On July 31, 2003, the Vatican released its most direct statement concerning same-sex marriage to date. The document, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, contains no new teaching: rather, it is intended for bishops, offering them “arguments drawn from reason”, and Catholic politicians, outlining for them “approaches to proposed legislation … which would be consistent with (a) Christian conscience”. Highly readable and surprisingly concise, it is an impressive summary of complex reasoning, presenting the position of the Roman Catholic Church in a way that is both accurate and accessible: articulated as simply as possible, but no simpler.

This document marshals an impressive array of evidence, drawing not only from scripture and tradition, but also from anthropological, social, legal, and philosophical sources. Thus, the insights offered in the Vatican’s Considerations, are by no means confined to those of the Catholic faith. Since the nature of marriage is itself a truth written on the human heart “which no ideology can erase”, it is apt that many of the arguments offered in defense of marriage rely on reason, rather than revelation. As such, the Vatican’s arguments and observations are, likewise, compatible with the beliefs of many religious denominations: Christ’s words in the Gospel are particularly relevant, “He who has ears, let him hear”. (Mt 13:9)

As the issue of same-sex “marriage” now commands the full attention of the public mind, these new Considerations of the Vatican – and their dissemination among lay Catholics – are intended not only for the faithful, but for those who seek to understand the opposition to same-sex “marriage.” At a time when oversimplifications of mass media threaten to frame the debate, it is essential that complex issues not be reduced to clichés.

For example, advocates of same-sex “marriage” contend that failing to recognize homosexual unions is in a form of discrimination. The Vatican, addressing this very issue, maintains that “the principles of non-discrimination cannot be invoked to support legal recognition of homosexual unions”.

Furthermore, as the focus of the debate sometimes shifts from the devaluation of marriage to the affirmation of rights, the position of the Church is, again, completely clear: “The denial of the social and legal status of marriage to forms of cohabitation that are not and cannot be marital is not opposed to justice; on the contrary, justice requires it”.

But the most pointed and controversial aspect of the document is not the education of its flock, but its exhortation of politicians: “If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians”. As a vote upon this very issue in the House of Commons seems imminent, the Considerations offered by the Vatican are certainly not comfortable reading for the many Catholic politicians who seek to limit their religious convictions to the sphere of private life, so that the demands of their religion will not influence their political careers or public policies. Catholic politicians who do not explicitly dismiss the Church’s guidance often assert that the opinions of their constituents trump any pangs of conscience they may (or may not) suffer. The Church’s statement, however, is unambiguous: “To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral”.

Yet some Catholic politicians still seek to maintain what Fr. Raymond DeSouza calls “a wedge between their beliefs and their acts”. In a column which appeared in the National Post on August 1, 2003, he observed that “a politician cannot profess something as wrong according to his conscience, and them promote it in his legislative acts”.

Justice Minister Martin Cauchon, Prime Minister Chretien, and leadership frontrunner Paul Martin, all Catholics, are nonetheless willing to redefine marriage to include homosexual unions, insisting that their private convictions cannot influence their public activities. Speaking for Cauchon, Tim Murphy said: “his personal beliefs are not the issue”. Thoren Hudyma, a spokesman for Prime Minister Chretien, noted that “on several occasions” Chretien said, it “is important that there is a division between church and state”.