Civil unions, minority rights and priests

One of the major arguments in favour of Civil Unions as proposed by the Government by means of Bill No. 20, is that this is a fundamental right, a right of a minority group our modern society needs to legislate in favour of, on the other hand those against this Bill, yet not necessarily against civil partnerships claim that it is a reformulation of the concept of marriage rather than simply a widening of a definition.

The question of rights risks to become unintelligible if emphasis is put on the ‘minority’ issue; by going down this route we end up having clusters of minority rights which will eventually clash with each other, with the sempiternal problem of which minority will prevail. In today’s society the most influential lobby/group in mediatic and political circles will have the upper hand.

I suggest that this whole debate moves away from these argumentations and tries to find what is truly healthy and beneficial to society; subdividing society into minorities and establishing a set of rights for each will be a step away from what the declarations on human rights envisaged. While the UN Convention doesn’t even mention the word minority, the European declarations speaks only of the prohibition to discriminate against a national minority within a society, which in itself has nothing to do with this topic.

The forma mentis of these declarations have an even more basic ground to them. Almost the whole spectrum of nations with their different religions, philosophies, cultures and traditions have managed to find the real common ground to their agreement – humanity. It is in virtue of being a human being that one has these rights and thus these are not given and must never be denied. Prof Emmanuel Aguis highlights this point quite well in his article.

Yet in trying to unravel this whole debate some, including myself, end up a bit confused. Over the span of one week there have been three different views by two theologians and a phiolsopher (among many others), two of which are priests.

I agreed with Fr Mark Montebello when he states that the Church in Malta should follow Pope Francis’ claim that the Church should be sensitive to minorities, yet in his article (Knisja bla Qalb?) he makes various comments which are somewhat challenging but albeit unfounded and illogical. He claims that on this issue the Church is giving the impression that She is insensitive to the human rights of minorities (seemingly confusing the concept of rights and entitlements) without explaining how, who and where.

Without prejudice to what I said about the issue of the rights of minorities, his question is more a rhetorical question rather than a quest for Truth, which in the end is that of any priest and/or philosopher. He holds, moreover, that an electoral pledge should be kept at all costs. Even here I tend to disagree with his argumentation since if a party pledges something which with hindsight results as an immoral (as he claims) or a bad economical decision, this should not be kept. Moreover the electoral pledge was to introduce civil unions and not gay marriages as Bill No. 20 is effectively doing.

Montebello maintains that it would be illogical to distinguish between two different genusus of unions. The illogicality would be precisely that, i.e. to make two different genusus the same, what Gilbert Ryle calls a ‘category mistake’. It is obvious that there are differences between mono and bi-gender unions. As Agius holds “differentiating one form of relationship from the other does not imply that some people are treated as less equal than others”. It is not simply a question of giving different options. Making civil unions ‘identical’ to marriage is an issue of the changing the fundamental characteristics of marriage itself.

Lutheran theologian Jonasson as reported on The Times of Malta makes a good point when stating that the Biblical texts cannot simply be read with today’s mentality full stop. These have been written in a different context and thus this context needs to be taken into consideration when referring to these texts in today’s modern society. One’s arguments cannot simply be based on cut and paste arguments from the Bible. Also true is what Jonasson says that we cannot condemn anyone’s desires, I would add, even without meeting them.

These desires are deeply rooted in one’s very being. However this is not sufficient to make civil unions identical to marriage. He also seems to recall Shakespeare’s famous quote ‘What’s in a name?’ But here we are not simply debating the name given to legally recognised same-sex relations. The issue is deeper; it is about the meaning and concept of marriage and not about the name given to the regularised relation. Words come loaded with meaning and the social context in which one understands them is indicative of their significance. So it is not simply a change in name which is required.

So what is required after all? Many have claimed that this Bill is simply not calling a spade a spade, but simply making reference to other laws in order to stick to the letter of the electoral pledge. The pledge as Montebello says, was that of introducing civil unions and there you have it … gay-marriage called “Civil Union”. Simple, right!?

I have quizzed myself and challenged myself to think as to what needs to be done. I am not in favour of simply saying no to recognising mono-gender relationships. I believe that the way forward should be based on the following points.

