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November 1, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Following a ruling of Britain’s Supreme Court over the summer, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that the Government will make the necessary changes to allow heterosexual, and not just homosexual, couples to contract ‘Civil Partnerships’, as opposed to marriages, in England and Wales. (Scotland will probably follow.)

Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, urged couples not to use this option: 

God blesses the marriage bond only when the couple freely and without conditions exchange their consent. We hope that today’s ruling does not deter people from that sacred and life-long commitment.

Back in 2004, when Civil Partnerships were introduced for same-sex couples in the UK, the Bishops of England and Wales did not oppose the legislation, on the basis of government assurances that they would be clearly distinct from marriage. The idea seemed to be that Civil Partnerships addressed the legitimate grievances of same-sex couples, notably over hospital visiting rights and exemption from Inheritance Tax when leaving each other money, and that it would obviate the need for same-sex ‘marriage’.

Things did not turn out that way. Having established the principle that the state has an interest in regulating same-sex relationships in a way clearly paralleling the regulation of marriage, the scene was set for same-sex ‘marriage’ itself in 2014. 

The anomaly of having both Civil Partnerships for heterosexual couples and marriage on the statute books is magnified by the fact that, as a Government website expresses it, Civil Partnerships provide ‘rights and responsibilities identical to civil marriage’. Procedures to end a Civil Partnership are also identical to those required to end a marriage. The legal distinction between Civil Partnerships and marriages might appear to come down to one being called ‘Civil Partnership’ and the other being called ‘marriage’.

That difference does have consequences, however. For the couple who brought the case against the Government, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, it was important to avoid the legal category of marriage because for historical reasons they view it as inherently patriarchal. The BBC quotes them as saying that the

legacy of marriage… treated women as property for centuries. … We want to raise our children as equal partners and feel that a civil partnership—a modern, symmetrical institution—sets the best example for them.

Similarly, Bishop Doyle is right to be concerned to preserve the term ‘marriage’ for those seeking legal recognition for their relationship. Canon lawyers take the view that, absent explicit declarations to the contrary, couples seek marriage ‘as it really is’, and not ‘as they believe it to be’. Even in a country with a long-established culture of divorce, a couple’s intention to marry for life, compatibly with the Sacrament of Matrimony, can be assumed. This would not be possible if the couple had deliberately opted for a legal status not even called marriage. On the contrary, such a choice would constitute just the kind of explicit declaration incompatible with the Sacrament which would render it invalid.

For this reason, the opening of Civil Partnerships to heterosexual couples is likely to lead to fewer couples opting for a real marriage: not only in terms of the name of their legal status, but in terms of their intentions. This effects not only sacramental validity, but the validity of the non-sacramental ‘natural’ marriages of non-baptized couples.

Civilly-married couples are sometimes unpleasantly surprised to find that divorce is no easier than in would be for a married couple. Now that Civil Partnerships are to function as an alternative legal status to marriage for heterosexual couples and same-sex couples alike, this could change. One possible beneficial development would be making divorce more difficult in marriage, on the basis that those who want a more easily soluble relationship can contract (or if, already married, convert to) a Civil Partnership. Rather like the ‘covenant marriages’ available in some states of the USA, ‘marriage’ in England would then become a more highly committed option, where couples are free to adopt a less committed option.

The limited success of the US campaign for covenant marriage—they are only available in three states—does not make for great optimism in the UK, although it is possible at least that the next attempts to weaken marriages still further could be limited to Civil Partnerships, on the basis that Civil Partners, and not necessarily married couples, actually want that.

The feminist argument against covenant marriages was that women would be ‘trapped’ in loveless or abusive marriages, just as they were (on this view) before divorce was made easier, even though they had deliberately chosen the more committed option. This sits oddly with the feminist argument that women should be ‘trusted’ and ‘free to choose’ in the life-changing decision to seek an abortion. When it comes to marriage, women must be protected from men and the pressure they may bring to bear, whereas in the case of abortion no such pressures need be feared. The coming debate in England about ‘marriage lite’ will, if nothing else, be an opportunity to draw attention to this inconsistency.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.