The Catholic bishops have raised their periscope to mobilise a letter-writing campaign to force TD’s to revolt against the Civil Partnership Bill. Their views were echoed by Fr Vincent Twomey, in The Irish Times on June 29th. Twomey is a former professor of moral theology at NUI Maynooth. He argues that the Bill should include a conscience clause so that registrars, photographers and those responsible for parish halls can opt out of duties that make their conscience skittish.
This Bill was published a year ago, in June 2009 and it is intended to allow couples in same-sex relationships, whether a relationship is sexual, or non-sexual, register that partnership and, for the first time, to have rights and privileges recognised by statute for the first time.
A stranger perusing Twomey’s article could be forgiven for presuming that Ireland is in the thrall of an immutable, secular dictatorship that is indifferent to the wishes of citizens and which disregards the primacy of the Constitution. The article would suggest that help is at hand in the form of an alternative ecclesiastical, but sacrosanct, dictatorship that is seeking to rescue the citizens from the consequences of their own whims, thoughtlessness and random impulses.
No legislation is capable of forcing any Irish citizen to collude in anything that they believe to be morally wrong. But ‘belief’ and 'conscience' are not one-size-fits-all concepts and they are influenced and characterised by moral authority as well as personal experience.
The ‘outrage’ directed at the Civil Partnership Bill is based on a misleading presumption that it will confer on same-sex relationships a standing which will be as similar as possible to marriage and that apart from a right to adopt children, that same-sex, civil partnerships will be regarded as being equal to marriage. This equality argument is false. The features contained in the Bill maybe equivalent to those attaching to marriage - but that does not make a civil partnership equal to marriage. A marriage between a man and a woman is a fundamentally exclusive institution whose uniqueness will always prevail, despite any legislative changes in any jurisdiction. To suggest that both are equal is to imply that a delivery van is equal to a family car on the grounds that each has some common features, equal standing on the highway and total integrity among users.
The bishops' makes much of significance in changes in terminology - that 'marital status' will be replaced by 'civil status'. So what? Those who hitherto formally witnessed the exchange of marriage vows at are now known as solemnisers, rather than celebrants – and happy, stable, enduring, fulfilled marriages continue to be consummated.
Legislators are elected to conduct the people's business and to represent all the people with fidelity. That alone is what ought to define he primacy of conscience in Leinster House.