Catholics and Gay Relationships

Pseudo-marriage or Blessed Civil Partnerships?

by Simon Bryden-Brook

Published by Catholics for a Changing Church in 2005

and reproduced here with the usual permissions

THE Civil Partnerships Act comes into effect in the United Kingdom in December 2005. Its intention is to give gay couples similar rights and responsibilities to those of married people once they register their partnership. In 2001, the first gay couple signed the London Partnerships Register established by Ken Livingstone,   Mayor of London. This was a step forward but did not offer the legal benefits promised in the new legislation. There are nine EU member states that recognise civil partnerships as well as some regions of Australia. In the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003) and Spain (2005) gay marriages are recognised and similar plans exist for Sweden and Taiwan. (1)

What is a Catholic to think about such things? In a tolerant society such as our own, many Catholics have become used to having openly gay friends among their friends and acquaintances. Many of these are to all outward appearances eminently respectable and some­times live together in domestic unions, much as unmarried hetero­sexual couples do. Tolerant Catholics would not dream of insulting such people or making any public condemnation of their lifestyle, whatever moral judgements they may be tempted to make privately. We do not insult cohabiting unmarried couples or single mothers, and we accept that we live in a society where the strict rules of the Catholic Church about what is proper sexually do not hold sway. No charitably disposed Catholic makes the often unwarranted assumpt­ion that all homosexual persons are sexually active. The rejected European Union commissioner Buttiglione thus misrepresented the position of the Church by saying that ‘homosexuality is a sin’, failing to make the distinction between the orientation and specific acts.

It is undoubtedly true that these days even Catholic couples seeking to arrange a marriage are known to be cohabiting, and they are no different in this respect from the rest of society around them. Premarital sex with its risk of unwanted children is tolerated even by Catholics, especially where every effort is made to prevent conception. While not denying the force of Catholic prohibitions against fornication, a pragmatic approach is adopted. Even if it is true to say that the Catholic faithful and many priests are often more inclined to be tolerant than their bishops about failure to observe the strict sexual code handed down through the centuries, nevertheless the teaching authority of the Church prefers to stand by the centuries-old condemnations of extra-marital sex. As a result, it tends to lack credibility not only in the eyes of non-Catholics, but also among the Catholic faithful. The decision of Pope Paul VI to ignore the advice of his birth control commission in 1968 seems to have destroyed perhaps for ever the Church’s credibility in its sexual teaching.

The attitude of the Church to homosexuals is perhaps even more difficult. Notoriously, homosexuals are condemned by our highest teaching authority as ‘intrinsically disordered’, (2) although gentle­manly and pastoral bishops like Basil Hume and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor have shown a commendable willingness to seek to under­stand rather than reject. Hume in particular encouraged homo­sexuals to form stable relationships, although it is undeniable that he insisted chastity is required and had a very public dispute with the English Catholic gay group QUEST when a survey of its members rejected the Cardinal’s condition.

Many Catholics today view with distaste this tendency among their clergymen to intrude into the bedrooms of the laity. They prefer to suspend judgement and throw no stones.(3) They feel that people should be given the benefit of the doubt, as it were, and a general assumption made not only that the sexual activities of a couple are their own affair, a matter for their own informed consciences, but that it is no business of anyone else’s. They prefer to consider gay couples as first and foremost friends, and leave it at that.

Friendship and Intimacy

Many people in our twenty-first century society seem to believe that we are all in search of love and marriage, and our romantic yearnings and our sexual instincts seem designed to encourage the search for a partner to whom we shall commit ourselves totally and exclusively. In fact this is a model that suits only a proportion, albeit a majority perhaps, of the population. Many find a series of tempor­ary sexually exclusive relationships more congenial.

It seems more realistic to acknowledge that everyone seeks accept­ance and affirmation, and that these are to be found in the achieve­ment of intimacy. Intimacy is an ingredient of friendship and is therefore not something enjoyed only by the married or other committed couples. As one grows older, one comes to recognise more and more the value of friends. Even if there is one special relat­ionship at the centre of one’s life, a domestic and financial partner­ship involving a commitment that is presumed to take priority in all but exceptional circumstances, one’s friends still have their place. Partners in a decades-old marriage find that the place of passion and the importance of shared experience take on different significance. Just so do friends find that as the years go by, often with little regular contact, the closeness shared in the formation of the friend­ship can never be denied. Provided acknowledgement is made of how both parties develop over the years and form other relationships, friendship carefully preserved and nurtured can be mutually most rewarding and enduring. One knows that one can always make contact and resume the old intimacy, admittedly not always easily and always having to adjust to the changed circumstances of each partner in the friendship; but the shared and valued experiences of the friendship remain firm as evidence of a past coming-together and mutual sharing that it would be dishonest and treacherous to deny or even belittle.

