On Civil Unions and Feckless Optimism


In a recently-released documentary, “Francesco”, Pope Francis remarked that a “civil union law” needed to be created in order that gays could be “legally covered”. News outlets around the world reported that the Pope had thus endorsed civil unions, thereby changing Catholic teaching on homosexuality, which had up until then, as it seemed, rejected homosexual behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, there were numerous, sometimes contradictory responses and interpretations. Many Catholics said that the media had sensationalised the Pope’s remarks, which they said were off-hand and taken out of context. Spanish-language speakers, in particular, claimed that the documentary had mistranslated the Pope’s words. “Convivencia civil” should not have been translated “civil union”, but rather “civil coexistence”. The Archdiocese of Singapore, in remarks befitting the Singaporean taste for legalese, declared that since there had not been any official statement from the Vatican and that “any quote from the Holy Father recorded in a documentary is not…admissible as official papal teaching”, Catholic teaching had not been changed.

Perhaps one of the most interesting responses was the attempt to interpret Pope Francis’ remarks in a manner consistent with official church teaching. Some Catholics said that the Pope had meant by “civil union” simply a legal agreement entered into by any two people, and not a kind of “separate but equal” marriage for LGBT people. Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordelione said the Pope had made it clear that marriage remained distinct and unique from civil unions. These unions could be entered into by practically any two people, including unmarried siblings who wished to support each other and claim legal benefits within a civil union.

Could Cordelione be correct?

We might need to take a short detour through Charles Dickens, of all people, to find the answer. In the novel David Copperfield, Dickens introduces the feckless optimist Wilkens Micawber, who continued believing that “something would turn up” to his benefit even as he fell into circumstances that grew from bad to worse. He ended up incarcerated in a debtor’s prison, with his wife pawning all their possessions to make ends meet. Micawberism, then, is a word that describes anyone who dispenses with the need for at least a reasonable hope for a desired outcome, indulging instead in wishful thinking in the face of overwhelming evidence.

To believe that Cordelione-style inclusive civil unions would preserve the distinctiveness of marriage seems to be a similar case of feckless optimism. In the first place, civil unions were created primarily as a means to provide recognition in law for sexual relationships outside marriage, sometimes for opposite-sex couples as in Brazil as in 2002, but more often for same-sex couples. Today several countries reserve such unions for same-sex couples only.

Secondly, LGBT activists don’t even want civil unions anymore, saying that even if Pope had indeed called for them, his words undermined campaigns for gay marriage in some countries by suggesting that they could be a soft alternative. It would be discriminatory,  possibly homophobic, to think that marriage would be left without critique by activists. Masha Gessen has said that fellow activists “lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change”. LGBT civil unions would not satisfy most activists, much less inclusive civil unions.

Here in Singapore, LGBT group Sayoni emailed 11 local political parties a set of 12 questions which sought to encompass the full gamut of “rights” for “LGBTQ inclusion”. These include the repeal of section 377a, anti-discrimination legislation, bans on conversion therapy, policies on gender marker change and transgender healthcare, recognition of same-sex relationships, media censorship, LGBTQ-affirming healthcare and inclusive education. Sayoni is careful to state that they simply want “recognition of same-sex relationships”, rather than “marriage equality”. It would, however, be feckless optimism or dishonesty not to see that “inclusion” must end in “full inclusion”, including within marriage. 

Peter Wolfgang puts it well. “Civil unions are so 2005. 2020 is about whether anyone who disagrees with the LGBT agenda — the whole LGBT agenda — is going to be run out of town on a rail. It’s about whether you will lose your livelihood, whether you will get fired, whether you will get “cancelled,” whether you will lose your reputation and good standing in the community, whether you will become a nonperson who can’t feed his family in our glorious LGBT soft totalitarian paradise.”

The “Franceso” fiasco is indeed so 2005. To believe otherwise would make Wilkens Micawber proud.

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