Pastoral letter from Archbishops Nichols and Smith on same-sex marriage

This is the full text of the pastoral letter written by Archbishop Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Peter Smith on ‘gay marriage’ which is to be read out in all Catholic parishes this weekend:

This week the Coalition Government is expected to present its consultation paper on the proposed change in the legal definition of marriage so as to open the institution of marriage to same-sex partnerships.

Today we want to put before you the Catholic vision of marriage and the light it casts on the importance of marriage for our society.

The roots of the institution of marriage lie in our nature. Male and female we have been created, and written into our nature is this pattern of complementarity and fertility. This pattern is, of course, affirmed by many other religious traditions. Christian teaching fills out this pattern and reveals its deepest meaning, but neither the Church nor the State has the power to change this fundamental understanding of marriage itself. Nor is this simply a matter of public opinion.

Understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and for the creation and upbringing of children, marriage is an expression of our fundamental humanity. Its status in law is the prudent fruit of experience, for the good of the spouses and the good of the family. In this way society esteems the married couple as the source and guardians of the next generation. As an institution marriage is at the foundation of our society.

There are many reasons why people get married. For most couples, there is an instinctive understanding that the stability of a marriage provides the best context for the flourishing of their relationship and for bringing up their children. Society recognises marriage as an important institution for these same reasons: to enhance stability in society and to respect and support parents in the crucial task of having children and bringing them up as well as possible.

The Church starts from this appreciation that marriage is a natural institution, and indeed the Church recognises civil marriage. The Catholic understanding of marriage, however, raises this to a new level. As the Catechism says: ‘The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, by its nature is ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.’ (para.1601)

These rather abstract words are reflected however imperfectly in the experience of married couples. We know that at the heart of a good marriage is a relationship of astonishing power and richness, for the couple, their children, their wider circle of friends and relations and society. As a Sacrament, this is a place where divine grace flows. Indeed, marriage is a sharing in the mystery of God’s own life: the unending and perfect flow of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We know, too, that just as God’s love is creative, so too the love of husband and wife is creative of new life. It is open, in its essence, to welcoming new life, ready to love and nurture that life to its fullness, not only here on earth but also into eternity.

This is a high and noble vision, for marriage is a high and noble vocation. It is not easily followed. But we are sure that Christ is at the heart of marriage, for his presence is a sure gift of the God who is Love, who wants nothing more than for the love of husband and wife to find its fulfilment. So the daily effort that marriage requires, the many ways in which family living breaks and reshapes us, is a sharing in the mission of Christ, that of making visible in the world the creative and forgiving love of God.

In these ways we understand marriage to be a call to holiness for a husband and wife, with children recognised and loved as the gift of God, with fidelity and permanence as the boundaries which create its sacred space. Marriage is also a crucial witness in our society, contributing to its stability, its capacity for compassion and forgiveness and its future, in a way that no other institution can.

In putting before you these thoughts about why marriage is so important, we also want to recognise the experience of those who have suffered the pain of bereavement or relationship breakdown and their contribution to the Church and society. Many provide a remarkable example of courage and fidelity. Many strive to make the best out of difficult and complex situations. We hope that they are always welcomed and helped to feel valued members of our parish communities.

The reasons given by our government for wanting to change the definition of marriage are those of equality and discrimination. But our present law does not discriminate unjustly when it requires both a man and a woman for marriage. It simply recognises and protects the distinctive nature of marriage.

Changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step. Its consequences should be taken seriously now. The law helps to shape and form social and cultural values. A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.

We have a duty to married people today, and to those who come after us, to do all we can to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations.

With every blessing

Most Reverend V. Nichols, Most Reverend P. Smith
11 March 2012

This pastoral letter seems to be eliciting near hysteria in some quarters.

What do you think?

On a related note, I must say that I’m quite surprised at the number of signatories on the ‘Coalition for Marriage’ petition, which currently stands at some 105,984!

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11 Responses to “Pastoral letter from Archbishops Nichols and Smith on same-sex marriage”

  1. Simian Says:

    I’m at a loss to understand why some in the Government should choose to pursue this. Do they have a political death wish? This is beyond bizarre.

  2. webmaster Says:

    I must say Simian, that comment caught me off guard.

    I agree, but was still somewhat surprised that you said it.

  3. Caral Says:

    Simian, I totally agree. It is most bizarre, why attack the heartland of Tory values? Perhaps the ‘red’ Tories are not looking for a second term? .

  4. Gordon Says:

    The SNP in Scotland may fall over on this one too. Having spent years courting Catholic votes from Labour and finally succeeding, they could be hoist by their own petard (i.e. it could blow up in their face).

  5. Jeff Says:

    “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.

    The point that so many of our clerical leaders appears to miss is that this is nothing whatsoever to do with marriages that are sanctioned and blessed by the church (whether Catholic, Baptist, CofE, Jewish or Islamic), much as many gay couples might wish to get wed in the church of their choice in the sight of their god(s) of choice.

    This is purely about civil (ie, secular) marriages. And even the term “civil marriage” could be redefined as “state-recognised relationship” – let us not forget that a church wedding may be what religious bodies recognise but in order for the state to recognise the marriage it has to be formally registered with the civil authorities.

    I could – and indeed initially did – go into great detail addressing each point in the letter. It’s far easier (and less boring), though, to simply note that the letter states, quite correctly that there “are many reasons why people get married” and then goes on to say that the letter discusses “the Catholic vision of marriage”. That’s fine. That’s all fine. Hold those twin thoughts in mind.

