In August 1999 the New Zealand Ministry of Justice issued a discussion paper on "Same-Sex Couples and the Law," seeking submissions from the public on various questions such as whether same-sex couples should be able to marry or be otherwise able to register their relationships, and on related matters such as children, entitlements, relationship breakdown and death.
A submission by the ten members of the New Zealand Bishops Conference, dated 24 March 2000, was made to the Ministry of Justice.
In line with Catholic teaching the bishops stated that same-sex couples should not be able to marry because marriage was "a specific kind of relationship, and its specificity is based on sexual differentiation." The bishops also opposed allowing homosexual couples to adopt children or to be the joint parents of a child born from an assisted human reproductive procedure. Such arrangements would be against the interests of children "who are entitled to be raised by a parent of each sex".
However, the bishops advocated the registration of same-sex couples "to gain access to certain legal rights and benefits which are available to married partners." While not being called "marriage" or involving "an exchange of vows", "registered same-sex partnerships should be included in legislation wherever marriage confers rights or obligations in relation to income support, tax credit entitlement, legal aid, or the division of property if the relationship breaks down". Registered partners in a same-sex relationship should also have the same entitlements as married partners under all legislation dealing with death, including "equality of access to benefits" in the event of an intestate death.
The New Zealand bishops' call for civil registration of same-sex couples is distinctly at odds with the approach to this question being taken by the Holy See. On 17 March 2000, just one week before the New Zealand bishops made their submission, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, decisively rejected a resolution by the European Parliament for legal recognition of homosexual unions. "To present the union of homosexuals as a kind of value, at the same level as matrimony, is an attack against the truth of man and woman," the Cardinal said on Vatican Radio. "The Church's opposition to the juridical recognition of irregular or homosexual couples is in no way discriminatory. The issue here is about respect for the truth."
In 1992 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Some Considerations Concerning the Response to Legislative Proposals on the Non- discrimination of Homosexual Persons "to identify some principles and distinctions of a general nature which should be taken into consideration by the conscientious legislator, voter, or Church authority who is confronted with such issues." The New Zealand bishops' submission on "Same Sex Couples and the Law" does not reflect the principles and distinctions identified by the Congregation.
The bishops seem to assume that same-sex couples have some basis for claiming equal rights with married couples in virtually all matters other than children. They do not appear to recognise how much such legal recognition would damage the status of marriage and the family, thereby harming the common good.
The bishops do not appear to be aware of the Congregation's warning that giving benefits to same sex couples may encourage some homosexual persons to seek out such relationships, either to gain the benefits or because legal recognition of such relationships seems to give them societal approval (Cf. Some Considerations, n.14).
In early May, the New Zealand Attorney General introduced a motion to Parliament, which was passed by a majority of 64-54, to include equal property rights for same-sex and de facto couples in amendments to the Matrimonial Property Act.
The New Zealand bishops responded in an open letter dated 9 May expressing their support of "provisions for fair and equitable arrangements to protect property rights of people in de facto and same-sex relationships," but objecting that these provisions would be included in the "same statute" as matrimonial property. They said: "We believe that the unique nature of marriage, with its special commitment and character that underpins the values of every stable society, will be compromised if matters pertaining to de facto and same-sex relationships are included in the same statute. The clear distinction between the marriage relationship and other relationships must not be blurred."
It is difficult to see how anyone can take this objection seriously. The bishops are saying "same- sex couples" should be officially recognised and given equal rights and benefits to married couples (except in regard to children), but that merely having different statutes for property matters will be sufficient to maintain the distinct status of marriage. In their submission, the bishops specifically recommended that both registered and de facto same-sex partnerships be included alongside married couples, and with equal rights and benefits, in the Holidays Act 1981, the Coroners Act 1988, the Accident Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1992, the Administration Act 1969 and even the Family Protection Act 1955.
The bishops' letter of 9 May to suggest that they may wish to step back from the implications of their submission, but without formally withdrawing it. It is understood that the matter has now been referred by concerned Catholics to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for consideration.
In the meantime, Pope John Paul II, on 25 May formally welcomed New Zealand's new ambassador to the Holy See, Christine Heather Bogle. In his official remarks he reminded Ms Heather that "the truth of the human person is denied" and "freedom is eroded" when the family, marriage and the right to life are not upheld by law. "Attempts to define the family as something other than a solemnised lifelong union of man and woman, which looks to the birth of children, is bound to prove destructive," the Pope said.
Richard Egan is the WA State President of the National Civic Council.