  1. An ad hoc piece of legislation: Civil unions are to regulate the relations between mono or bi gender couples. There seems to be agreement on this point (which is very difficult to find on similar topics) and thus we should use this common ground  and use it a departure point. It is a relation between two persons that we are regularising, therefore this is what we should be focused on. The departure point is this relation. Moreover we canot simply ignore what’s going on in society, as if these relationships don’t exist. These bonds carry with them the responsibility and respect which is enshrined in the dignity of every human being toward one another. The state should make it possible that where such are missing or trampled upon, the aggrieved party should have legal strength to oppose such.
  2. Which recognises the rights and duties of the persons in the relationship: Being a recognition of relationship, the legislation should focus on the couple and thus cater for those instances, not necessarily in an exhaustive manner, where two persons in a presumably lasting relationship are recognised the rights and duties of caring and being cared for.
  3. And the nature of the union itself: Nonetheless being of a different genus from marriage this would entail that society respects these unions in all their possible facets and thus from a civil, physiological (as Lino Spiteri puts it “Adoption is not a right. It concerns a third party – the child”) and economical relation between the couple, and in turn this union recognises and respects the concept and characteristics of marriage.

While I sense that things are already set and the debate in parliament will be simply a necessary formality I hope that parliament and society take their time to discuss the issue. This whole debate after all is not simply a question pertaining to one sector of society or to a minority. It cuts across the whole of society. Civil unions or rather gay marriage is not simply the granting of a ‘right’ or the widening of a definition but rather the reformulation of a concept.

9 thoughts on “Civil unions, minority rights and priests

  • Reply Alvin Hili 9th November 2013 at 4:02 pm

    As always you make valid points that I do agree should be added to the debate. You do make distinctions between gay marriage and marriage, but you fail to make distinctions between marriage and catholic marriage. The latter comes with its extra set of values and responsibilities. You are right that gay marriage can never be part of catholic marriage, since it lacks specific features that are part and parcel to the union defined under catholic marriage, and it entails specific acts that clash with the duties required under said union. Yet gay marriage is, and always has been, part of the union defined as marriage, and the fact that a large number of people don’t want to recognise it as so does not change it from being so. Maybe their society, and certainly their religions, still cannot fully accept these unions and all they entail, yet it is their governments’ duty to do so in their stead, as a first step. And hopefully everything will follow from there.

    So yes, gay marriage can never be catholic marriage, but both are marriage, and both carry the same rights and duties carried by marriage. Hopefully the union of two people within love and mutual respect will be further celebrated, irrespective of sexuality. Thankfully it is starting to be.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 10th November 2013 at 1:45 pm

      Thanks Alvin for your comment. You are right, I didn’t distinguish between marriage and catholic marriage, and I did it purposefully. The issue at stake here is not catholic marriage as you rightly said. It is about civil marriage, and this law seeks to amend that and not the former.

      The institute of marriage includes but is not limited to love and mutual respect which is celebrated and formally recognised by the state. Marriage is not simply a union however, it seeks to create the ideal situation for the bearing and upbringing of children, that is why society and not just religions, have given it such importance. So apart from the love and respect between the couple, there is also the responsibility towards each other and their children. Such creates that important ground into which children are rooted into society.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 10th November 2013 at 8:31 am

    “The question of rights risks to become unintelligible if emphasis is put on the ‘minority’ issue; by going down this route we end up having clusters of minority rights which will eventually clash with each other”

    Not really. The LGBT community insists on equal rights – that is, the removal of discriminatory conditions from the law. That clashes with nobody and will not end up in a cluster of anything.

    Nobody is suggesting “subdividing society into minorities” as you said.

    “the European declarations speaks only of the prohibition to discriminate against a national minority within a society, which in itself has nothing to do with this topic.”

    That has everything to do with this topic, in fact this topic is about nothing else. The law as it stands discriminates against same-sex couples. That discrimination is being removed.

    “Moreover the electoral pledge was to introduce civil unions and not gay marriages as Bill No. 20 is effectively doing.”

    And what, in your view, is the difference between civil union and marriage other than the name? What the bill proposes is exactly what was promised.