Friendship

The twelfth century Cistercian St Aelred wrote on friendship. In an essay entitled ‘The doctrine of the Spiritual Friendship’ Professor Douglas Roby writes:

For Aelred there can be no conflict between love of our friends and love of God, since all love is one and has its source in God.The love of neighbour is no derogation of our love of God, but rather is necessary for us if we are truly to love him. It is this identification of spiritual friendship with the perfect love of God which allowed Aelred to suggest the phrase, “God is friendship.” (4)

The final question, of Aelred’s attitude towards the sexual component of intimate personal relationships, is far more difficult to answer. Aelred was, of course, not troubled by the twentieth century’s pervasive consciousness of sexual drives, nor did he feel obliged to discuss sexual pathology in a treatise on spiritual friendship… The close and very emotional friendships which he was able to enjoy in the monastery prove that a negative reaction to his own youthful crush on a member of the court of Scotland did not inhibit his emotional freedom in later life. It is also interesting to remember that Walter Daniel specifically noted that Aelred, unlike some other abbots, was not scandalised by demonstrations of affection, such as holding hands, by his monks. Aelred, in other words, seems to have had not only confidence in his own ability to deal with the sexual component of friendships, but to have trusted his monks to do the same. Nor is there any evidence that Aelred’s confidence was misplaced.

 The Place of Exclusivity in Relationships

Just as in the Christian tradition virginity was for centuries prized above marriage, so in our own day is there a similar tendency to consider friendship as inferior to marriage, indeed to any com­mitted exclusive sexual relationship.6 Many married couples drift off into a separate little cocoon of their own, later perhaps enriched with children, and they ignore the friendships they had formed over previous years. Friends are dropped as if they were no longer im­portant, as if the shared experiences, joys and sadnesses of the past were now firmly put in their place as unimportant and over­shadowed by the new exclusive relationship that shuts out all others. Even those couples who do not see much point in formalising their relationship in a marriage ceremony, whether religious or civil, can make the same mistake. They put all their eggs in one basket as it were, discarding the relationships they used to value and putting an often intolerable strain on the one they now proclaim their sole commitment.

Homosexual couples are often no different. They ape marriage, even its least satisfactory aspects. If they have been used to participating in the gay sub-culture found increasingly in modern cities, with its materialism, its promiscuity and its serial and temporary relation­ships, then they often recognise their continued involvement with that life style as a threat to their stability as a couple, and rightly so. But by assuming that all their past relationships pose a threat to their new commitment, they may well be making a grave mistake and not only impoverishing their future lives but demanding too much from their new too exclusive relationship.

Each friendship surely has its own exclusive territory. It may centre on a hobby or a special interest, the details of which both parties have come to love passionately and which they know few others can really share with the same intensity. Such intimacy may seem emotionally and physically sterile, but it is nevertheless an often valued and essential relationship for both parties. Scholars for example can enjoy this sort of intimacy with a worldwide circle of friends, and find that within moments of meeting another enthus­iast or expert, they have formed a bond that is deep and rewarding. As in all friendships weaknesses are revealed, in the confidence that one’s friend is there to share the riches of the common interest rather than mock any deficiencies. Both recognise that they have more to learn, however deep their existing knowledge, and there is a mutual delight in sharing and learning more together.

More often a friendship is based on years of a shared experience, perhaps just school days or holidays taken together. The memories may become more clouded over the years but it would often be a betrayal of friendship to deny the intimacy that was once shared and which can surely be tapped into again. Perhaps for one party that intimacy is of greater significance; he or she may not have had many subsequent experiences that approach the happiness of that friendship while the other party may have moved on and have a different perspective. The claims of friendship certainly exist and sometimes a decision has to be taken whether one is going to respond, when the other party seeks to reclaim the intimacy perhaps long after the initial shared experiences.