    I’m certainly not going to argue that Catholics should believe the same things I believe. Indeed, I will argue for the right of Catholics – along with those of other religions and none – to express their beliefs in an attempt to provide what they see as moral leadership. I think it’s just fine that persons of religion continue to hold to their own moral ideals within the confines of the religious sphere.

    Christians of whatever denomination, however, have no more mandate to force their own understandings upon the wider civil society than does a Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist or Satanist; and it is the civil, secular definition of “marriage” and the legal ceremonies, rights and obligations surrounding it that are at stake here.

  6. Simian Says:

    Well here’s my reasoning webmaster:

    (It’s not because I’ve converted! ;-) I’m a Jeremy Bentham utilitarian by nature, and believe the ‘rightness’ and morality of an act can be derived largely in its outcome for the overall happiness of the people.)

    I can foresee, relatively speaking, very little overall happiness coming out of this proposal, and much division and anguish. For that reason alone I think this is a bad idea. But I also can’t fathom why calling a single sex union a marriage is so to be desired, given that this is changing the original meaning of the word and rendering the word itself less meaningful. From a legal perspective there is no gain over a keeping this union as a civil partnership. And informally there is nothing to stop two same sex people referring to themselves as ‘married’ if they so wish.

    It just does not seem necessary of itself to make this change, and to my mind this proposal seems more motivated by other concerns and issues – which should be considered in their own right, rather than using this blunt instrument – one that seems to be to be potentially less beneficial to our society than the status quo.

    I also think it is unfortunate that the loudest complaints are coming from the Churches, because in the UK marriage is a civil institution – which people can choose to have recognised within a religious setting if they so wish. Potentially making this into a religion vs. secular argument (by the likes of the NSS and others in particular) is unhelpful and misses the point.

  7. Sitsio (Mark Lambert) Says:

    I’m glad to see some action from the leadership on this issue. I would imagine it will make some priests feel uncomfortable and put them in a difficult position: they’ll be the ones who have to deal with the immediate ramifications of reading out this letter; are they up to the challenge of defending the Church’s position on this issue?

    My feeling would be that the majority of Mass goers are, at best, fairly ambivalent about the changes on the face of them. They do not understand the profoundly radical nature of the proposed changes. Live and let live, I imagine they’ll say. Why is the Church picking on gay people? The trouble is we have let so much slide now that no one really even understands the argument, or knows what marriage is really about any more. Too little, too late?

  8. TerryB Says:

    @ Sitsio
    “The trouble is we have let so much slide now that no one really even understands the argument, or knows what marriage is really about any more.”
    This is exactly the point about the whole sorry mess! In Scripture the teaching is simply:-
    1 man + 1 woman = sex for life
    “and the two shall become one flesh, therefore what God has joined together let not man put asunder”.
    In His commenting on the Genesis text in Mark 10, Jesus was talking about the Law of Moses which was being used as an excuse for divorce. The churches sit very light to the teaching of Our Lord on heterosexual marriage, why should the pagan world take any notice of what we say about homosexual “marriage”?
    Please note: I am NOT saying that divorce or gay marriage is the ‘unforgivable sin’! Just observing that, on the whole question of sexual ethics, the churches have much of which to repent

  9. Gordon Says:

    Does the Catholic church recognise civil marriage? Surely it has to be a sacrament to be valid?

  10. Matron Says:

    Yesterday, I was glad enough to be there for my lesbian partner when we attended the catholic funeral mass of her grandmother, a woman who, aged 85 at the time, welcomed me into her heart and her family 17 years ago when my girlfriend and I first started going out. Walking behind the coffin into the church together with the rest of the family we had to go past a table with a neat pile of your “pastoral letters” and, next to it, a petition on the matter, signed no doubt by many of the parishioners who were sitting in the pews waiting for us to pass. It made it clear to me once more that although everyone in my partner’s family treats me as a fully signed up member of their clan, the same way, in fact as they treat the spouses of my partner’s siblings, the church they belong to continues to see me as a second class citizens regardless of how much time, love and committment I share with their daughter, how much I get involved in their gatherings, the care for their children and their elderly. Whatever I do and however much love I show towards my partner and those she holds dear, in the eyes of their church I will never be good enough.

    I am not sure, if any of those who are promoting this letter have the capacity to understand how much hurt and offence you are causing to those of us who, although we may not be religious, try to live a live in which we do the right things, love those dear to us without constraints and in return only want to get shown the same love and respect for these efforts as everybody else.

    Whatever you think about marriage and the rationale for it, the public discourse church leaders are currently creating, the comparisons they are making between what, in my and most other cases, are supportive, loving and committed relationships between two (not three, four or five) people and things like bestiality and legalising slavery etc. are homophobic and show none of the love towards your fellow creature that your own church’s founder commands.

    Given everything I read in the papers in recent weeks, it took all I’ve got for me to decide to even go near a catholic church yesterday. I did it because the woman I love needed my support and because I know the woman we were burying would have wanted me to be there. Which part of that love that we share is so lacking in the necessary quality that it doesn’t make the grade in your book? If an 85 year old Irish catholic woman could do accept my relationship with her granddaughter, why can’t her church?

  11. Sitsio (Mark Lambert) Says:

    It’s much worse than that Matron, we see a sexual relationship that isn’t open to the possibility of procreation as something that will ontologically damage you!

    Maybe this article will help you understand the Catholic position I don’t expect you to agree with it, just to understand it in context, because you’ve got it wrong. The Catholic Church doesn’t see you as a second class citizen at all. It holds you as beautiful, unique, important and having the same fundamental dignity & rights as every other person. As the article states, I do think that Catholics and Christians are in danger of undermining the faith when we fail to address the legitimate concern for the individual that has motivated so many to accept gay marriage.

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