The Vatican, gays and
August 2 2003
Politicians should vote according to their consciences on same-sex marriage
The Vatican's condemnation this week of homosexual activity as "seriously
depraved" and its definition of marriage as a union that can only exist
between a man and a woman is largely a restatement of longstanding church
teaching. In a statement released by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the
Faith - a body formerly known as the Inquisition - and approved by Pope John
Paul II, the church not only reiterated its position on homosexuality but
also called on Catholic politicians to uphold that position when faced with
making laws that seek to extend marriage rights to homosexuals.
Specifically, the statement calls on politicians to reject laws that equate
homosexual unions with those of heterosexual couples. In uncompromising
language, it says that legal recognition of homosexual marriage amounts to
the approval of "deviant behaviour" that would "obscure basic values which
belong to the common inheritance of humanity".
Homosexuality has loomed large on both spiritual and secular agendas of
late. Other Christian denominations, notably the Church of England and, in
Australia, the Uniting Church, have recently been wrestling with issues
relating to homosexual clergy. But for the Catholic Church, far more serious
is the prospect of gay marriage becoming widely recognised. Belgium and the
Netherlands are currently the only countries that extend full marriage
rights to same-sex couples. In Canada, the superior courts in two provinces
recently lifted prohibitions on same-sex marriages. The government of Jean
Chretien, himself a Catholic, announced in June that it would introduce
legislation redefining marriage as the "union of two people". The draft
legislation will be subject to a free vote in the Canadian Parliament.
Meanwhile, in the United States, President George Bush has government
lawyers heading in the opposite direction, drafting a law that will define
marriage solely as a union between a man and a woman.
The Vatican is perfectly entitled to state its position on homosexuality. It
is also entitled to demand its adherents follow its doctrine. And in the
case of politicians, it can give voice to the expectation that they will
vote in a certain way. Its manner of doing so, however, ought not to descend
into bullying, as it has done in Canada, where the Bishop of Calgary has
suggested that Mr Chretien risks eternal damnation for proposing to give
legal recognition to gay marriages. In pluralist democracies such as
Australia and Canada, Catholic politicians may come under considerable
pressure because of the Vatican's ruling. That pressure is considerably
lessened if political parties allow a free vote on same-sex marriage, as
they have on other contentious moral issues such as IVF research and
abortion. Catholic politicians can then vote according to their conscience.
If their stand does not please their electors then this can in turn be
resolved at the ballot box.