This article appears in the August 2003 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Marriage Rights for All

Dame Margaret Butler Sloss, president of the High Court Family Division, recently called for homosexual partnerships and the 'marriage' of transsexuals to be recognised by law and afforded the same rights as traditional marriages. She was delivering the annual Paul Sieghart Memorial Lecture at King s College, London. She said that same-sex couples were discriminated against and the country was 'failing the family'. It was unfair that same-sex couples were not entitled to pension rights or division of assets after separation. Her remarks presumably are based on her experience in the High Court Family Division witnessing the tragedies for both parties when co-habitating and same sex relationships break up. She goes on to welcome an announcement from the Government that legislation will be introduced to remedy this situation. But any reform of the law which extends existing rights to situations that have never been considered as generally acceptable is creating extremely doubtful legislation.

Marriage is a joining of two lives. It is defined in law as the voluntary union for life of a man and woman. No less an observer that Aristotle said 'between husband and wife friendship seems to exist by nature; for man is naturally disposed to pairing.' It has even been suggested that the earliest beginnings of the genus Homo were associated with pair-bonding and that our ancestors were, so to speak, 'personal relationship animals' more fundamentally than 'toolmaking animals'. It looks as if there has been no change over the centuries. From the point of view of the evolution of the race, the role of marriage is to make possible the important long childhood of nurture and learning that a human being needs to grow to maturity.

The teaching of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae was in homogenous continuity with what went before, although he does not repeat the arguments based on the ends of marriage, but rather relies on reasons derived from the truth about the person and conjugal love. The purpose of the conjugal act is to be an expression of the total union between the two spouses, that is, of the fact that they are of 'one flesh' and a communion of persons.

The encyclical says 'It is a love which in total is that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions or thinking just of their own interests. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only what he receives, but loves that partner for her own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself. Hence to give oneself without one's procreative capacity is not an act of complete self giving and so is not an act of conjugal love'.

It is therefore difficult to see how a homosexual partnership can conform to such principles. There is much talk in the media at present proclaiming that the scriptures do not condemn homosexual practices. But at the beginning of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, among others, it is possible to see a rejection of the unnatural acts of masturbation and homosexuality, the latter very explicitly. He speaks of 'practices with which they dishonour their own bodies' (1:24) and of 'women who have turned from natural intercourse to unnatural practices' and goes on to say that their menfolk 'have given up natural intercourse to be consumed with passion for one another' (Rom 1:26-27) These texts demonstrate that homosexuality and masturbation have been declared intrinsically wrong ever since apostolic times. They are unnatural because, as we have already pointed out, they lack the ultimate finality of the act. A distinction should be drawn between homosexual inclinations and homosexual acts or behaviour. Homosexuals must be regarded with great understanding, and the mere possessing of the inclination not regarded as deplorable. But as all homosexual acts are 'intrinsically disordered', in no sense is it possible to talk of 'homosexual marriages' for, as we have seen, homosexual acts lack an essential and indispensable finality.

For Dame Margaret to declare that sex couples were discriminated against and the country was 'failing the family' seems to imply that these couples are families. The family is the main unit of our society and as a special relationship constitutes a moral arena unlike most others formed in the public sphere. It could hardly be said that a homosexual couple approximates to it.

Meanwhile the government has published a consultation paper on civil partnerships for same sex couples which can only be seen as a further attack on marriage and an attempt to redefine the concept of family. Presented by the government's Women and Equality Unit, it describes civil partnership registration as an 'important equality measure'. Couples would make a formal, legal commitment to each other by registering their relationship as a 'Civil Partnership'. They would gain joint pension benefits; the option of taking parental responsibility for each other's children, and might be obliged to maintain each other financially. But as homosexual couples represent only 0.2% of British households it appears to be an extremely elastic form of equality. There is a much higher percentage of households consisting of unmarried adults, including members of the same family who will not receive such favours. Indeed Peter Tatchell, perhaps the most prominent gay rights campaigner, described the proposals as heterophobic 'and are an unimaginative, watered down version of marriage'.

Marriage is not about rights, it is about responsibilities. To love and care for each other and have children defines social obligations that provide the bedrock of stability, security for members of the family. The social significance of this has long been recognised by the state through a package of tax and legal benefits. To extend these privileges to homosexual couples is merely about claiming tax and other benefits as a 'right' without any of the obligations of lifelong loyalty and support that marriage entails. Marriage is under a greater threat now than ever. It is noticeable that this relatively obscure government department, the Women and Equality Unit, is headed by Angela Mason, the former director of the homosexual lobby group Stonewall.

One may hazard what the late Paul Sieghart, a committed and active member of the Catholic Union, would have thought of his foundation lecture being used to further attacks on marriage.