Special Reports / Civil partnerships and democracy

Debate for the sake of sovereignty

Ireneusz Krzemiński · 19 February 2013
In the case of civil partnerships we have to stress the issue of sovereignty of the state and regulation of social relations – ones that benefit society, the people and even the common good. This, however, requires a serious discussion even with the alleged “threat to family” by the civil partnerships.

A debate on civil partnerships that has recently broken out both in the Sejm and the media is an important event itself. Previously, all the initiatives regarding civil partnerships, especially those undertaken by gay and lesbian communities, were held on the fringes of the public life. Even when different legislative institutions were involved. This was the situation when the issue was first brought to light and a bill to regulate same-sex partnerships was proposed in 2003 by Professor Szyszkowska, then a senator of the Democratic Left Aliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD). As we know, the initiative was not pursued and the party represented by Professor Szyszkowska did not treat the whole issue seriously for even a second.

A strange success

In the previous term of the Parliament, upon an initiative of a group of female deputies as well as feminist and LGBT organisations, a conference was held concerning a bill on same-sex and opposite-sex partnerships, developed by that same community. The bill was deliberately based on a French solution – the PACS act, i.e. the Civil Solidarity Pact. Same-sex unions were only one of the potential options that might be exercised under the act. This certainly was a well-considered strategy: the authors wanted the act not to clearly refer to gay and lesbian unions.

The conference resounded to some extent in the media, but it was quite insignificant. As it coincided with the approaching elections, it became an excuse for some deputies to “show off”. I have bad memories about the conference. Its participants spoke only when there were TV cameras around. After a brief official introduction recorded by the cameras, the substantive part took place, where – apart from other researchers and activists – I had the opportunity to present the results of then freshly completed empirical studies on the situation of LGBT people in Poland. But when the TV cameras left, the politicians disappeared too, including those who supported the legislative action… No wonder the project failed. Given the above, the fact that the issue was discussed in Parliament early this year and the need to take a clear stand can be perceived as a success.

State–Church relations like a century ago

It is obvious to me that the issue of legal regulation of civil partnerships may be considered part of a specific set of unregulated matters, the most important of which is in vitro fertilisation. And it certainly provides a great perspective on the oddity of the Polish state and its political relations. What I mean is a specific lack of sovereignty of the state towards a particular actor, namely the Catholic Church.

If we take time to think about it, the situation recalls the debate on the right to divorce in the Second Polish Republic almost one hundred years ago! As then, the Catholic Church now performs a similar function but it seems to have even more influence on the Polish public and thus a secular legislature. The thesis on the loss of sovereignty by the state should not be approached as a radical proposition. There are many examples of Church activity that can prove the thesis. For instance, the issue of the Church’s approach towards the decision by the Polish National Broadcasting Council (Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji, KRRiT) regarding Trwam Television. The idea that has so far accompanied protests against the completely lawful and legal decision and that is related to their next stage, is nothing less than making decisions of state institutions subject to the will and interests of the Church. Civil partnerships are no different here.

Why gay and lesbian rights may not be “natural”?

The problem is not only limited to the issue of relations between the will and the stance of the Catholic Church and state regulations. It is deeply embedded in the Church itself and its message. I cannot help but think that the Catholic Church, especially in Poland, has become embroiled in contradictions that may not be beneficial for it in the long term. Nor may they be beneficial for the Polish society. The problem that we are facing here is the one of an approach to human and citizen’s rights. The influence of our Church is so strong because everyone – or at least the older people – know very well how much we owe to the Church in our struggle for freedom.

Back then, at the end of the 1970s and in the 1980s, the Church was the champion of human and citizen’s rights. No wonder, it was John Paul II who at the beginning of his pontificate acknowledged human and citizen’s rights to be “natural” rights, hence given by the God. This “naturalisation” of human and citizen’s rights, as if in the spirit of the Preamble to the American Constitution, was extremely important for Poland and Poles. It was also strongly founded in the philosophical concept of a human being as the foundation of the Church’s activity. It was when it was said that the human being is the way for the Church… We might then ask why is the Church now refusing full rights and equality to different categories of people? Especially as the Catholic Church has been recently very clearly indicating the concept of human rights as a guarantor of freedom of confession and religious affiliation in a debate with Islam. All the more dramatic is the question of why women or LGBT people, for instance, are denied their full civil rights?

The question and indication of contradictions in the teachings of the Church on homosexuals are all the more important given that according to the “Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” developed by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the sexual orientation of an individual is something “natural”, something given, including homosexual orientation as well. However, the “Letter”, which is more precisely a kind of Vatican order, assumed at the same time that the behaviour that follows from such an orientation and takes the form of sexual activity, is a sin. The document also states that sin may not prevent an individual from being a member of the Church and mentions that homosexual people may not be persecuted in any way. But in this context, one might venture to question whether the current position of the Church is not a contradiction of the above? Does it not also belie the fact that homosexual orientation was deemed “natural”?

Sexuality still sinful

By saying that, we immediately face the massive problem of the Catholic Church. The “nature” category itself is ambiguous in the theological and philosophical discourse: there is a difference between how Aristotelian tradition approaches “nature” and how the late medieval tradition imbues it with moralising interpretation. This is also the key to the problem with the Church’s approach to homosexuals. Yet, not only homosexuals – this also refers to its approach to sexual life and human eroticism as a whole. For in the Catholic tradition, eroticism is something suspect and substantially sinful. Hence the importance of the concept of marriage and its procreative function as the only entirely non-sinful and allowable form of sexual life so far!

A proposition by John Boswell that the approach of the Church towards homosexuals is the best indicator of its moral repressiveness or openness turns out to be true for Poland. For treating the legal regulation of civil partnerships as inadmissible is not only – though primarily – an attack on the unions of same-sex couples. The same level of criticism is expressed towards straight couples that wish to enter “only” this kind of union. Everything else suggests that we are now experiencing a Church that is closed rather than open to individuals. Not for one moment have I seen in any public discussions anyone approach the issue of legal regulations from the point of view of real people, their feelings and needs! Including also those that may believe in God… The issue is seen exclusively from the moralistic and code-based perspective of behaviour consistent with the Letter formulated in 1986.

Nothing suggests that the official stance of the Church may change any time soon. Particularly given that translations of the Bible, including several letters of Paul that refer to relations between men, are still conveyed as “sinful”. It is hard to imagine a discussion over the sense of the original words of Paul, which occurred long ago in the Church and the world following the famous and already mentioned work by Boswell. I think it is difficult to imagine a change in the official position of the Church any time soon.

It is then all the more important to stress the issue of sovereignty of the state and regulation of social relations – ones that benefit the society, the people and even the common good. This, however, requires a serious discussion even with the alleged “threat to family” by the civil partnerships. Yet, the postulates of homosexuals may be considered a victory for the concept of monogamous unions. Still, some academics and gay and lesbian activists are even willing to consider such regulations as a way of making same-sex relations “more straight”. An open debate may bring up a number of issues and nuances of the problem, including the moral ones. I am afraid, however, that Poland lacks politicians who would be able to either create or take part in such a serious debate. As you can see, the discussion would have to touch upon many subjects. If we take a look at the condition of the Polish Church, its intellectual condition, then such a debate is only a pipe dream.

Nothing can be said definitely though. Let’s hope the Spirit did not abandon this land either…