BY MADELEINE TEAHAN
THE ARCHBISHOP of Westminster has clarified comments that were interpreted by some Catholics as an endorsement of civil partnerships.
Speaking at a press conference on behalf of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales last month, Archbishop Vincent Nichols said: “We would want to emphasise that civil partnerships actually provide a structure in which people of the same sex who want a lifelong relationship [and] a lifelong partnership can find their place and protection and legal provision... “as a Church we are very committed to the notion of equality so that people are treated the same across all the activities of life. The Church holds great store by the value of commitment in relationships and undertakings that people give.” But Archbishop Nichols has clarified his comments in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (CNA), saying that he is trying to defend the “profound good of marriage”.
He said: “We’ve got to find the ways of speaking to people about the positive values of marriage as it’s always been understood, while not getting boxed off by somehow being accused of being homophobic.” In 2003 the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued guidelines that made clear that “respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions”. It also said: “All Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions.” Archbishop Nichols was asked by CNA if the bishops of England were contradicting the Vatican’s guidelines and explained that the bishops have tried “to recognise the reality of the legal provision in our country of an agreement, a partnership, with many of the same legal safeguards as in marriage”.
He also explained that while the bishops recognise the existence of civil partnerships, they also “believe that that is sufficient”, and that same-sex relationships should not be placed on a par with marriage.
The archbishop’s latest comments are an indication of the strategy that the bishops’ conference might employ as they resist attempts to legalise gay marriage. The bishops are expected to argue in a formal submission to the Government that gay marriage legislation is unnecessary given that civil partnerships legislation is already in place.
The Civil Partnerships Act was introduced by the Labour government in 2004 granting gay couples equal rights to married men and women. The Coalition Government has since lifted the ban on civil partnerships taking place on religious premises, prompting anger from some religious groups.
The contention surrounding gay unions has intensified since the Government’s announcement in September that it plans to introduce gay marriage before the next election.
The Archbishop of Westminster said at the press conference last month that opposing this legislation was the central focus of the bishops’ plenary meeting in November.
The Government will host a formal consultation on the gay marriage proposals in March which is expected to last 12 weeks. During this period the bishops will have an opportunity to argue against the introduction of gay marriage. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster has met Rabbi Shlomo Levin of South Hampstead Synagogue as part of Inter Faith Week.
The north London community invited Archbishop Nichols and Archbishop Emeritus Kevin Mc Donald of Southwark to speak to the local rabbi about a range of issues affecting the Catholic and Jewish communities.
Rabbi Levin interviewed the two prelates in front of an audience of 100, including representatives from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The conversation covered many topics, including Catholic-Jewish relations, Vatican-Jewish relations, the clash between faith and secularism, and other challengers to believers.
The meeting came towards the end of a successful 2011 Inter Faith Week, the third such event. The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is to meet Pope Benedict on Sunday in Rome, the first such meeting since the papal visit last year, when Lord Sacks gave the introductory speech at St Mary’s College, Twickenham.