The place of sex in marriage

Catholics are agreed that human sexuality plays an important part in enriching the mutual relationship of a man and a woman so that they may form a bond from which a family can be nourished.7 Traditionally they have also seen the expression of human sexuality as reserved to marriage, not so much as a reward for their stability but as a foundation for future life, both that of the parties to the marriage and of course of the children which will normally be its fruit. For this reason adultery is seen as a threat to the family. Some have even seen non-productive sexual intercourse as a threat to the family. Sixteen centuries ago St Augustine of Hippo certainly con­sidered sexual intercourse as sinful even for married couples, unless their sole focus during the act was the production of children and any personal pleasure in the act seen as a distraction from that wholesome purpose.8

Sexual fidelity is still highly prized in our society, so that adultery or a ‘bit-on-the-side’ is seen as a betrayal, a rejection of the exclusive commitment which the other party had made to the philandering or unfaithful partner. This holds true for unmarried relationships be­tween heterosexuals, whether they have children or not, and it also often is a factor in those homosexual relationships which are most closely modelled on modern Western middle class marriage. In the middle ages among the upper strata of society, where marriage was often for dynastic reasons, a married couple might well lead separate lives and have lovers of their own without it destroying, although undoubtedly affecting, the quality of their married relationship. Such marriages, where companionship endures with­out sexual exclusivity, are not uncommon. One thinks of Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West, but such relationships can hard­ly be put forward as an ideal for marriage. They merely demonstrate * that sexual exclusivity is not always a prerequisite for a close intimate relationship with many of the characteristics of marriage. Who knows how many outwardly exclusive marriages are in fact of a totally different nature, stable and intimate but flouting this assumption of even our contemporary society and certainly of the Catholic Church?

Over the years the sexual element in a marriage, or in a similar long-term committed relationship, may lose its original importance. And indeed in some marriages and similar relationships sexual activity has never been at its core and is of next to no importance. St Edward the Confessor, one of England’s last Saxon kings, was con­vinced by the peculiar sexual teachings of the Church at the time that persuading his wife that they should live as ‘sister and brother’ in no way invalidated their marriage. Shared sexual activity is therefore not essential for all marriages, however central a part it must play in most.

Can the same be said of sexual exclusivity? A marriage, simply be­cause it is usually contracted with the assumption that it will form the stable basis for the production and bringing-up of children would surely seem to demand it. Some in our modern society certainly question whether it is so essential where a couple have come together in a partnership from which the possibility of children is excluded. Indeed, such couples think nothing not only of seeking to prevent their sexual activity from being productive of children but even of terminating any unwanted pregnancy. This seems a sad diminution of the high ideal that is marriage, certainly in Christian thought. Indeed, such a relationship would not be seen as a sacramental marriage by many Catholics as it excludes the possibility of children.

Sex for the homosexual

What does this mean for the relationships of homosexuals, whose sexuality whatever it is directed towards, is certainly not dir­ected to the production and nurturing of children? Some argue that deprived of its procreative purpose, their sexuality can still be retained for its unitive purpose, the fostering of an exclusive intimate physical relationship. Many Catholics today are more willing to accept that it is unreasonable to expect all homosexuals to be committed to celibacy simply because their sexuality, as urgent and central to their well-being and identity as that of heterosexuals, excludes the possibility of its being used for the generation of children.

Just as we have become less judgmental of cohabiting heterosexual couples, so many of us feel it is more Christian not to pry into the role their sexuality plays in the relationships of homosexuals. We are often wrong when we assume a married couple have a happy sex life together and rarely seek to articulate our inappropriate and intrusive curiosity. Similarly, there is surely no need for us to seek to make any assumption about the sex lives of homosexuals. They are entitled to a similar privacy and presumption of a firm and committed relationship made in good faith.

It is only honest to acknowledge that there are homosexuals who argue that since their sexual faculty is not ordered to procreation and is not an essential element in human relationships, it may be employed simply for play and sport. Freed from the risk of bringing a child into the world, they can just enjoy sex without strings, much as some heterosexuals see themselves liberated from constraint by contraceptives. The Catholic theology of marriage is still developing but it may be many years before a theology of human sexuality can be developed which deals adequately with such issues as the proper enjoyment of sexual activity where procreation is not a possible outcome. Most Catholics have an instinctive reverence for the sexual act and a concomitant revulsion against promiscuity.

Commitment

There is more than one form of commitment and marriage is not necessarily the best or the most valuable. We have already spoken of the commitment of friendship and warned against the dangers of belittling it in favour of the exclusivity of marriage. Catholics are also familiar with the commitment to religious life, usually involv­ing some form of vows or promise, temporary or permanent. Trad­itionally Catholics have always accepted that religious vows can be dispensed or commuted for good reasons, however sad it is to see a religious brother or sister seeking release from what was intended as a lifetime commitment. We are also aware that the ties of friendship are not necessarily permanent and we make our own decisions as to how solemn and enduring these should be. We are free to decide about our commitment to our friends, just as we decide how committed we are to a particular employer.

