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Civil Unions, Family Discord

Church Fears a Legal Trend Is Undermining Marriage

By Father John Flynn

ROME, DEC. 19, 2006 (Zenit) - A fierce debate is under way in Italy over whether to give legal recognition and rights to cohabiting couples. Shortly after last April's general election some members of the new center-left government briefly broached the issue. The matter sprung back to life recently when the government announced that early in 2007 there would be a new law for de facto couples.

The exact form of the law is still unclear, but according to speculation in the media it would give legal status to both heterosexual and homosexual de facto couples. Debate over what rights should be given the couples is dividing the multi-party coalitions of both government and opposition.

Church criticism of the proposals came swiftly, albeit indirectly, in the form of articles in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. The opening shot came after the municipal council of Padua passed a motion approving recognition of rights for cohabiting couples.

The Dec. 7 edition of L'Osservatore Romano condemned the move, arguing that it set a dangerous precedent of recognizing family forms not based on marriage between a man and a woman. The national government's project for de facto couples came to light immediately afterward. The Dec. 8-9 edition of the Vatican newspaper described as a "lie" the argument that giving rights to cohabiting couples does not damage the institution of the family.

Varying forms of laws giving rights for de facto couples have come into force in Europe in the recent past. A review of the situation was set out in a book published in Italy, "I PACS Della Discordia: Spunti per un dibattito" (The PACS of Discord: Ideas for a Debate), by journalist Umberto Folena. PACS is the French acronym for "civil solidarity pacts."

Denmark was the first off the rank, in 1989, when it gave formal recognition to homosexual unions. Norway followed suit, in 1993; Sweden, the following year. In 1996, Iceland also gave same-sex couples the possibility of forming a partnership.

In 1999, France approved a law allowing two people, regardless of their sex, to enter into a legal union that gives them a series of rights related to fiscal and welfare entitlements. In Germany a 2000 law gave homosexuals many of the same legal rights as married couples. A further law, passed in 2004, opened up the possibility for adoption by non-married couples.

Other European countries that give recognition to non-married couples include Portugal, Finland, the United Kingdom and Luxembourg. The step of giving full marriage rights to homosexuals, including the right to adoption, was taken by the Netherlands in 2001. Spain followed, in June 2005. Outside of Europe, Canada opened up marriage for homosexual couples, in July 2005.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Thursday's vote by the New Jersey Legislature means that it will become the third state, after Vermont and Connecticut, to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples. The law, expected to be signed shortly by Governor Jon Corzine, was imposed on the Legislature by a recent decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court.


Arguments over the issue of rights for cohabiting couples are raging in the Italian media. Some opinion articles in newspapers have even maintained it would be "un-Christian" to deny legal protection to de facto couples.

A useful guide to the debate is the book "PACS, matrimonio e coppie omosessuali" (PACS, Marriage and Homosexual Couples), by Michele Aramini. The author, who teaches theology at Milan's Catholic University, concentrated on the issue of rights for same-sex couples. He started by explaining the need to separate the issue of the family from that of protecting homosexuals from unfair discrimination.

Homosexuals should be protected from unfair treatment, Aramini declared, but this does not mean that their relationships should be put on the same level as the traditional form of marriage and the family.

When it comes to defining the family, he continued, an essential element is that of procreation. As this is only possible when the couple is formed by members of the opposite sex, it is impossible to talk of homosexual "families."

At an even more fundamental level, what is at stake is the concept of the human person and whether there exists a single, objective way to live in the area of sexuality and the family. Those who argue in favor of rights for homosexual couples, or other variations of cohabitation, maintain that this is just simply recognizing a legitimate difference in lifestyles.

The reply to this argument, Aramini explains, is to recognize that the family based on marriage is not something that depends on a set of cultural or historical circumstances that are capable of change. It is, rather, based on needs inherent in our very human nature. Demanding rights for cohabiting couples is, therefore, nothing more than an expression of the current tendency toward extreme individualism. This individualism demands that the law accommodate itself to whatever may be requested by the individual, regardless of the consequences for others or for society.

The traditional family, based on marriage between a man and a woman, brings with it many benefits for society and the common good, Aramini points out. The family is, in fact, a basic foundation stone for society. As such, it is perfectly legitimate that it be given a privileged legal status.

The Pontifical Council for the Family made a similar argument in its statement: "Family, Marriage and 'De Facto' Unions," published in 2000. "The family based on marriage," it said, "is a fundamental and precious good for the whole society whose most solid fabric is built on the values that are developed in family relations and guaranteed by stable marriage" (No. 2).

Substantial difference

The document goes on to explain why marriage and the different forms of cohabitation cannot be put on the same level. The family is based on the marriage covenant between the spouses and is the nucleus for the procreation and education of the next generation. As an institution it is prior, in fact, to the state.

It is not reasonable to expect, the Pontifical Council for the Family argues, that the vital functions carried out by the family, based on a stable marriage, can be carried out in a large-scale, stable and permanent way by cohabitation.

Pressure for legal recognition of de facto unions is often made on the grounds of the need to avoid discrimination. Ceding to this petition would, however, result in "a real discrimination against the family based on marriage because it would be considered on a level similar to any other form of cohabitation, regardless of whether there is a commitment to reciprocal fidelity and the begetting and upbringing of children or not" (No. 10).

In this sense the document asks that a distinction be made between public interest and private interest. The state should protect what is in the public interest, in this case the family based on marriage. When it comes to the private interest, all the state is called upon to do is to guarantee freedom.

"Marriage and the family are of public interest," the Vatican document states; "they are the fundamental nucleus of society and the state and should be recognized and protected as such" (No. 11). A decision by two persons to live together, by contrast, is a private choice. "De facto unions are the result of private behavior and should remain on the private level," the Vatican body argued.

Such thinking is not an imposition of Christian belief on a pluralistic society, the document explains. Of course, Christians have a vision of marriage and the family that is illuminated by their faith and Church teaching, but marriage is also a natural reality. "It is not a question primarily of Christian faith but of rationality" (No. 13). A rationality that is, nevertheless, becoming increasingly obscured in many countries.


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