Pope John Paul II pressed his campaign against gay unions Sunday, calling for greater defense of the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman and saying that a "misunderstood sense of rights" is altering it. The pope's comments came amid a Vatican campaign to crack down on same-sex unions, which have won legal protections in recent months following landmark court decisions in Canada, Massachusetts, and elsewhere granting increased rights to gay and lesbian couples. In his weekly Sunday comments in St. Peter's Square, John Paul said marriage--which the Vatican defines as a sacred union between a man and a woman--is a "human and divine" gift that should be defended by society. "In our times, a misunderstood sense of rights has sometimes disturbed the nature of the family institution and conjugal bond itself," he said. "It is necessary that at every level, the efforts of those who believe in the importance of the family based on matrimony unite."
In July the Vatican launched a global campaign against gay unions in a bid to stem the tide of widening legal recognition for same-sex marriages in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. The Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a document saying that Roman Catholic politicians have a "moral duty" to oppose laws granting legal rights to gay couples and that non-Catholics should follow their lead since the issue concerns "natural moral law." "To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral," the document read, although it did not specify penalties for Catholics who do. It was issued just a month after an appeals court in Ontario ruled that Canada's definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. Based on that ruling and a similar one in British Columbia, Canada is expected to introduce legislation legalizing gay marriage next year.
The pope reaffirmed the church's position on the institution Sunday, noting that Christmas is a time to remember the "holy family" of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Marriage, he said, "concerns a human and divine reality that is defended and promoted as a fundamental good of society." He urged a common prayer "for all families, in particular those in material and spiritual difficulty." John Paul has been a staunch promoter of the institution of marriage as well as of the family. He strongly opposes abortion as well as artificial birth control, even for married couples. Even before the recent North American court rulings, the pope and top Vatican officials frequently spoke out about increasing legal recognition for gay couples in Europe, where the Vatican has been particularly concerned about the church's waning influence. In recent years the Netherlands and Belgium extended marriage rights to all couples, no matter the partners' gender. Germany, France, Sweden, and Denmark also have "civil union" laws. In January the pope approved guidelines for Catholic politicians, saying that laws safeguarding marriage between a man and a woman must be promoted and that "in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such."