Special Reports / Civil partnerships and democracy

The Church protects its foundations

Dominika Kozłowska · 19 February 2013
The Church will protect marriage and family for more than the usual reasons. However, it has begun to notice that the direction of unwelcome changes may be reversed only by grass-roots actions aiming to transform individuals, and not by bringing out another big political or cultural gun.

The subject of civil partnerships arouses such strong emotions, because for each party of the dispute it is another front in the culture war. And one of the most important fronts of this war is the legislative one.

In pluralistic societies social bonds tend to weaken. In such a situation, people expect the law to regulate social norms which in earlier, more uniform societies appeared in a more natural and spontaneous way. The law, however, is not particularly well suited to this task. The more diverse our society becomes, the more difficult it is to describe this rich and varied community with uniform regulations. Because of this, in our increasingly pluralistic society it is practically impossible to uphold strong legal regulations, precisely defined in both formal and material aspects. The bigger the community governed by law, the more general this law has to be, if it is not meant to be implemented by force. If the law clearly favours certain values and solutions, it will be perceived as oppressive by other social groups and it will not bring lasting peace – being an act of symbolic violence and enslavement of some groups by others it may only provide a temporary truce, not a permanent status quo. This probably also explains the fact that the details of the anti-abortion bill has been discussed in Poland for almost twenty years.

The Church is perceived in this war as occupying one side of the conflict. This perception results from the attitude of some of the Church’s representatives who adopt such military rhetoric. We should remember that even if such attitudes are marginalised within the Church, some circles will still perceive it as aggressive. Sometimes we cannot see the difference between a reality undergoing changes and an unchanging perception of this reality.

And in my opinion the reality of the Church is undergoing significant change. Even before we accepted this state, we were aware that subsequent decades were bringing more and more profound changes of the traditional family model. The Church is also aware of these changes and emphasises in its teachings that the quality of a relationship cannot be measured in the formal aspect only, and that we should also take into account whether a relationship is based on love, fidelity and trust. Material or social reasons, which recently still were the main reasons why people decided to start a family, are becoming less and less important. Of course for many of us a strong family is still a guarantee of material safety, but our expectations of it have changed. A dozen or so years ago an unmarried pregnancy was an obvious argument for formalising the relationship. Today those parties which normally insisted on marriage – like parents or priests – admit that it is not always the best solution. Most of us are aware that entering into the sacramental bonds of matrimony does not automatically translate into mutual fidelity and honesty. Alienation, emotional coldness and even violence appear also in Catholic families.

Of course the Church is not indifferent to the legal reality we live in – whether or not the existing law supports building lasting relations based on the values of fidelity, honesty, mutual devotion and care. All of it is very important from the point view of the Church’s evangelizing mission – the reason why the Church was actually created. It also explains, at least partially, the Church’s aversion to laws on civil partnerships that even by their authors are regarded as less permanent than traditional marriage. However, the times are gone when the Church believed that systemic and institutional actions constitute a sufficient tool to fulfil its mission. On the contrary, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and recent popes underlined the necessity of taking grass-roots actions targeted at an individual person, not society as a whole – actions that will allow this person to meet Christ and to understand the need of personal conversion.

This change of perspective all the more so justifies the place of marriage and family in the teaching of the Church, where they are understood as the lasting and indissoluble relationship of a woman and man, open to the possibility of welcoming a new human being. While in the past the state institutions and law provided natural support for the values on which the teaching of the Church is based, now, in the era of formal separation of Church and state, as well as of a different understanding of evangelisation, the family becomes the natural source of support. Only in the family does the theory and practice of the Christian life become one. It is there where Christian values may be peacefully bequeathed.

From the point of view of Church teaching, marriage is a sacrament; for believers it is an indissoluble relationship. This is a perspective of faith. From the point of view of Christian dogmatics it is less important whether the believers who tie the sacred and indissoluble knot of marriage formalise this relationship as a civil marriage or civil partnership. It is a situation similar to the existence of the institution of divorce, which is legal under secular law, but not under religious law.

Passing legal acts which are contrary to the Christian vision of interpersonal relations is and always will be treated by the Church as a step in a wrong direction. I believe, however, that the Church is beginning to notice more and more that the consequences of the changes may be mitigated only by grass-roots actions aiming to transform individuals, and not by bringing out another big political or cultural gun.