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EXCLUSIVE: Bishop Tobin—Church OK with Some Benefits for Gay Couples

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


In an exclusive interview, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin said the Church is not opposed to granting some benefits and rights to gay couples—as long as the term marriage is not used.

His statement—which was couched in caveats—nonetheless indicates a flexibility in the Church’s position that has previously been overlooked in the polarizing debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island.

“The legislation we would support is what is often called ‘reciprocal benefits,’” Tobin told GoLocalProv. “It does not use marriage as a reference point. It would grant some legal benefits [and] some legal rights to two people who have some kind of established relationship without any particular reference to marriage. So it could be someone and their grandfather. Could be two cousins. Could be two elderly sisters.”

Such a bill was filed in the House in early March. The bill, sponsored by Rep Peter Petrarca, D- Lincoln, would grant about half a dozen rights and benefits to any two unmarried people, regardless of sexual orientation. If passed, it would allow one partner to make medical decisions for another, have a say over the burial and disposition of their remains, and the right to inherit property if the other partner dies.

Tobin declined to elaborate on exactly which legal benefits and rights he thought unmarried couples should have—saying that’s a question for legal experts. “People deserve human rights whether or not they’re gay,” Tobin said. “Now the reciprocal benefits [bill] recognizes some rights and some privileges irrespective of their orientation and that’s the key I think.”

Tobin said he would not go as far as supporting civil unions, saying the church is as steadfastly opposed to civil unions as it is to gay marriage.

“We would oppose what is commonly called civil unions because it’s really just another name for what would be same-sex marriage,” Tobin said. “We’ve found invariably whenever civil unions are introduced in a state that is quickly followed by full-fledged gay marriage.”

Bishop: Voting for gay marriage bill could be a sin

Four months into the legislative session, the Catholic Church in Rhode Island has been hard at work making its case for the one man-one woman definition of marriage. Tobin said he personally had reached out to about 10 or 12 lawmakers through personal letters and telephone conversations.

When it comes to another hot-button social issue, such as abortion, the consequences of voting against the Church's views can be serious. In 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the future Pope Benedict XVI—said American politicians who support abortion should be denied communion. Five years later, Tobin himself became caught up in a high-profile controversy when he told then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy that he should not be receiving communion because of his position on abortion.

When it comes to gay marriage, Tobin said Catholic legislators who votes in favor of it could be committing a sin—unless they are truly voting their conscience.

“Is it a sin for someone to vote for gay marriage? It could be but it is not necessarily so,” Tobin said. “Because if they really believe in their conscience that they’re doing the right thing, then that removes them from any subjective guilt of sin. But if the lawmaker knows that it’s wrong and he or she votes for it anyhow, then that’s a problem for their conscience—Why would they go against their conscience?”

No compromise on gay marriage

Tobin went into detail about the objections the Catholic Church has over gay marriage.

“We think it is an ill-advised attempt to redefine the very basic parameters of marriage as they’ve existed from the very beginning of mankind—as the union of one man and one woman designed to create new life and to encourage the love of the spouses,” Tobin said.

He also said the state should not be sanctioning behavior the Church regards as immoral and expressed concern that that a gay-marriage law could limit religious freedom. Even though the bill does not mandate that any church or other religious community perform gay marriages, Tobin said it could still force religious groups to grant benefits to gay couples.

Tobin conceded that allowing gay marriage would not necessarily have a direct impact on marriages between straight couples.

“There may not be a direct harm,” Tobin said. “What your neighbor [is] doing next door might not affect you directly but, again, if a husband and wife—male and female—were married, their marriage means something in particular. If two other people come along who don’t meet that definition and claim they’re married then, in a way, that diminishes that special relationship the married couple does have.”

“I call it the 'champagne principle,'” he added. “Champagne has a very special definition before it can bottled, labeled, and sold as such. If somebody comes along with sparkling water and labels it 'champagne,' they’ll say, ‘What harm is it?’ … ‘We call it champagne, you call it champagne, what’s the difference?’ Well, there is a difference and you are advocating a name that belongs to somebody else.”

Without moral restraint, ‘there’s anarchy and chaos’

Tobin steered clear of the debate over whether homosexuality is genetic or acquired—saying it’s an open question that has yet to be decided by scientists and philosophers. But even if someone’s homosexuality is genetically predisposed, he said that wouldn’t affect the Church’s position.

“The question whether or not some people are made that way—I think that’s still an open question. I’m not quite ready to cede that. But even if that is the case, that someone has that disposition, they still have the ability as human beings to control their behavior—otherwise there’s anarchy and chaos,” Tobin said.

He said resisting impulses is part of the dignity of being a human being.

And, he pointed out that the Catholic Church teaches that heterosexual couples also have to control their behavior. Adultery and pre-marital sex, for example, are activities that are considered immoral regardless of sexual orientation.

“The fact that a person is made a certain way is not immoral—again that’s the difference between orientation and activity,” Tobin said. “Having a homosexual orientation is no more or less immoral than having a heterosexual orientation. But, in both cases, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual, we have to be able to control our behavior.”

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