PAUL COLLINS. An Open Letter to Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher

I am disturbed by your identification of your personal views on marriage equality with those of the Catholic Church… The saddest thing is that you have linked Catholicism with some of the most reactionary and unattractive political forces in the entire country.

Dear Anthony,

Like many Australian Catholics, I am disturbed by your identification of your personal views on marriage equality with those of the Catholic Church. No one questions your right to hold such views, but many are concerned when you identify them—or allow others, such as journalists—to identify them with the teaching of the Church. You must be aware that, as Archbishop, journalists will take what you say as authoritative and as pitching “the Catholic Church in a heated battle against Labor and key backers of the Yes campaign”, as reported in The Australian on 14/8/17. You may be involved in a “heated debate” with the Labor Party and the “yes” campaign, but most Australian Catholics are not.

Yes, I know that similar views to yours were expressed in the 2015 pastoral letter of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference entitled Don’t Mess with Marriage. It has been widely rumoured that you were the substantial author of this document. Be that as it may, it is significant that the pastoral contains only one reference to scripture, simply referring to the two becoming “one flesh”. I would have hoped that you would have trawled through the bible to provide some basis for your views on marriage. The scriptures are normative for us as Catholics, surely?

The theological content of the Don’t Mess document is negligible and it fails to recognize that marriage historically has taken several forms within the Christian era and that the church only became involved in the marriage business in the late-eleventh century.  Prior to that it simply followed societal norms, which were largely based on inheritance of land and clan ties, and the remnants of Roman civil law.

It was not until the early twelfth century that marriage came to be recognized as a sacrament and it was not until the 24th session of the Council of Trent in 1563 that it was declared a sacrament. So, for 1500 years of church history marriage operated largely according to societal rather than theological norms.

Your fellow Dominican, Saint Thomas Aquinas, is interesting on marriage. Discussing the sacramental nature of marriage, he says that it is a sacrament “in so far as it represents the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church.” He continues that “[as to] other advantages…such as the friendship and mutual services which husband and wife render one another, its institution belongs to the civil law” (Summa Theologica, Suppl., q. 42, a. 3). This would indicate that marriages that don’t reflect the union of Christ and the church are not sacramental and therefore are solely subject to the civil law. Surely this applies to gay marriage?

In fact, the arguments put forward in Don’t Mess and in your recent media interventions, are really drawn from an early-twentieth century, bourgeois notion of marriage which found a slightly more modern, post-World War II expression, in the nuclear family. Catholic theological reflection on marriage was sparse right-up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which at least recognized that the mutual fulfillment in the love of the spouses was one of the fundamental “ends”, or purposes of marriage.

Prior to Vatican II discussion of marriage was almost entirely confined to canon law, usually focussing on issues of consent, consummation and annulment and, in much of the Anglo-American world, on rules governing mixed marriages. The other thing we need to remember is that we both belong to a church with a totally inadequate theology of the body, the flesh and sexuality and that rather than arguing about gay marriage, we ought to be putting our energy into serious theological reflection on these issues.

Another thing while we’re on theology: a bishop’s teaching authority is not absolute, as though he were a local Delphic oracle. Especially on issues that concern it, the church, i.e. the whole community of the faithful, must be consulted before anything that bishops say is binding on anyone. This is precisely what John Henry Newman was talking about in his essay On consulting the laity in matters of doctrine. The doctrine of reception is also important here. Catholic theology clearly holds that for a teaching to be binding on the faithful, it must be received, that is that Catholics accept it as true.

I see no evidence that you have consulted widely with the Sydney church before you made your opinions known to the media. The evidence available points to the contrary. As to the Australian bishops’ pastoral Don’t Mess, the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told us that bishops conferences have no teaching authority whatsoever. While I disagree with him on this, I would have thought that Australian Catholics, following Ratzinger, might justifiably take the bishops’ pastoral with a grain of salt.

The saddest thing is that you have linked Catholicism with some of the most reactionary and unattractive political forces in the entire country. You may agree with such people, but please don’t identify our church with them. Also, Sydney Anglican diocese and the Australian Christian Lobby represent a tiny proportion of Christians in Australia and their conservative evangelical emphasis has little in common with Catholicism. Your joining with them is clearly a “marriage of convenience.”