    “The illogicality would be precisely that, i.e. to make two different genusus the same”

    No. Another name for civil union is marriage. They ARE the same, but the word “marriage” elicits some irrational emotions in some people so PL, before the election, saw fit to call it civil union not marriage – a promise they had to adhere to – but they are otherwise identical.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 10th November 2013 at 1:52 pm

      Ramon, I replied to most of your comments in my reply to Alvin. As regards the national minority I mentioned, the declarations are speaking of a ‘national’ so it has nothing to do with sexual orientation. People of homosexual orientation are not a nation of their own (as far as I am aware).

      The electoral pledge was that of introducing civil unions, which no, are not marriages, why give it a different nomenclature if it is the same thing. If what you are suggesting about the PL that to me that is very dishonest. Intending to introduce X but change the name because of perception is I repeat, dishonest.

      • Reply Ramon Casha 13th November 2013 at 7:17 pm

        What declarations mention a national minority? I never heard that phrase anywhere.

        I gave you the reason why they created civil unions and didn’t call it by its rightful name, marriage, even though the two are identical: To some people, the word “marriage” elicits an emotional rather than a rational response. For this reason, hoping to avoid a major showdown, PL promised that it would not introduce marriage – and that’s what it did. There’s nothing dishonest about it. If some people are afraid of the word but not the concept, then change the name but not the concept. This was pretty clear even from before the election. Can you name a single characteristic of marriage that the party promised not to introduce? No you can’t, because it was always made clear that it was going to have the same rights as marriage without being called marriage.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 10th November 2013 at 8:41 am

    “Making civil unions ‘identical’ to marriage is an issue of the changing the fundamental characteristics of marriage itself.”

    The fundamental characteristic of marriage has changed countless times already. The Bible as well as history tell of many forms – ranging from one man with many wives, one man, one wife and many concubines / slaves, one man and one woman from the same race, one man + one woman and most recently, two people of either gender – not to mention that for the most part, the consent of the bride or both bride and groom were not needed. In many cases, up to very recently, it was the parents of the bride and groom who decided. Marriage was about one thing alone – inheritance. The children of the wife would inherit, those of the concubines or mistresses would not. The concept of marriage as a union between two persons who love and respect each other is very recent, and under this modern definition of marriage, same-sex marriage makes perfect sense.

    You are trying to find a difference that justifies the claim that same-sex relationships are of a different nature than opposite-sex ones. It’s a waste of your time – there is none.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 10th November 2013 at 1:59 pm

      Re the Fundamental characteristics of marriage see the reply to Alvin. thanks

  • Reply Alvin Hili 13th November 2013 at 12:13 am

    ‘Marriage is not simply a union however, it seeks to create the ideal situation for the bearing and upbringing of children’

    Again, marriage being conducive to child bearing and upbringing is only a strict prerogative of catholic marriage. Two people legitimizing their union through marriage do not bind themselves to having children, unless they were wed within the church. We can all agree that an environment that is safe for children can exist with or without the institution of marriage.

    As you know, I am also not against allowing people who want, and can provide for, children from being able to adopt and care for them. I think we should try to separate the persons’ bond, their ability to raise children and their sexual life from each other. I’m not denying that they tie into each other in complex ways, but this would make it easier to rationalize each area.

    I can understand how the church would take exception at the way that homosexuals express sexually, or otherwise, the bond between them. Yet we should also distinguish between the sexual act and the intimate act. I hope you understand that in the same way you find the double speak, or spin, if there were any, from the PL in its wording as dishonest, there are also a lot of people who find that the denial of certain rights and responsibilities based on a person’s sexual preference is disgusting.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 13th November 2013 at 5:14 pm

      Marriage being conducive to bearing and upbringing is not just a prerogative of catholic marriage … even civil marriage is conducive to this. If a couple marries civilly with the strict intention of not having children would result in the annulment of that marriage.

      Although one can find safe environments for the upbringing of children as a society we should aim at what is best for them and not simply safe. Moreover marriage as you say is a complex issue – separating those issues you mention would not in any way help in the understanding of marriage as a whole. Since it is a bond and an institution whereby all that and more is intertwined it would be better to see the picture as a whole.

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