Special Reports / Civil partnerships and democracy

I prefer reactivation to revolution

Zbigniew Nosowski · 19 February 2013
(Weakened) democracy votes today on changing its (weakened) foundations, like marriage. You do not have to be an engineer to understand that such revolutionary construction methods are very risky.

The editorial team of “Kultura Liberalna” asks a legitimate question about the underlying reasons explaining why the subject of civil partnerships arouses, in Poland as elsewhere, such intense emotions. When I received a request for this text I was in the middle of a conversation with one of Polish Catholic bishops. I read out an e-mail from “Kultura Liberalna” and we were both struck dumb. “Would the dogmatics of the Church allow it to accept the legal possibility of entering into a civil partnership? What other arguments, apart from reference to God’s law, can the Church use to oppose civil partnerships?” – these were the questions we received. We interpreted them as caricatures of the Catholic opinion on the subject. It was supposed to be rooted in “God’s law” and “the dogmatics of the Church.” We, however, do not put forward any religious arguments. Never mind the analysis of this paradox (that is a matter for another discussion). Ad rem.

It is not a dispute between Catholics and the rest of the world.

There are two reasons why the legal status of civil partnerships arouses intense emotions. Firstly, every citizen understands the proposed changes (contrary to the debates on many other bills). Secondly, it is a matter of one’s world-view and it is impossible to solve it by arriving at a consensus. Every compromise will leave somebody (more or less) dissatisfied. Every compromise will lead to disturbing somebody’s vision of human beings which this person believes to be true. There is no law that would be axiologically neutral. Every legal regulation – especially in a matter as significant and delicate as interpersonal relations – is based on somebody’s vision of what it means to be human and what is right.

So it is not a dispute between Catholics and the rest of the world. It is more serious and seeks an answer to the question of how anthropology and axiology may constitute the foundation of a country’s law. Yes, the Church takes its stand, not because of dogmatic reasons, but because it supports a certain anthropology.

What is more, both sides apply universalist thinking. Supporters of the institutionalisation of civil partnerships refer to their understanding of human rights. The most radical arguments may be aptly summarised by the French slogan “Marriage for all.” On the other hand, supporters of the status quo refer to their understanding (philosophical, not religious) of natural law.

It resembles a little the dispute over abortion or euthanasia. In those cases it is about defining a human being – deciding which humans should belong to a community protected by law and adhering to the fundamental rule that no member of this community is allowed to kill another member. On the one hand, we have a belief that human life should be protected by national law from conception to the moment of natural death. On the other hand, there is a belief that a foetus in the period of legal abortion is “not-yet-human”, while a terminally ill person is (because of the low “quality of life” idea) “less-human”, therefore another person may agree on legally terminating the patient’s life (meaning: kill them).

In this case we are trying to define a model of cohabitation which the state should deem worthy of support and to which grant certain privileges.

Marriage is not a private matter

One side of the dispute believes that marriage is the only such model – the exclusive and lasting relationship of woman and man that forms the foundation of family. Marriage is the only institution on the planet able to permanently connect three aspects of parenthood: biological, social and legal. It also grants a child the right – if only possible – to be raised by its mother and father. The basis here is personalistic thinking aimed at reaching the common good. From this perspective – as Marek Rymsza wrote – “marriage is not a private matter”, although it remains deeply personal. The state cares about the permanence of marriages, because it wants to protect the weak: children and spouses who are, for instance, abandoned or hurt.

On the other hand, we have “privatisation” of marriage, based on individualistic thinking. Different types of cohabitation become more or less similar to marriage – from a legal and formal point of view. The role of the state is to serve the interests and beliefs of an individual (who defines them himself), not an undefined common good. It is easy to start a civil partnership, and it is easy to end it (a declaration of one party is enough). This vision does not require the state to protect the weak, but rather the interests of the partner who wants to regain their “freedom”. Legislative regulation of civil partnerships and homosexual marriages would bring about a redefinition of the notions of “mother”, “father” and “parents” – it would result in a complete breakdown of biological, social and legal aspects of parenthood.

We want a revolution!

Thinking about the essence of the dispute clearly reveals the reason that makes it so heated. It is a dispute of a fundamental kind – both in the legal and social aspect. The proposed change concerns one of the foundations of the legal order (the Polish Constitution already defines marriage as a formal relationship between a woman and a man). Therefore this change is a revolutionary one. Łukasz Jasina wrote about it straight in “Kultura Liberalna”: “So, do we want to change the system or introduce an irrelevant change to the inheritance law? Do we want a revolution or pretend that we want nothing to be changed? […] Civil partnerships bring about a legal revolution.”

If it was all about gaining the right to inherit or to receive information about the medical condition of the loved one, it would be easy to pass a conciliatory act regulating the issue of cohabitation (I suggested such a solution in “Gazeta Wyborcza”). However, that solution is not enough for the revolution’s supporters. I am sure that we will repeatedly wrangle over this idea in the future.

You do not have to be a professional historian to know that not every revolution bears sweet fruit. You do not have to be a devoted Catholic to oppose this revolution.

Still 25 years ago marriage belonged to a group of pre-democratic notions that democratic countries did not have to define using the majority principle, because they inherited them as a “legacy”, blatantly obvious foundations of human culture and thus of democracy. Today (weakened) democracy votes on changing its (weakened) foundations.

You do not have to be an engineer to understand that such revolutionary construction methods are very risky. Maybe instead of risking the collapse of the whole construction, it would be better to renovate (dehumidify, fill, strengthen and modernise) the existing foundations? If you want my opinion, I definitely prefer reactivation of marriage to fundamental revolution.