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Abp. Martin’s badly-made point might merit a look

February 25, 2014

The recent remarks of Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on same-sex unions, as reported, seem about as badly phrased as can be without their formally running afoul of canonical norms on Church teaching, but some of the criticisms of the prelate’s remarks themselves rest on, I suggest, a debatable interpretation of an important Church document in this area.

Martin’s assertions that same-sex couples can, for example, “celebrate their togetherness, their love for one another” sadly lack vital distinctions and important nuances, and his claim that the simple civil registration of same-sex unions “doesn’t necessarily mean that a civil partnership is somewhat of less value than marriage”, if meant the way it came out, is simply wrong: if laws on the civil registration of same-sex unions do not stop short of equating them with marriage, then they are gravely duplicitous and must be opposed.

But notwithstanding Martin’s flawed articulation of Church teaching in these areas, there might yet be a way that civil registration of same-sex unions does not run afoul of Church teaching, and I suggest this interpretation while being well aware of CDF’s Considerations (2003).

As I outlined almost one year ago, the CDF document Considerations was so thorough (and so thoroughly correct) in explaining why persons of the same sex cannot (not should not, but cannot) marry each other that the dicastery refused even to use the phrase “same-sex marriage” (as if such a thing could ever exist) and referred instead to such relationships as merely same-sex or homosexual/lesbian “unions”.

But, as I recall, a decade or so ago, when Considerations was published, “same-sex union” and “same-sex marriage” were effectively identical concepts and to favor or oppose one was to favor or oppose the other. In the years since Considerations was released, however, the discussion seems to have evolved: today, I think, “same-sex unions” and “same-sex marriage” are distinguishable phenomena and, while “same-sex marriage” can never, ever, garner legitimate Catholic support, “same-sex unions” might, might I say, be approved or at least tolerated depending on what exact terms and conditions are associated with such unions. If this is correct, then the CDF rejection of “same-sex unions” in 2003 might not be where the “same-sex marriage” line should be drawn in 2013, and Martin’s badly-made point about some sort of civil recognition being available for “same-sex unions” might be defensible after all.

I offer this interpretation of CDF’s language quite open, of course, to its rebuttal, either on principle grounds (essentially, we at CDF said “unions” then and we mean “unions” now) or on pragmatic grounds (the prudential objections to recognizing “same-sex unions” exceed the advantages). But absent such rebuttals, let me say, I don’t like seeing Church teaching saddled with language that worked well in one day but might not work well in another, or watching Catholic politicians painted into corners not of their own making, unless such doctrinal language really means what it says—in which case, of course, its truth binds Catholic consciences and the consequences of disregarding it go eschatological.

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