European Church leaders resist same-sex marriage drive

When Catholic bishops in Spain urged politicians last November to unite in a coalition against same-sex marriage, they were raising the stakes in an issue fueling angry disputes all over the European Union. 

Throughout 2012, the Church was at the forefront of opposition to the movement for gay and lesbian unions. As the debate over same-sex marriage heats up in traditionally Catholic France, it seems apparent that disputes will continue into the new year. 

Spain, a traditionally Catholic country, became Europe’s first to allow married same-sex partners to adopt children back in 2005, as part of a program of liberal, secularizing reforms by its then Socialist government. Undeterred, the Catholic Church has vowed to continue campaigning against it. 

“The current Spanish legislation is gravely unjust,” the bishops said in their late November statement. “It does not protect the right of the parties to be recognized in law as husband and wife, nor the rights of children and young people to be brought up as future husbands and wives, and to enjoy a father and mother in a stable family.”

Divisive decisions

Besides Spain, same-sex marriage is allowed in Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Sweden. 

Although procedures differ, most grant full rights from inheritance to hospital visitation, while all except Portugal also permit child adoption. A further 10 EU-member countries allow same-sex civil partnerships falling short of marriage, two of which, Germany and Britain, also sanction adoption. 

Opinion polls suggest 44 percent of EU citizens, especially among the young and educated, favor same-sex marriage as a necessary step for ensuring equal rights and rejecting homophobia. 

The Strasbourg-based European Parliament, with 754 members from the EU’s 27 member states, has been outspoken on the issue. 

Back in 2003, its members voted to “broaden the concept of family” by requiring same-sex unions to be recognized across national borders. 

In 2006, they called on the EU’s governing Commission to start “infringement proceedings” against those failing to provide gay and lesbian partnerships with equal “inheritance rights, property arrangements, tenancy, pensions, tax and social security.” 

The latter resolution was condemned by the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe (CCEE) as “an attempt to influence mentalities and cultures” by “a pressure group which periodically betrays hostility to our traditional values.”

Protests under pressure

It’s in France where battle lines are being drawn most sharply. 

Same-sex marriage was featured among election pledges by Francois Hollande, who became France’s Socialist president last May. 

Under a bill approved by Hollande’s government in November, homosexual couples will be allowed to marry and adopt, but not obtain state-funded artificial insemination. An amendment on the issue was withdrawn this month, but is expected to be included in a new bill in March. 

France’s National Assembly is scheduled to begin debating the same-sex marriage bill Jan. 29. But it has vocal opposition. On Jan. 13, several hundred thousand marchers gathered at the Eiffel Tower in Paris to voice their opposition to the bill, with many of them carrying signs with slogans such as “maternity, paternity and equality” and “all born of a father and mother.”  

France’s Catholic Bishops Conference is also bitterly opposing it. 

In a November homily at the national Marian sanctuary of Lourdes, the conference president, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, dismissed it as a “hoax,” reflecting “ostentatious pressure from a few lobbies,” and he criticized accompanying government plans to remove the words “father” and “mother” from wedding ceremonies and marriage documents. 

“A vision of humans that fails to recognise sexual difference would be a sham that destroys one of the foundations of our society and installs discrimination against children,” Cardinal Vingt-Trois added. “It would not be marriage for all, but marriage of some imposed on all — a transformation of marriage which affects everyone.” Opponents of the bill insist only a small proportion of society supports same-sex marriage. 

The president of France’s National Federation of Catholic Family Associations, Antoine Renard, predicts the law will necessitate the closing of Catholic adoption agencies, which happened in Britain, and lead to gay weddings in churches, which are mostly government-owned in France. 

He vows opponents will do “everything necessary” to block it, such as by staging protests and pressuring legislators. “We asked the president to rethink this crazy idea, but he’s gone ahead with it,” Renard told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Those consequences are already being felt.

Clashing voices

Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church pledges “respect, compassion and sensitivity” for homosexuals, and rejects “every sign of unjust discrimination,” it also calls them to chastity and describes homosexual acts as “grave depravity.” 

Yet other Catholics disagree. In Britain, where 100,000 civil partnerships have been created under a 2004 law, 27 leading theologians and clergy backed gay marriage in an August letter to The Times, insisting it was “perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully informed consciences,” to support the practice “according to social justice principles.” 

The Conservative-led government of Prime Minister David Cameron plans to legalize same-sex marriage by 2015. 

Religious symbols, readings and music are not allowed at partnership ceremonies; and government ministers have promised churches will not be required to conduct gay weddings. 

But Church leaders fear challenges could be made under the law and have backed a petition against gay marriage, signed so far by 620,000. 

In March, a letter from Archbishops Vincent Nichols of Westminster and Peter Smith of Southwark recalled that heterosexual marriage was “affirmed by many other religious traditions,” adding that neither Church nor state had the power to “change this fundamental understanding.” 

Russia’s Orthodox church assured Catholics they could count on “solidarity and support” in resisting same-sex marriage. 

In Britain, the head of the Network of Sikh Organizations, Lord Singh, said the BBC Sikhs believed in marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” and viewed the proposed change as a “sideways assault on religion.” 

The country’s Muslim Council, while accepting same-sex partnerships, has also ruled out any recognition of gay marriages. 

Renard, the Catholic Family Associations leader, is heartened by the interfaith consensus. He thinks President Hollande’s bill signifies “an abuse of power by present generations over those to come,” and was pleased when 200,000 people joined a mid-November Paris demonstration against it. 

“France is clearly facing a strong church-state conflict, and we can expect many other actions in the weeks ahead,” he said. “Homosexual marriages are being presented here as a way of liberating society from church obscurantism. But even if the Socialists ignore the Church, can they afford to ignore the Muslim and Jewish organizations who have also declared against this project, and with whom we’ll be cooperating in waking people up to the dangers?” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from England.