Throughout human history all types of arrangements have evolved to nurture children, of which a common form is a reasonably stable relationship between woman and man. Whether or not this was seen as marriage varied widely. So, use of the term “traditional marriage” is a misnomer. What the Catholic hierarchy is presenting as “traditional” is really a romantic, bourgeois understanding of marriage.
Over the last five years, the Australian Catholic Church has experienced its worst crisis in its 200-year history. The catastrophic fall-out from the evidence presented at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse, the charging of “Australia’s most senior Catholic” with historic offenses, the 2.6% drop in the number of Australian Catholics between the 2011 and 2016 Census, the collapse in the number of younger people adhering to or practising Catholicism (among Catholics aged 25 to 34 only 5.4% attend Mass) and the continuing decline of general Mass attendance (it is now down to between 8% to 10%), is all evidence of a profound malaise effecting Catholicism. The church’s proclamation of Christ’s Gospel has taken a series of body blows and Catholic moral authority is in tatters.
Have we heard a word from our bishops concerning any of these issues? Certainly, I haven’t, and I listen pretty carefully. Australian Catholics have been totally bereft of leadership on these fundamental moral, spiritual and belief issues. That the church’s witness to Christ has been profoundly compromised seems not to trouble the bishops, at least if you take their public statements into account. Yes, to give them their due, they have been reasonably good on refugees and human trafficking, but beyond that they seemingly have nothing to say.
Until, that is, an issue related to gender arises. Then they’re out of the blocks faster than Hussain Bolt. We’ve already heard from Sydney’s Archbishop Fisher on “traditional marriage”. Now Archbishops Denis Hart (Melbourne) and Timothy Costelloe (Perth) are threatening to sack staff in Catholic schools, hospitals, and other ministries who marry same sex partners. And the Catholic church employs 240,000 people in Australia!
What really concerns me is that the views the archbishops put forward as church teaching are really their subjective opinion about “traditional marriage”. Australian Catholicism is then identified with reactionary views that are neither defined church teaching, nor accepted by most Catholics. The reason for this is because these hierarchs fail to make a distinction between sacramental marriage and “natural” marriage.
Even before we descended from the trees, we’ve wanted to get together—we’re social creatures. We’ve also wanted to reproduce and some level of social stability is essential for child nurturance. Throughout human history all types of arrangements have evolved to achieve this, of which a common form is a reasonably stable relationship between woman and man. Whether or not this was seen as marriage varied widely. It’s interesting that even in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) there is no single word that means “marriage” and laws and customs varied throughout the history of Israel. The key theological element was that committed human love was seen as an image of God’s love for the Jewish people.
Marriage was many things before Christianity and it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the Western church got into the marriage business; the Eastern church was a bit earlier. The key theological issue since then has been the sacramental aspect of marriage, because marital love is taken in the Letter to the Ephesians as an image of Christ’s love for and connection with the church community (5:29-32). But these verses are obscure and primarily to refer to the connection between Christ and the church rather than to marriage. Only subsequently they have been taken to refer to sacramental marriage.
What the archbishops don’t seem to grasp is that not all marriages celebrated in Australia are sacramental, that is, an image of the love between Christ and the church. That’s not to say they’re not good marriages; it just means they have nothing to do with the church. The archbishops also seem to have forgotten that Australia is a pluralist, multi-religious, multi-ethnic society where the large majority see marriage as a natural union. Archbishops are not the guardians of culture and so-called “traditional marriage”. They really should butt out.
Even use of the term “traditional marriage” is a misnomer. What the archbishops are putting forward as “traditional” is really a romantic, bourgeois understanding of marriage that originates in the Victorian era and comes to its fruition in the 1950s nuclear family. Before that marriage was not so much about romantic love, as about family arrangements, land, inheritance and securing the dynasty.
They also claim they’re defending religious freedom, which Archbishop Fisher assures us is threatened by marriage equality. He predicts that church-run educational institutions will “be forced to teach a more politically correct curriculum.” Will church agencies, he asks, be forced to choose staff unsympathetic to the “church’s teachings” or will Catholic welfare agencies be “be dragged before anti-discrimination tribunals” for refusing to provide counselling for same sex couples? This from guys who are already threatening to sack people. Talk about “religious freedom”, let alone freedom of conscience!
Two things need to happen. First, the bishops need to realise that marriage equality has nothing whatsoever to do with them. This is not about sacramental marriage, and is therefore the business of the state. When people are offered a choice—as in the postal ballot—it is up to them to choose according to their consciences. As archbishops, they can make their own choices, just like everybody else. But they must not present their views as those of the Catholic Church.
Also, as I stressed in my previous open letter to Archbishop Fisher, just because bishops say something, that doesn’t make it Catholic doctrine. Church authorities must, as Cardinal Newman said, “consult the laity in matters of doctrine,” especially matters that concern them intimately like marriage. And what they say must be “received”, that is Catholics must accept it as true.
Second: to focus on sacramental marriage, perhaps the church needs to get out of the state marriage business altogether. Certainly, I know a lot of Australian priests would prefer this. So, the couple would go to the Registry Office or wherever to procure a marriage license and then, if they wanted a sacramental marriage, or even just get a church blessing, they could go to the parish. Then there would be no confusion between church and state.
The time has certainly come to “stop messing with marriage” as the bishops themselves said a few years back. This applies particularly to them!
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.