My request is that you take these issues into consideration before you go on the record again claiming that your views represent those of Australian Catholicism. They don’t. Thank you, sincerely, Paul Collins.

Historian and broadcaster Paul Collins most recent books are The Birth of the West (2013) and A Very Contrary Irishman (2014). His Absolute Power will be published early next year by Public Affairs in New York.

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Don Humphrey

Regardless of what the Church says or what learned theologians say, I believe that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman. Most societies have their own form of marriage and it is between a man and a woman because these societies realise that from marriage come children, not always, admittedly. Marriage is not just about recognising the love between two people. Many arranged marriages were not based on love but still produced children. I have no objection to people of the same sex living together or even having their union civilly recognised but don’t call it marriage.

Peter Mansour-Nahra

It is quite brain-bruising to read all the philosophical, pseudotheoligical and theological arguments presented in the comments. So many of the “logical” arguments are expositions based on an assumption, viz that the Bible is inspired as God’s revelation. It may well be, or not; at best, it would be a foundation for faith, not for an incontrovertible definition of “nature”. Nature is perceived as physics, which is the basis for a common perception of the world. Law is a convention imposed on nature by humans. So, for a secular society, it is clearly reasonable for the law to embrace marriage… Read more »

Bill Burke

Paul, You may have a more accurate sense of the feelings of Australian Catholics on same sex marriage than +Anthony Fisher. Certainly, if Irish Catholicism is still echoed in the Australian ethos, then, the outcome of the survey, High Court permitting, approval is a done deal. What is surprising are some of the claims you include in your Letter. It is possible to read the following quotes with glib literalism and attribute some truth to what you assert. But it is equally reasonable to suggest that you have chosen to ignore some inconvenient data. You say, ….the church only became… Read more »

Peter Bowron

Bill, I comment only on 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. Paul actually specifically points out at the start of that quote that the following ideas are his, and not from Christ: “To the rest I say – I and not the Lord – that…….” etc. Almost like a judge recusing himself. I bow to your superior knowledge in the other areas. I did not take it from Paul’s article that the church had no opinion about marriage. It was rightly concerned It is merely the timing when it became common for the church to perform marriages, first regularly, and later pretty much… Read more »

Bill Burke

Peter, I take your point that (1Cor 7:10) Paul takes responsibility for his comments and that qualification should influence an interpretation of the text. I agree with Paul C when he asserts that the Church was a late arrival in the marriage ceremony processes. But I would still suggest that he has somewhat lopsidedly portrayed the Church’s involvement with marriages prior to his nominated beginnings. While the mode of marrying was proscribed by local custom there is a body of evidence which shows local churches making decisions about who were free to remarry in the event of a separation from… Read more »

Peter Bowron

Bill, thank you for your comment. I have found a translation of The Shepherd of Hermas here: Does this appear to be a reasonable translation?

References to other sources would always be welcome. I’m happy to become better read.


Peter McArdle

Paul Collins is a great thinker.

His analysis of Anthony Fisher’s comments is learned and eloquent.

Fisher’s reply will be interesting.

Of course, very few Australian Catholics take much heed of what the likes of Fisher say. They regard such people and their comments as, at best, quaint anachronisms, and, at worst, representatives of a Church that allowed and protected the widespread rape and sexual abuse of children.

Paul Collins is to be commended for this article.

There’s a special irony in the Catholic Church’s upholding of marriage when some of their Priests have ‘wantonly’ assaulted & ravaged children from Catholic Households in Catholic Parish Schools & some of these holier than holy generations of Clergy failed to show leadership & feigned ignorance & kept transferring these Priests to wreak havoc in other Parishes. A Pontiff who showed scant interest in these ‘Priestly depredations’ has already been canonised. Doctrine of seperation of church & state dictates that church has a right to only forbid marriage of same sex couples as a sacrament of the Eucharist. The Clergy… Read more »


Unfortunately Paul Collins has failed to understand the quotation that he uses concerning St Thomas Aquinas and the nature of marriage. Indeed in the quotation at question, Paul is using this argumentation to support his view. Sadly this claim is gravely mistaken. For the institution of marriage is first and foremost a necessary conclusion from the first principles of the natural law. I would refer Mr Collins to St Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae I-II Q90-95 where he discusses the nature of law, and gives the definition of law as “an ordinance of reason, for the common good given by him… Read more »

