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The Vatican, gays and
theological politics

August 2 2003

Politicians should vote according to their consciences on same-sex marriage reform.

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.