Part II: a Catholic Perspective on Domestic Partnerships

by Bishop Paul S. Loverde


The second of a two-part letter from Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde details Church teaching on marriage and family and its relationship to "domestic partnerships."

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Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, March 2, 2000

The Virginia Supreme Court has scheduled hearings this week on a domestic partnership case on appeal from Arlington County Court. Bishop Loverde this week presents his second reflection on the subject of domestic partnerships from a Catholic perspective.

We have seen that human sexuality is founded upon the provident design of a wise and loving God who created man and woman in His own image and likeness. Pope John Paul II beautifully sums up the entire teaching of Scripture and Tradition in his Letter to Families (February 2, 1994), when he writes: "In marriage man and woman are so firmly united as to become — to use the words of the Book of Genesis — ‘one flesh' (Gen. 2:34). Male and female in the physical constitution, the two human subjects, even though physically different, share equally in the capacity to live ‘in truth and love.'"

The Holy Father continues: "This capacity, characteristic of a human being as a person, has at the same time both a spiritual and a bodily dimension. It is also through the body that man and woman are predisposed to form a ‘communion of persons' in marriage. When they are united by the conjugal covenant in such a way as to become ‘one flesh,' their union ought to take place ‘in truth and love,' and thus express the maturity proper to persons created in the image and likeness of God."

The covenant of marriage is the very foundation of the continuation and the well-being of society itself, as the Second Vatican Council affirmed. Therefore, civil officials have an important interest in protecting, promoting and enhancing the institution of marriage and of family life. The situation of non-married couples cannot, and should not, be placed on a par with the conjugal union of husband and wife. Other forms of "domestic partnerships" may attempt to mirror the marital relationship, but they lack the essential goods of marriage. As Bishop James Griffin of Columbus, Ohio, has recently stated, "None can be regarded as the equivalent of marriage morally or on the social level, because marriage is unique in its contribution to society, its stability, the environment it provides for the growth, development and health of the family, and the protection of spouses and children."

Civil society has historically recognized the fundamental importance of the family. By means of civil law, society has extended to the family a priority not given to other kinds of human relationships. So, for example, health benefits and inheritance rights have been granted to the members of a nuclear family. Today, however, some are suggesting that these types of benefits be extended to unmarried heterosexual or homosexual "domestic partners." It is erroneously thought that justice would require the legislative recognition of such relationships as legally equivalent to marriage by the conferral of health benefits from one unmarried partner to the other. Such is the case presently before the Virginia Supreme Court.

We should not fail to understand the effect that civil laws have in shaping and forming the conscience. A common attitude argues that actions which are legally protected are for that reason morally right — witness the mindset that views abortion as a "right" merely because this terrible act enjoys legal protection.

The same mindset would, I believe, inevitably follow upon the enactment of "domestic partnership" legislation. The status of cohabiting couples, be they heterosexual or homosexual, would be considered by many in our society, on the moral and social levels, to have been elevated by such legislation to the equivalent of marriage. Would our young people not be affected by this? Would such legislation not contribute further to the already serious loss of respect for and commitment to marriage and family life? Would the view that human sexuality can be given any meaning the individual chooses to give it not be further reinforced?

Some have argued that granting health insurance benefits to domestic partners is a pro-life issue. This is a false argument. True, the Catholic Church has always seen health care as a fundamental act of charity, intrinsically bound up with the Gospel itself. True, the Church has consistently made known its support for adequate health care coverage for everyone. In 1993, in fact, the bishops of the United States stated clearly and directly, "Every person has a right to adequate health care."

If everyone has a right to adequate and affordable health care and coverage, however, it does not follow that society should extend its preferential attitude toward marriage to non-married sexual unions. Society has basic and persuasive reasons to favor marriage. These reasons do not apply, nor do they exist, in the case of "domestic partnership" arrangements. It would be a fundamental violation of justice to compel, even indirectly, taxpayers who are opposed to "domestic partnerships" on moral or religious grounds to support such relationships.

Clearly, this is a difficult and sensitive issue. Opposition to "domestic partnership" legislation should not be interpreted as a lack of care and concern for unmarried persons, heterosexual or homosexual, who are cohabiting. The Church, in fidelity to the Lord's word and example, constantly calls us to love the sinner but not the sin. Those who are living together in non-marital sexual unions require our pastoral care, support and prayers. The objective immorality of their situation urges us all the more to invite them to turn to the Lord and to His Body, the Church, in order to find reconciliation and strength in the face of temptation.

At times, the assistance and support of groups such as Courage can be very helpful in aiding persons with homosexual orientations to form and live chaste friendships. The Sacrament of Penance can be a wonderful and grace-filled means of coming home to God and of growing in the practice of self-mastery. The Sacrament of the Eucharist nourishes and strengthens all who struggle with the daily demands of discipleship.

At the same time, prayer and reflection before the Most Blessed Sacrament also teaches us the true meaning of unconditional love and self-donation, and aids us in imitating the life of Jesus Christ Himself. Certainly, daily acts of prayer, sacrifice, and charity can dispose the hearts and minds of those living in objectively sinful situations to be open to a genuine conversion and the transforming grace of God, who is love, and who never ceases to call all people to communion with Himself and with one another.

In every age, the Church has the solemn duty of proclaiming the truth about matters of faith and the moral life. Today, perhaps more than ever, the truth and meaning of marriage, family life and human sexuality needs to be understood, reverenced and promoted. This task belongs not only to the Church, but also to civil governments and leaders. Again, let me cite the teachings of the Second Vatican Council: "Everyone, therefore, who exercises influence in the community and in social groups should devote himself effectively to the welfare of marriage and the family. Civil authority should consider it a sacred duty to acknowledge the true nature of marriage and the family, to protect and foster them, to safeguard public morality and promote domestic prosperity" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 52).

As the Bishop of Arlington, I invite my fellow Catholics, and indeed all men and women of good will, to join with me in opposing any legislative proposals that would have the effect of seeming to equate marital and non-marital unions. I urge our civil officials to reflect upon the essential meaning of the conjugal covenant and to preserve the fundamental dignity and values of marriage and family life, values which lie at the heart of the well-being of society.

Dear sisters and brothers, in the Catholic liturgy, one of the nuptial blessings speaks of married life as "the one blessing that was not forfeited by original sin or washed away in the flood." If God Himself so treasures and values this holy, fruitful, faithful and loving covenant between a man and a woman, can we do any less?

See Part One: A Catholic Perspective on Domestic Partnership

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