Mike Gilligan

Daniel seems oblivious to the array of means, unheard of at Cana, now available to a couple to procreate, and nurture children. What would be welcome is some sign that bishops are aware of how much science has told us about things natural, and furthered our understanding of humanity. Some concession even to the insights of the inquisitive monk Mendel who fathered genetics would be a start. Christ’s love is for the entirety of humanity’s genetic distribution not just some sigma selected and defended as if our comprehension of the human condition can never alter.

Peter Bowron

Daniel say “Gay marriage fails to conform to the definition of law just given because it is not an ordinance of reason (rather it goes against reason) nor is it for the common good (a good that is not owned by anyone but shared by all – it is the unity that is within the diversity)” Daniel, you play with circular logic, and poorly at that. You say it goes against reason, but present no evidence, only your statement. I can as easily say that it is perfectly reasonably, and by so doing I prove it is perfectly reasonably. I… Read more »


Dear Peter, your logic unfortunately does not follow. You claim that my logic is a circular argument, yet fail to show how it is. There are so many assertions that you have made in your response to me that it becomes very difficult to pin down exactly where you actually stand. It is obvious that you so call believe in equality, but any word ending with ‘ity’ is an abstraction and not dealing with the concrete. All men are equal in nature but not in other endowments. I work with principles that are evident of themselves, and these principles are… Read more »

Mike Gilligan

Oh well, now we know what it takes to come to the conclusion of the good bishop.

Peter Bowron

I will go a little further with this. You say:”I work with principles that are evident of themselves, and these principles are unchanging. “, yet you do not state what principle you find evident in itself, unless you are talking about homosexuality as part of (or in the case you choose to argue, not part of) natural law, something which I pointed out. You say “truth cannot change”, which I will consider as a theoretically correct philosophical staatement, but what is the “truth” that you speak of, and why should what you happen to believe to be true have any… Read more »

Peter Bowron

By the way, please do not have the rudeness to take my statement that “God is love” is my first axiom, and try and turn it into a statement about what you call Eros. Also your comment about procreation (“for when the two become one it is ordered to produce a third.”) is insulting to all those who marry and do not have children. My wife has had a hysterectomy. She is physically incapable of bearing a child. I number amongst my friends a couple who married after their first spouses died. Well beyond the age where they could conceive.… Read more »

Mike Gilligan

And poor old Aquinas. For one who put such store by reason through knowledge of the natural world (eg science) it does him down to imagine that his writings now with another seven hundreds of years of progress would be the same. As an ageing, catholic, hetero father, of science background, it is incomprehensible that Aquinas would vote other than the affirmative for marital equality whatever a bishop might direct on the strength of an interpretation of his thinking in the fourteenth century. Others have tried to imagine Aquinas in today’s pool of scientific knowledge: ” Most of all, though,… Read more »

Meg Sbrocchi



Interesting, but I do wish people would not refer to “gay marriage”. I do not see myself as gay, but I wish to marry my partner who is transgender, and identifies as (and looks like) a woman. Same-sex marriage if you must, but my preference is marriage equality.

Peter Johnstone

Paul, you highlight a key issue that Church leaders need to consider very carefully, namely equating their personal views on marriage equality with those of the Catholic Church, and pursuing those views politically with the full use of their Church-based influence. Opposition to civil marriage equality is not driven by any Christian teaching. I’m amazed that Church leaders don’t focus on the most fundamental of Church teaching, “you should love one another” (John 13:34b, et al); there’s no exclusion of people of a different sexuality who are owed our love as much as anybody. People of different sexuality (God-given!) are… Read more »


There is nohing in the Bible (Old or New Testaments) which justify marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. Indeed as I recall Adam and Eve were not married. Nor any of their sons (I am not aware of any daughters). Perhaps this opens up another question as to how the human race continued to procreate!

