Special Reports / Civil partnerships and democracy

The notion of state ideological neutrality is empty

Paweł Śpiewak in conversation with Tomasz Sawczuk · 19 February 2013
On the one hand, the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) was split on the issue, on the other there appeared a movement comprising the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) and the Palikot’s Movement (Ruch Palikota) which questions the traditional way of thinking – explains Paweł Śpiewak in an interview conducted by Tomasz Sawczuk.

Tomasz Sawczuk: Why did the bill regarding civil partnerships excite so many controversies?

Paweł Śpiewak: I believe it is not hard to tell. It is just a cultural collision. Polish tradition is strongly tied with the Catholic tradition in which the notion of marriage is reserved for the relationship between man and woman. It is also connected with an appropriate definition of family. Supporters of civil partnerships challenge this definition of family and treating male-female relationships as the only valid ones.

It is not the first time that this subject has entered the public debate. However, it seems that this time we have abandoned all restraints and the discussion has become much more heated.

As far as I know, this was the first debate of this size. It is important, that the ruling party, the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), announced before the elections an intention to do something in this area: introduce a new legal institution called a “civil partnership.” So on the one hand, the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) was split on the issue, on the other there appeared a movement comprising the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, SLD) and the Palikot’s Movement (Ruch Palikota) which questions the traditional way of thinking. Thus the conflict has become not only ideological, but also political. The whole turbulence was presented in the media as even more intense.

Is the conflict mostly about homosexual couples or is it equally about those heterosexual couples who would change the traditional role of family by entering into civil partnerships?

Generally speaking, it is about a definition of family. An argument is mounted that the constitution protects the family and this notion is well defined there. So it is obviously partially because of homosexuality, which is highly disapproved of in Poland –an opinion expressed by over 60 percent of society. The other thing is that a relationship sanctified by the Church would lose some of its importance, because another type of interpersonal relationship would appear that is not perceived as “strong” enough from the traditional point of view. Apart from religion-based relationships there are also civil marriages, which have the same rights as the religious ones, but they are given a much higher sanction. Accepting civil partnerships means, according to the majority of citizens, accepting something fragile and uncertain that may lead to dissolution of social bonds. For me it is a crucial element of this discussion.

What is more important from the perspective of a liberal, democratic and secular state – granting rights to homosexuals or the state’s legislative reaction to new family models?

Firstly, the notion of state ideological neutrality is empty. We may philosophically define the meaning behind the author’s idea, but it is very difficult to use it in practice. Each definition of ideological neutrality, but also of freedom and other notions, is always a definition in which this neutrality means a domination of a certain ideology. The slogan of neutrality used by the liberals always bears liberal consequences. It means that all religions and ideologies have to accept the rules of compromise, tolerance, pluralism and equal rights, i.e. rules that cannot be accepted by the bishops. Secondly, I believe that the state is being charged with new duties. If 20 or even more percent of children are born out of wedlock, if the number of unmarried couples living together is high and still rises, regardless of the nature and gender of such relationships, it is impossible to leave such a huge group of people in the state of legal indeterminacy. It is just irresponsible. It means that the state (its officials, MPs) does not understand the cultural and social changes taking place, turns its head and thus ignores the needs and interests of a large group of its citizens.

The question now is how to resolve the issue of civil partnerships. In his writing about abortion Ronald Dvorkin claims that all parts of the dispute somehow recognise the sanctity of life and treats that as a basis for discussion. Is it possible to find a similar common point of departure for the discussion on civil partnerships that will allow us to civilise the debate and reach a compromise at least over the basic issues?

It is impossible to settle a classic axiological debate by means of intellectual methods. Dvorkin was just joking when he said what he said. If he, however, had a similar opinion in the case of civil partnerships, he would make a fundamental mistake. The Church condemns having sex in relationships which have not been blessed and therefore legalised. If it accepted civil partnerships as being as significant, as legally valid as marriages, maybe even not in 100%, but still very high, it would indirectly acknowledge that the Catholic rules on sexual life are de facto no longer valid. This would leave the Church in a very ambiguous position, as it is obsessed with the issue of sex and very fiercely fights in defence of premarital chastity and marital righteousness. Honestly speaking, I do not know how it could get itself out of this situation. The Church does not look as if it is about to change its opinion on sexuality. For the MPs from the Law and Justice party and some from the Civic Platform, who have a similar view on this issue, civil partnerships are absolutely unacceptable just because of this fact.

If we cannot find a basis for discussion, what arguments for the extension of rights to homosexual couples shall we choose?

It concerns not only homosexual ones. The only argument is a non-religious one. For me this argument is the question of responsibility for another person. If someone is in a lasting or relatively lasting relationship with another person, he or she is responsible for this person, not only in an emotional but also practical sense. I cannot find another argument. When the Church chooses a strict doctrine on sexuality, it does not take into account the fact that it is contrary to the principle of responsibility, co-responsibility. I have no doubts that it is an authentic dispute and solving it poses a problem for the Church. The Church, similarly to the Polish state, cannot pretend that this problem does not exist. It should do something about it. It is impossible to find a solution, while rigorously, dogmatically sticking to the current doctrine. Truth to be said, a fundamental change in the Church is needed, but I doubt that it is ready for it.

So everything depends on who holds the majority in Parliament?

Yes. It was unthinkable for Spain, which used to be very Catholic, or England, also strongly connected with the Anglican Church, to introduce revolutionary changes. It was unthinkable for the Anglican bishops to openly talk about their homosexuality or for the Cortes to pass an act legalizing homosexual marriages. It is a radical change in the morality, in the style of living of modern societies. I suppose that this change may only be initiated if its supporters have more representatives in the Sejm. In such a case the Church will not so much accept this change as take note of the existence of new cultural phenomena.

What do you think about the idea put forward by Jarosław Gowin’s fraction in the PO – to extend rights granted by the civil code to people living together instead of institutionalising such partnerships? Is this third way is a good idea?

Institutionalisation encompasses one vital element – it allows the state to legally support the requirement of responsibility of one person for the other. It would make me do certain things not only because I want them, but also because the law tells me to do so. This way the state gets involved in the situation. Otherwise, I am allowed to buy whatever I want. I choose what I find convenient, like from a restaurant menu: I can order a soup and a drink, but without a main dish. I may visit the other person in a hospital but it does not mean that I want to leave her my property. It is an ineffective instrument, while the issue is too serious to be neglected – because of the number of such partnerships and their consequences, from children to common property and common real estate. Especially when somebody dies or a couple splits up. Something has to be done here and the state may not wash its hands of the whole affair.

I think that your arguments would be acceptable for many conservatives, they resemble the rhetoric used by David Cameron when talking about this issue. Why do they not convince Polish conservatives? 

For a very simple reason. Cameron appeals to a completely different type of conservative. Cameron’s tradition is a tradition of social conservatism. You have to cherish the tradition, but at the same time you have to accept the fact that it is changing and to trust in what your people believe. Of course it does not mean that you have to rush with the changes. But this type of conservatism is not socially immobile. On the other hand, the Polish conservatism is one of absolute values. People have to adapt themselves to these values, not the other way round. The values remain stable. So in a sense it means that stepping beyond the universe of values proposed by the Church or its ideologues is equivalent to losing one’s faith and that is it. Polish conservatism is an ultramontanistic one, while British conservatism is free from this philosophy.