hospitalized girlfriends. To the extent that two groups are distinguished from one another, it’s “married” from “unmarried,” not “straight” from “gay.” Perhaps it’s sensible to relax hospital visitation rules to include those romantically linked but not married, or include close friends, or include any number of other individuals, but civil unions aren’t the appropriate avenue for that endeavor. There are, additionally, a number of overwhelming reasons to oppose civil unions:

(1) Civil unions privilege relationships which shouldn’t be privileged: that is, they provide legal benefits to relationships which are fundamentally and intrinsically immoral. A Christian saying, “I’m personally against homosexual marriage, but will provide legal benefits to anyone who attempts it” is just as much a hypocrite as the one who says, “I’m personally against abortion, but I’ll subsidize it at taxpayer expense,” or “I’m personally against shooting Congresspeople, but I’ll make sure you can write off the bullets.” It’s one thing to say that immoral behavior be permitted (that is, it’s not intrinsically immoral to decriminalize sodomy, for example). It’s quite another to say that the behavior should be promoted through legal benefits. Marriage, by definition, is a societal promotion: it’s a bond recognized by the state and showered with various benefits. Civil unions, to the extent that they carry these benefits, are another form of promotion.

(2) Civil unions blur the line between married and unmarried. Kerath, you talked about wanting to draw clear distinctions between civil and sacramental marriages. I’m all in favor of that. But gay “marriage” isn’t even a marriage: it’s just called one.

(3) Calling it a “union” is perhaps even more deceptive. A union is an “action of joining one thing to another,” and the marital union, properly understood, is that of Genesis 2:24 – a man being “joined with” his wife. “Homosexual unions” are an impossibility. Here again, there are hints from natural law. Heterosexual teenagers pushing sexual boundaries will often have non-intercourse sexual relationships on the grounds that it’s “not really sex,” and will consider themselves virgins or “technical virgins” afterwards. Clearly, the Church’s view on lust and sexuality isn’t that view (at all). What they’re doing is still eviscerating their virginity. But there’s still a recognition, even if only recognized for debased purposes, that sexual intercourse is something sacred and unique. Homosexual relationships literally cannot achieve this union.

As he is prone to do, Pope Benedict has written the last word on the subject, inasmuch as you’ll have to search to find better considerations on the topic.

1 Comment

  1. *blinks*

    Hmm, not sure how I missed that mountain before.

    You are correct, of course. I’ve perhaps been too busy trying to find some way to reconcile the opposing sides and certainly lost sight of some of the larger things for a moment.

    I like the comparison with the hospital visitation rights. That is one argument that does come up frequently and it is nice to have another standpoint to show how it is weak. I agree that allowing “civil unions” to fix that problem is like using a steamroller to crack peanuts. As you mentioned yourself, it is an easy trap to fall into that granting certain benefits is a way to alleviate the problem. That’s not even mentioning that granting a limited set of benefits is always a stepping-stone to granting all or even additional benefits.

    In reading my original post again, I chose some of my wording very poorly. I think that we are in agreement, but I failed to use my words properly; my bad. My main point is that the distinction between a civil marriage and a sacramental one is very unclear to most people at the moment. Those who have studied the catechism or canon law understand the distinction well, but we cannot ignore that, at least for the moment, most people and the majority of Catholics have not studied and do not fully appreciate the difference. What I was driving at was that marriages that are not sacramental (civil marriages) should be called by some other title. What I had forgotten at the moment is that civil marriages can still be binding in the eyes of the Church. Again, my mistake. All I can offer is that Lewis’ statement makes a lot more sense when reading his whole context on the subject.

    I really do appreciate the directness of the post and the references to canon law. It helps very much when I am speaking to Catholics who want to use their feelings on the issue to disregard church teaching.

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