Friendship in our society does not therefore involve a ceremony of any kind, although one has heard of ceremonies of blood brother­hood in some tribes and certainly knows of clubs and associations in our own society which have entrance or initiation rites, however informal. The followers of football teams demonstrate their com­mitment by regularly turning up to support their team and even dress to demonstrate it. We should not belittle such demonstrations of commitment. Our society has a tendency to encourage casual commitment, easily broken, and even to attack it as a threat to individual freedom. Christians value commitment as a means of encouraging social cohesion and love between all women and men.

 The Commitment of Homosexuals

So then we are hardly likely to condemn those homosexuals who want to formalise their commitment to another person in some form of ceremony. Clearly they are not in a position to enter into a sacramental marriage with a person of the opposite sex, even if they see their relationship with each other as of no lesser value than a marriage and indeed a marriage in all but name. The sacrament of matrimony is clearly reserved to those men and women who intend to have children, if they can. If a heterosexual couple exclude such a possibility from their union, then any attempt to celebrate the sacrament is surely null and void, however much is invested in flowers, reception, organ, wedding cake, priest and choir.

For this reason, we cannot as Catholics allow that two people of the same sex can celebrate the sacrament of matrimony. Marcel Gervais, Archbishop of Ottawa, has said that homosexuals “deserve all the rights and all the respect of any human being. Should these be partnered with another person, that relationship should be given whatever rights and privileges support the stable relationship. It should not, however, be reclassified as marriage.”9 But the Church accepts that what the State or indeed other religious traditions may dignify with the name of marriage, is not always what Catholics would consider a sacramental marriage. The Church has always recognised that others have different models. So in some societies, a man may be married to more than one woman at the same time. In most modern countries, a couple may mutually decide to separate after marrying and enter into another union, with new partners, which they also call ‘marriage’. It is inappropriate for Catholics to interfere or to criticise the unions of others, whatever opinions they might have themselves on polygamy, the status of women, serial ‘marriages’ or divorce.

In the light of this, it seems difficult to see why Catholics should be vocal in their condemnation of those homosexuals who wish to avail themselves of a civil right to register their partnerships. We may have reservations when these are called, as they are in some societies, ‘marriage’ but why should we wish to condemn friends who wish to celebrate their friendship in a ceremony recognised by the State?

David and Jonathan provide the model for same-sex friendship in the Jewish scriptures but it is important to acknowledge not only that Jonathan was a married man with children when they made their vow of friendship,10 but that David himself clearly demonstr­ated later in life that he was far from immune to the charms of the opposite sex. (2 Sam 11 – Bathsheba) And yet David did not hesitate to lament Jonathan’s death with the words ‘Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women’ (2 Sam 1: 26). ‘We have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord. The Lord is witness between you and me.’ (1 Sam 20: 43) said Jonathan to David on their parting, with kisses and tears. Despite this, to us modern Westerners, almost embarrassing display of emotion, it would surely be wrong in the extreme to see this as an example of same-sex eroticism. Modern day Arab males hold hands and kiss, and whereas this suggests that their same-sex friendships are less inhibited than those of us Europeans, it would be wrong to assume that a genital dimension is always inevitably present between men or women happy to share such physical intimacy.

 Blessing unions

Is there any reason why homosexuals should not today swear eternal friendship, just as David and Jonathan did? Is our hesitation anything to do with the suspicion that we would inevitably be seek­ing God’s blessing on something unnatural and even immoral? Why is it necessary to assume that intimacy must lead to sexual express­ion?11 Do people whose minds work in this way assume that David and Jonathan had sex? If they are presumed to have a chaste relat­ionship, despite the tears and kisses, then why are people keen to condemn friends today who wish to swear eternal friendship?

In 1994 Professor John Boswell of Yale University published a startling and scholarly book, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe (Villard, NY) which demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that for centuries the pre-mediaeval Church celebrated the blessing of same-sex friendships. Intrigued by a seventeenth century reference by a Dominican to an ‘Office for spiritual brotherhood’ (the word ‘spiritual’ is not in fact in the manuscripts), Boswell spent some twelve years documenting over eighty manuscript versions of what is either a ceremony for the blessing of same-sex unions, as Boswell maintains, or an attempt by the Church to harness the passionate devotion of gay couples and somehow tame them; the wording of the prayer used in these documents seems to suggest the latter. ‘The ceremony occurs in manuscript collections all over the Christian world – from Italy to the island of Patmos to the monast­ery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai – and is found in some of the oldest Greek liturgical manuscripts known.’12 Boswell points out how what was initially merely a set of prayers had become by the twelfth century ‘a full office, involving the burning of candles, the placing of the two parties’ hands on the Gospel, the joining of their right hands, the binding of their hands (or covering their heads) with the priest’s stole, an introductory litany, crowning, the Lord’s Prayer, Communion, a kiss, and sometimes circling round the altar.’13 Translating the core prayer which Boswell found in the manuscripts requires a number of assumptions which may be quest­ioned and readers who are keen to examine these more closely are encouraged to look at Boswell’s work more closely than is possible in this short treatment.14 Nevertheless, we offer the following as a possible version in modern English:

