The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Briefing to Members of Parliament on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
Tuesday 29th January 2013
We urge Members to oppose this legislation at Second Reading for the following reasons:
1. THE MEANING OF MARRIAGE MATTERS
This Bill, for the first time in British history, fundamentally seeks to break the existing legal link between the institution of marriage and sexual exclusivity, loyalty, and responsibility for the children of the marriage. If the Bill passes, several previously foundational aspects of the law of marriage will be changed to accommodate same sex
couples: the common law presumption that a child born to a mother during her marriage is also the child of her partner will not apply in same sex marriages (Schedule 4, para. 2); the existing provisions on divorce will be altered so that sexual infidelity by one of the parties in a same sex marriage with another same sex partner will not constitute adultery (Schedule 4, para. 3); and nonconsummation will not be a ground on which a same sex marriage is voidable (Schedule 4, para. 4).
Marriage thus becomes an institution in which openness to children, and with it the responsibility on fathers and mothers to remain together to care for children born into their family unit, is no longer central to society’s understanding of that institution (as reflected in the law). The fundamental problem with the Bill is that changing the legal understanding of marriage to accommodate same sex partnerships threatens subtly, but radically, to alter the meaning of marriage over time for everyone. This is the heart of our argument in principle against same sex marriage.
The existing approach to marriage in British law encourages a particular understanding of marriage and the obligations taken on by those who marry. British law currently provides, for example, that a marriage is between two, rather than several, individuals; that the commitment of husband and wife is meant to last for their lifetime; that there is a sexual aspect to the relationship (in the requirement of consummation for there to be a valid marriage); that the husband is presumed to be the father of the child carried by his wife; and that the partners to the marriage will remain loyal to the relationship to the exclusion of all other sexual partners.
Those elements of the law of marriage are not arbitrary, archaic, or reactionary; they serve to show that marriage has an important and unique function.
These provisions cannot be understood unless they are seen as intimately related to the conception and rearing of children. This view is one held particularly strongly by the Catholic Church, but it is not a uniquely religious view.2 As Bertrand Russell said: ‘But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex …. It is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution.’
We recognise that there is an alternative view of what constitutes the ‘good’ of marriage, and we understand that proponents of same sex marriage often adopt this alternative view, in good faith.
Under this alternative view, the ‘good’ of marriage is that it fosters intimacy and care-giving for dependants, builds trust, and encourages openness, and shared responsibilities.3 We accept, of course, that these are, indeed, important aspects of marriage. But we believe that marriage is not only the institutional recognition of love and commitment. Marriage, as legally recognised in this country, is also the institutional recognition of a unique kind of relationship in which children are raised by their birth-parents. Even if this is not always possible in practice, the law, by recognising this core understanding of marriage, sends a vital signal to society of an ideal.
We recognise, of course, that British law does not limit marriage to those who intend to have children; nor does it deny marriage to those who are infertile. We also recognise that many same sex couples raise children in loving and caring homes. Nevertheless, marriage has an identity that at its core is distinct from any other legally recognised relationship, no matter how much love or commitment may be involved in these other relationships. Marriage has,
over the centuries, been the enduring public recognition of this commitment to provide a stable institution for the care and protection of children, and it has rightly been recognised as unique and worthy of legal protection for this reason. Marriage furthers the common good of society because it promotes a unique relationship within which children are conceived, born and reared, an institution that we believe benefits children. continue