Bishops’ strategies to influence lawmakers
Following the passage of the bill authorizing ‘marriage for all’ in France in 2013, several European countries are now planning to change their family laws.
Concerned by these issues, not all European episcopates have adopted the same tone to make themselves heard by the governments of their countries. The pressure has been growing for some months now.
In Northern Ireland, the Catholic Church has appealed to the justice system to annul a November ruling by the High Court of Belfast opening the way to a more flexible law regarding abortion.
In The Guardian, in early January, the secretary of the Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs hammered away: “The child is living and it deserves to be protected.”
How can the Church make its voice heard when a government plans to legislate in the area of family policy? This is a question that Catholic leaders are facing more and more often, especially in Europe and well beyond Northern Ireland.
“There is no single model, and still less, a single recipe,” declares Maria Hildingsson, who runs the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FCFAE) in Brussels. “The Eastern European countries quickly adopt very clear positions; they react strongly and immediately,” she says. “In those countries, which have lived under a totalitarian ideology, the Church reacts much more promptly against what it sees as a form of monolithic thinking.
In Germany, on the contrary, the episcopate has always taken positions through consensus and dialogue.” The fighting tends to take place in Brussels, because the European Union is not authorized to legislate on family policy.
Indeed, in Germany there is a Katholisches Büroto coordinate relations between the Catholic Church and the state, with a different office in each region. Bishops are regularly received at the headquarters of political parties.
“There is no obligation, but it is a deeply rooted tradition in German political life,” explained Stefan Lunte, an advisor at the Commission of Episcopates of the European Community (COMECE). “On the whole, the German bishops are far more mobilized with regard to migrant issues or Catholics leaving the Church than to changes in family law,” he adds. But the Church may well be faced with the issue if the next government decides to authorize same-sex marriage.
In neighboring Poland, there is also ongoing dialogue but the tone is much firmer. The bishops’ main concern is to promote state support for families, which has recently become a priority for ardent campaigning. “The Church has only recently become aware of the worrying demographic situation in Poland,”explains Marcin Przeczewski, editor-in-chief at KAI, a Catholic press agency. Statistics released in 2010, showing the country’s fertility rate at only 1.29 children per woman, came as a huge shock.
The subject is discussed at every meeting of the mixed commission, which brings together representatives of the episcopate and the government twice a year. Last autumn, they argued strongly in favor of creating a reduction card for large families and extending maternity leave from three months to twelve.
The Church is not afraid to criticize political leaders directly, as happened last spring when the bishops tried to put pressure on the departing president, Bronislaw Komorowski, to veto bioethics legislation they considered too permissive. “They are convinced that it is their duty to defend the family and natural law at the moment, particularly as the next legislative elections slated for October 25th draw closer,” says Marcin Przeczewski.
In France, the commitment of a large number of Catholics to prevent the passage of the bill authorizing same-sex marriage was in many respects a turning point. For several months in 2013, virtually all French bishops expressed opposition to the bill proposed by the minister of justice, Christiane Taubira. The episcopate nevertheless refuses to be called a lobby. “We are not pressuring the government to sell a product or get rid of a tax that would put us at a disadvantage. Nor are we trying to regulate society,” insists its spokesman, Mgr. Olivier Ribadeau-Dumas. “But we are articulating what we think is best for the common good of society. And we have to make ourselves heard.”
To do so, the bishops rely on solid tools to send their message to the political world. First, the ‘Matignon body’ brings government and Church representatives together for biannual meetings. The episcopate also maintains more informal relations with political leaders at various levels: “We can ask to meet with a particular minister or civil servant or cabinet member to present our positions,” the spokesman adds.
On occasion, the Bishops’ Conference of France will deliver a memorandum to members of parliament. Recently copies of a book by Mgr. Pierre d’Ornellas, Archbishop of Rennes and a specialist on bioethics, were given to senators and deputies prior during the debate on end-of-life decisions. The episcopate is currently thinking about setting up a specific unit to handle its policy watch.
Two Italian bishops say “yes” to civil unions
As Italy is caught up in a debate over legislation granting same sex couples the same rights as married couples, in the last few days two cardinals have left the door open to the possibility of recognizing civil unions.
One is Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, Archbishop of Perugia: “Civil unions, including same-sex unions, should be recognized as such, but they should not be equivalent to marriage,” he asserted. “(However) a man and a woman are necessary for adoption.” The Italian Episcopal Conference (ECI) has not taken a formal position on the topic.
Christ founded and enabledHis Church to preach to all nations. Consequently, the church which in any country is not part of any government has the duty, particularly in the persons of its bishops, but not solely them, to criticise what is contrary to the unsurpassable Word that God awarded to the world for its salvation.
Ireland situation : It has often been remarked in this site how powerless and ineffective Irish bishops are; that they are chosen in a manner that excludes the majority of church members and clergy. Scandal has weakened them. Perhaps they would have more influence and credibility with lawmakers (and their own church members) if they really represented church members. Church members are voters and politicians as well. Many church members voted for same sex marriage. There is evidence enough that bishops and clergy did not attempt to persuade church members to reject same sex marriage because such advice would be counter-productive.