Two Catholic bishops have written pastoral letters to their dioceses in which they make it clear that Catholics should not discriminate against same-sex couples and should listen to their consciences in considering how to vote in the ABS survey, now landing in letterboxes throughout the country. Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta and Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle have effectively removed any ‘Catholic’ arguments against supporting marriage equality and stress the responsibility of Catholics to discern carefully in determining their ‘vote’.
Christians must be very confused about how their religious beliefs should influence their views on the current marriage equality survey, officially described in the ABS mail-out as “Your Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey”. Some so-called Christian positions seem to suggest that there is an inherent Christian exclusion of the possibility of civil same-sex marriage. The most careful and authoritative Christian analyses to date may have come from separate pastoral letters of Catholic bishops Vincent Long of Parramatta and Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle.
Bishop Long begins his pastoral letter by observing that many people feel passionate about the issue which “has potential to polarise the community.” Bishop Long might also accept that the Churches have been responsible for much of that polarisation; Christianity has struggled over many years with the place in the Church of people of different sexuality, reinforcing the prejudices in the community, which have however been substantially overcome in recent decades.
Bishop Wright places his remarks on marriage equality in a broader context of ‘Law and Social Change”, noting a range of changes to the law over the years contrary to Church teaching. But he focusses his letter on same-sex marriage, noting that “in a society where same-sex relationships are legal and gay couples can adopt and raise children, it’s a bit of a legal anomaly that their relationship itself doesn’t have a clear legal status.” Bishop Wright observes:
“The question about any proposed law is not whether it squares with church teaching or a moral ideal, but whether it is a good practical rule for people living in this society at this time.”
Bishop Wright acknowledges another question about the marriage equality proposal being asked by some “fellow bishops and many other good people”, namely the social consequences of recognising gay marriage. These social consequences seem to relate to the perceived adverse impacts on people who disagree with marriage equality. However, if one accepts that marriage equality is an acceptance of the equality of people of different sexuality, why should others be allowed to practise discrimination against those benefiting from marriage equality, such as “owners of reception centres, caterers, musicians, hire car firms and so on?”
Consequential arguments seem to be used by those who are uncomfortable with the equality of LGBTI people. The survey does not determine these matters but the reality of politics will deal with any real concerns. The essential issue is the recognition of the equality of us all in society. Bishop Wright finishes by urging the people of his diocese to vote for “what you believe will be best for our Australian community – now and into future generations.”
Both bishops observe that this is not a survey on Church (sacramental) marriage but on civil marriage, marriage according to the law of the State. The question has no impact on church practices nor on our freedom of religion. As Bishop Long observes, civil divorce was legalised contrary to Catholic Church teaching, “but this change did not alter the law of the Church”; nor, it should be added, did it restrict freedom of religion. Without explicitly supporting a particular answer to the survey question, Bishop Long asks that the survey be regarded as “an opportunity for us to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times.”
Bishop Long’s words on the topic of our LGBTI brothers and sisters deserve quoting in full:
“Throughout much of history, our gay and lesbian (or LGBTI) brothers and sisters have often not been treated with respect, sensitivity and compassion. Regrettably, the Church has not always been a place where they have felt welcomed, accepted and loved. Thus, regardless of the outcome of the survey, we must commit ourselves to the task of reaching out to our LGBTI brothers and sisters, affirming their dignity and accompanying them on our common journey towards the fullness of life and love in God.”
Bishop Long’s final words seem to capture the essential message of both men: “Let us pray, discern and act with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.”
Peter Johnstone is the President of Catholics for Renewal Inc
Bishop Bill Wright – Law and social change, 6 September 2017
Bishop Vincent Long – Pastoral letter on the same-sex marriage postal survey, 13 September 2017