Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Independent: Civil partnerships or gay marriages?

1 July 2012 by Martin Scicluna

A month or so ago, I had the privilege of attending the award of the Woman of Courage by US Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley to Gaby Calleja, the Coordinator of the Malta Gay Rights Movement. In a simple but moving ceremony, Gaby Calleja received formal recognition by the United States for her sterling work in promoting the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in Malta and internationally.

Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is an outstanding item of civil rights business affecting a minority in our society that has still to be confronted in Malta. Although awareness of the problem has increased, homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders are still not protected under our laws, and they should be. The government’s much-vaunted and long-promised civil partnerships legislation seems stalled and unlikely to see the light of day in this troubled Parliament. Yet discrimination against homosexuals, both male and female, at the work place and outside it, is rife. Anecdotal evidence of harassment and bullying of homosexuals (so-called hate crimes) is commonplace.

The right to non-discrimination and equality before the law are among the most fundamental of all human rights principles. There is currently no single law that safeguards the position of homosexuals in society, and a whole raft of laws that deny basic financial and work-related entitlements to homosexual couples in the fields of, for example, housing, inheritance rights and fiscal benefits and entitlements.

Attitudes to the legal recognition of same-sex relationships are influenced by considerations such as age, religious affiliation and culture. Denmark and Norway seem to have no problem in legislating for full marriage. Catholic Spain took this step despite much religious and political opposition. Belgium and The Netherlands have also legislated for same-sex marriage. Others, like Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland have introduced ‘civil partnerships’. The United Kingdom government however intends to introduce legislation for gay marriage in the face of strong opposition from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

When I last addressed this subject a year ago, I expressed the view that while there may be respectable arguments to be made for introducing the concept of same-sex marriages, it would be impolitic in the Maltese context to seek to introduce them here. Ending unfair discriminatory treatment of same-sex couples is one thing which all fair-minded people could recognise. However, given the symbolic meaning of marriage in our society, allowing them to marry would be quite another. I advocated an incremental approach.

I argued that the overriding practical consideration was that civil partnerships would deliver the significant majority of the rights and obligations that marriage conferred. They would make a tangible difference to the current vulnerable legal position of same-sex partners by giving them the opportunity to gain legal recognition for their relationship and by achieving concomitant rights and responsibilities. The legal limbo into which they have been thrust would be removed.

I must confess, however, that 12 months later, and in the light of well-based evidence which has come to light of a previously established tradition of same-sex marriage as a Christian rite, the position may not be so clear-cut.

Professor John Boswell, the late chairman of Yale University’s history department, has discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian Church liturgical documents, there were also ceremonies called “Office of Same-sex Union” in the 10th and 11th centuries, and “ Order for Uniting Two Men” in the 11th and 12th centuries. These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage. A blessing of the couple was conducted before the altar, holy vows were exchanged and a priest officiated in the taking of the Eucharist. All these manifestations of the ritual can be seen in late 9th century illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine warrior-emperor Basil the First and his companion, John. Contrary to myth, Christianity’s concept of marriage has not, it would appear, been set in stone since the days of Christ, but has constantly evolved as a concept and as a ritual.

Professor Boswell’s analysis is well researched and documented. He establishes evidence of same-gender Christian sanctified unions in Ireland in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe found in ancient liturgical documents. Records of Christian same-sex unions have been discovered in such diverse archives as those in the Vatican, in St Petersburg, Paris, Istanbul and in the Sinai, covering a thousand years from the 8th to the 18th century. In 1578, in St John Lateran Church in Rome, which is traditionally the Pope’s parish church, as many as 13 same-sex couples were joined together during a High Mass and with the cooperation of the Vatican clergy.

Clearly, what Professor Boswell has revealed though his research poses fundamental questions both for heterosexual Christians and for modern Church leaders about their own attitudes to homosexuality. It must also call into question the earlier distinction which I tended to make between the acceptability of civil partnerships and gay marriages. For the Church to ignore the evidence in its own archives would be deceptive since it appears to show that for the last two thousand years in parish churches throughout Christendom, homosexual relationships were accepted as valid expressions of love and commitment to another person that could be blessed through the Eucharist in the name of Jesus Christ.

The historical evidence adduced by Professor Boswell should cause open-minded individuals to re-visit the issue. It is clear that Christianity’s concept of marriage has not stood unchanged as we have been led to believe since the days of Christ, but has evolved constantly over time. There are other good reasons to question my earlier feeling that while civil partnerships made eminent good sense as a basis for establishing the long-overdue civil rights of homosexual partners, Gay Marriage per se was perhaps one step too far for Malta.

To take but one such objection. If the sole purpose of marriage is for the procreation of children and the creation of a family, then why not exclude from marriage those who are too old, too ill or infertile? Yet, we all know that there are many couples, such as widows and widowers of a certain age, who grow sufficiently fond of each other to live together in a new marriage and find that the arrangement orders their entire relationship including their financial and inheritance affairs. Others marry to express their loving commitment to each other while knowing that one has a medical condition that makes procreation unlikely or impossible. Is the Church saying that love has no meaning except in a reproductive context?

The bottom line is that civil partnerships would attack discrimination at its root and introduce an important equality measure for same-sex couples. On the other hand, if marriage is considered intrinsically to be such a good thing, then why exclude committed same-sex couples from benefiting from this institution as historically appears to have been the case in Christianity? This is the dichotomy. But either way, the sooner that Parliament addresses this issue, the healthier will be the advance in Maltese civil liberties for another minority in our society.

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