Bishop Bergie

Catholics, United Church find common ground on marriage

  • January 25, 2013

Interfaith dialogue doesn’t reach agreement, but ‘winner-take-all’ wrong approach

While the Catholic Church and the United Church aren’t about to agree about same-sex marriage (Catholic against, United in favour), the official Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue has found significant common ground in their theologies, liturgies and pastoral approaches.

“In the end it is good news that we were able to say something together on marriage,” said Michael Attridge, a University of St. Michael’s College theology professor who was one of the Catholic representatives on the dialogue. “A very important topic — something that’s very important to both our Churches.”

The 23-page final report on marriage makes no change in either Church’s teaching on marriage and does not try to paper over significant differences on same-sex marriage, divorce and marriage as a sacrament. However, by analysing the Catholic and United Church marriage ceremonies and official Church documents, the dialogue found common ground.

Both believe marriage must be the free choice of the spouses, is intended to be a lifelong commitment, is “a commitment to self-transcendence” which serves not just the couple but children and the whole community, is a vocation to holiness and pastorally marriage preparation is important.

The Churches decided to tackle marriage in their official dialogue after the United Church and Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops found themselves submitting opposing factums to the Supreme Court in 2004, before the court ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.

“This is exactly what the dialogue is for,” said United Church of Canada representative Rev. Richard Bott. “We both believe we’re disciples of Jesus Christ. How is it that we were sitting in different places?… What we wanted to do was get past the stereotypes.”

A “winner-take-all” legal debate is the wrong way for Christians to discuss their differences, said the final report.

“While remaining honest about real differences, we wanted to discover ways to celebrate and to build upon our important commonalities,” reads the report’s introduction.

The essential difference is in how each Church read Scripture, said Attridge, who was brought onto the dialogue both for his theological expertise and because he is married. Where the United Church gives individuals and communities freedom to interpret the Bible according to their contemporary social reality, the Catholic Church entrusts bishops with the magisterium of the Church as a standard for authentic interpretation.

The different approaches to Scripture resulted in the United Church concluding that “treating people differently because of their sexual orientation was an injustice, inconsistent with biblical norms of justice and inclusivity.”

“Understanding marriage within the order of creation is perhaps the primary point of departure for Catholic theology of marriage,” said the report.

The Catholic side cites the Bible, tradition and natural law to support a definition of marriage restricted to the union of a man and a woman. The Catholics also claim marriage as one of seven sacraments given to the Church by Christ.

Dialogue is always a positive experience of faith, said St. Catharines Bishop Gerard Bergie, who participated in the discussions from 2009 to 2012.

“I found that my confreres on this commission were people of faith who firmly believed in what they were saying.

They were sincere in their approach to things,” he said.

The bishop doubts the report will find a huge audience.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a hot topic. But for anyone interested in ecumenical dialogue, I think it would be interesting,” he said.

Since the law has left the Catholic view of marriage behind, the bishops have become wary that traditional marriage is being de-legitimized. In conversation with the United Church, Catholics are hoping the Church’s view is not misconstrued as contempt for gays.

“What we are simply asking, particularly from the United Church perspective, is that they respect the Catholic Church’s approach and that we have an understanding and respect for their approach, even though we may not agree,” Bergie said.

As the minister to a United Church congregation in Maple Ridge, B.C., Bott believes the final report will be an aid to ministers and priests who have to prepare mixed couples for marriage.


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