Merciful and loving God
You made all human beings in your likeness
And approved the union
Not in a blood relationship15 but in faith16 and spirit
Of your apostles Philip and Batholemew.
As your martyrs Sergius and Bacchus17 were united
Bless your servants N and N
Joined together
Not in a blood relationship but by faith18 and spirit.
Grant them peace and love and oneness of mind
Cleanse every stain and impurity from their hearts
So that they may love each other
Without being hated and without becoming
a source of scandal
All the days of their lives
With the help of the prayers of the Mother of God
And of all your saints.20

The union is one not of nature, in that the two ‘brothers’ are not brothers by blood, and a union in ‘faith and spirit’ – thus it could be said to be a ‘spiritual’ union rather than ‘blood’ one. On the other hand the later reference to the threat of ‘hatred and scandal’ might suggest a ‘warning against a carnal component of the relationship’ although Boswell argues that similar comments were standard in heterosexual matrimonial offices.21

An eleventh or twelfth century Old Church Slavonic “Order for the Uniting of Two Men” from Macedonia has the following prayers said by the deacon:

For these servants of God, N and N, and their union in Christ
We pray to the Lord.
That the Lord our God unite them in perfect love and inseparable life
We pray to the Lord.
That they may be granted discretion and sincere love
We pray to the Lord.22

If for so many centuries the Church made use of a ceremony for the blessing of two friends, then perhaps modern Catholics need not be scandalised that civil society in the United Kingdom today sees nothing wrong in registering such partnerships.

SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, (Washington DC: Cistercian Publications, 1974)

Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (NY: Villard Books, 1994)

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Dominian, Jack, The Evolution of Christian Morality from Biology to Love (London: CCC, 2004)

Price, Elizabeth, Seeing Sin where None is, (London: CCC, 2001)

Stuart, Elizabeth, Just Good Friends {London: Mowbray, 1995)

NOTES

  1. Dea Birkett, ‘My best friend’s gay wedding’ in The Guardian Style, 3 Sept 2004 – sources: Stonewall, Women and Equality Unity, Greater London Authority.
  2.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2357, p 505 (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1994)
  3. John 8:7.
  4. Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, (Cistercian Publications, Washington DC, 1974) pp.2Qf (Professor Douglas Roby, ‘Introduction’)
  5.   idem.
  6.  Elizabeth Stuart, Just Good Friends, (London: Mowbray, 1995) p.225 – a profoundly theological treatment of friendship.
  7. Jack Dominian, The Evolution of Christian Morality from Biology to Love, (CCC, London 2004)
  8. An excellent treatment of the wrong-headedness of much of Catholic teaching about sex will be found in Elizabeth Price, Seeing Sin where none is (CCC, London, 2001)
  9. Dec 2004, The Tablet, 22 Jan 2005 p.33
  10. 1 Sam 18:4, 20:17 and 20:23
  11. Some would argue that sexual expression is all about love anyway. See JackDominian, The Evolution of Christian Morality from Biology to Love (London:CCC, 2004)
  12. John Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (Villard Books, NY, 1994) p.184
  13. Boswell id. p.185
  14. Boswell provides the original Greek texts, pp.345-363.
  15. Lit. ‘not in nature’
  16. or fidelity.
  17. Two well-known soldier companions who suffered martyrdom in the third or fourth century. See Boswell, op. cit. p.147, 172 and front cover.
  18. or fidelity
  19. or harmony
  20. Cf. Boswell op. cit. p.295 (Grottaferrata C l l Greek manuscript) and p 346. See also p.303 fn 125 and p.305 fn 129.
  21. Boswell, op.cit. p.291, fn. 24.
  22. Boswell, p.301.

Simon Bryden-Brook studied theo­logy as an Anglican and as a Cath­olic at Birmingham, Cambridge and Catholic University’, Washington DC. He trained as a teacher of relig­ion and music, but is now semi-retired. He is active in Catholic re­newal both in the UK and internat­ionally. He is currently the editor of Renew the quarterly newsletter of Catholics for a Changing Church.
Produced for CCC by belfriars publications, London sw1.