Gay adoption and politicians

Undue pressure by the Church? What’s wrong with Bishop Charles Scicluna reporting that the Pope was “shocked” that Parliament is about to give gay couples the right to apply to adopt? Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Undue pressure by the Church? What’s wrong with Bishop Charles Scicluna reporting that the Pope was “shocked” that Parliament is about to give gay couples the right to apply to adopt? Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Auxiliary Bishop, has attracted a lot of hostile attention to his interviews with The Sunday Times of Malta and Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference. However, while a lot of the criticism has been unfair, it has also, on one crucial point, let him off the hook.

Let’s begin with the unfairness – the twin accusations of sensationalism and undue pressure on Catholic politicians.

Scicluna told The Sunday Times that the Pope was “shocked” by the fact that Parliament is about to give gay couples the right to apply to adopt. That use of “shocked” shocked Scicluna’s critics, although he himself does not appear to give the word the same weight since he told Avvenire the Pope was “saddened”.

What’s strange about the Pope being shocked (or saddened)? Shock can be mild as well as heart-stopping.

What is so odd about being taken aback that a country which, until a couple of years ago, didn’t even have a divorce law is now contemplating legislation that would give gay couples more adoption rights than Germany and Finland currently do?

And what’s wrong with Scicluna reporting this? It’s said that this puts undue pressure on Catholic politicians. If that constitutes pressure, we must expect our politicians to fall like skittles before the much greater pressure that is brought to bear on them by ordinary voters and special interest groups.

Scicluna has been careful to point out that he is not threatening any spiritual penalty on Catholic politicians who decide to vote for gay civil unions and the right for gay couples to apply to adopt.

It’s the threat of a spiritual penalty that would make it undue pressure. But bishops have a legitimate right to remind their faithful that they may be exposing themselves and others to spiritual danger.

What they don’t have is the right to threaten punishment if Catholic politicians don’t share the bishops’ assessment of the circumstances. It is perfectly possible for a politician to share the Pope’s view that the legalisation of gay unions is an “anthropological regression” – while figuring that inaction, in the circumstances, would be more regressive still.

The real issue, therefore, is what weight a Catholic politician should give those 2003 Vatican “considerations regarding proposals to give legal recognition to unions between homosexual persons” – to give the full name of the document cited by Scicluna.

The issue cannot be simply resolved – as some have tried to do – by saying that Parliament needs to legislate for Catholics and non-Catholics alike and therefore cannot impose Catholic morality on the whole nation. The document is very clear in claiming to argue on the basis of reason and experience, not just religious belief.

Hence the Church on this point addresses all politicians, irrespective of their beliefs. If its arguments are to be rejected, then one must show that reason and experience do not tally with what the document says.

It is only a particular section of the document that addresses the obligations of Catholic politicians. Even here, however, the crux is the set of arguments brought from reason and experience. In passing laws, Catholic politicians must weigh the consequences, in the particular circumstances, of inaction as well as action.

So, what weight should Catholic politicians give this document in Malta’s current circumstances?

There are three main considerations.

First, as Scicluna himself told Avvenire, the two political parties in Parliament both promised some form of gay civil union in the run-up to the election.

The only two choices Catholic politicians have before them are the status quo and gay couple adoption

He says it was done in a “frantic runfor votes”.

So, Scicluna himself is not above using the “undue pressure” argument but we must treat it here the way we treated it when it was used against him.

The promise was made by both Labour and the PN. At the time, a year ago, the PN said Labour’s promise was similar to what it was promising. Joseph Muscat said what he was promising was “similar” to marriage. Yes, he was economical with the truth but the Maltese media, including the Church media, are to blame for letting him remain evasive.

As for gay adoption, both political parties said they were happy to let the experts decide who should be permitted to adopt. The declared policy at the time was that gay individuals could apply to adopt – and it was public knowledge that some did.

Catholic parliamentarians today might well wonder why they were not so conspicuously warned a year ago that the electoral programme they were about to sign up to put them in danger of subscribing to a gravely immoral act.

They have now been put into a position where they are being urged to break the electoral pledge to recognise civil unions.

The document cited by Mgr Scicluna does not cover such a case. So it cannot be used as a guide.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a Catholic politician to conclude that the damage to the common good would be greater if such a clear electoral pledge was flagrantly broken than if it were kept. Breaking promises does harm to the common good, too. The cost in public cynicism would reach far beyond gay issues.

The second consideration for Maltese politicians is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith considers historical experience to prove it right – but there are major professional associations of psychologists and social scientists that would challenge that.

So the argument from experience –on which the Congregation has no special authority – is too polemical to be binding. Politicians have to rely on their own social judgement of the Maltese circumstances.

Those circumstances have changed greatly since the document was first issued.

Here enters the third consideration.

The document is clear that legislation should be rejected when faced for the first time. But it allows that politicians may need to mitigate laws already in place.

While the Maltese Parliament is passing a law for the first time, it is doing so in a context of European human rights case law (on the right of gay individuals to adopt, if straight individuals can), which emerged five years after the document. There is also a Maltese policy that currently permits gay individuals to adopt.

In the circumstances, Catholic politicians need to consider whether permitting adoptions by gay couples would make things better or worse than the status quo.

Currently, adopted children may be brought up by one officially recognised gay parent within a relationship. In practice, so, children can and are being brought up by gay couples.

However, the current law puts those children at risk of losing both parents if the legally recognised adoptive parent dies. Permitting gay couples to adopt qua couples would remove this insecurity.

The only two choices Catholic politicians have before them, therefore, are the status quo and gay couple adoption, with the only practical difference of the latter being that it would make adopted children more secure.

Is there any other practical option? If Mgr Scicluna has one, he should state it. If he thinks the status quo is better, he should say so. Not to ask him is to let him off the hook.

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