Graeme Wanstall

Well done Paul.
Particular points that are made from one Bruce Wearne.
The words “normative scriptures” is stated without Bruce explaining what the words mean and what these so called normative scriptures are.
Christian or Christians without mentioning who these so called Christians are.
Why should we discuss ad infinitum with the ACL et al when they are not a real christian organisation.
Why should the Catholic Church et al be involved with the ACL whose dogma is one of problematical theological rubbish.
Is Lyle Shelton himself a bishop, a senior pastor or a theology expert of merit?

Tony Smith

Great article, Paul! Thank you. I think you have touched on a profound problem in the church by drawing attention to the hierarchy’s reluctance to speak theology to the laity. Over half a century I can recall perhaps half a dozen sermons where priests have shared theological insights – on the Trinity and Corpus Christi for example – and they were then ‘young’ men. Those sermons were quite inspiring but so obviously isolated. This begs the question of exactly what the laity have been fed and the unfortunate answer is ‘clericalism’ which involves conservatism on forms of worship, obedience to… Read more »

Jane Anderson

Paul, thank you for continuing to bring Catholicism into the 21st century. When I read the comment made by Bruce Wearne’s I groaned. Liberal Catholics have tried to talk to conservative Catholics for decades but all they have received are answers that do not take into account history, science, culture, and life experience. Now many have moved out of the fossilized institutional Church and onward, recognising that love and its implications for contemporary religion and society cannot be confined to the narrow prescriptions of yesteryear. It is refreshing to hear Christians of the Catholic tradition vocalising their support for same-sex… Read more »

Terry Laidler

Paul: your tour through the historical development of the current unscientific and impoverished Catholic “party line” on marriage is necessarily brief. But it’s a splendid beginning. Add to it an evidence based and nuanced understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality (e.g.: ), and dogma might actually start to develop. Overlay the perspective of the politics of the rise, fall and now dying throes of clericalism and we’ll be off and running … great stuff!

Anne Cahill Lambert

Great work, Paul Collins. The stance by some in our church is divisive and based on shallow understanding rather than rigorous research and analysis. I was reading earlier in the day that Fr Frank Brennan will be voting yes. Sure, there are things that need to be resolved, but that’s no reason to balk at moving forward. Here’s a link to Fr Brennan’s essay:


Well this response from Paul Collins to Andrew Fisher pretty well cuts off the legs of Fisher’s pretend encyclical and arguments on marriage! Where is the argument against those who abuse children – might I ask? Oh, right – Denis HART has that one covered -no honesty and protection to those children (see Mary-Rose McCOLL’s piece to-day in The Guardian) via the Hart “doctrine” of confessional box “sanctity”! The hypocrisy and the we-know-best hubris of Fisher and Hart is simply jaw-dropping after all that we have heard from the Royal Commission – now morphing into their narrow views on matters… Read more »

roma guerin

Thank you Paul Collins for speaking so eloquently on behalf of the unconsulted Catholic brethren.

There is too much ambiguity, Paul, in your second last paragraph, particularly in your attempt to add to the merits of your case by a carefully crafted innuendo. What begins as your interesting “open letter” to a senior office bearer in your own communion ends with an expansion of bitterness that does no Christian credit to your earlier appeal. Problem is you are now using your disagreement with an Archbishop of your communion to give yourself room to publicly dismiss, if not slur, fellow Christians with whom you disagree and of whose views you have not given any attention here… Read more »

John Altmann

Thank you Bruce
Much as one might agree with the early sections of Paul Collins letter the last part of it is particularly unattractive and prejudiced in its own particular way

John Edwards

I look forward to Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s response to Paul Collins’ well-researched and incisive comments. At the very least to see a clear demarcation between personal comment, political comment and theological exposition regarding marriage underpinned by a strong biblical theology. And for the record, as a member of the Sydney Archdiocese I was not consulted by Archbishop Fisher prior to any of his announcements on marriage, let alone marriage equality.

Mike Gilligan

Icons this piece fabulous, and particularly the call
For theological thinking on the body, sexuality etc.
Another indication of the hollowness behind
many “church” positions. I recall being dumbfounded
by a report that Pope Francis on being asked why
women aren’t embraced wholly by the church replying
that this would require first that a theology of the
woman be constructed. The implications of that
mindset explain so much about the decay of the Catholic