CHRIS MIDDLETON. ‘The Church’s teaching, if it isn’t expressed in terms of love – then it’s got it wrong.’

Aug 31, 2017

The postal vote on same-sex marriage will no doubt generate much discussion within families and communities, and, in particular, will play on sensitivities in Catholic circles where an understanding of sacramental marriage is so strong.

At the outset it is important to argue for a sense of civility and respect to be shown in this national debate, lest the degree of polarisation that has blighted the United States scene afflict us. Already there are worrying signs of overheated rhetoric. Former Justice Michael Kirby has virtually equated opponents of same-sex-marriage with hate speech. There is a campaign among advertising agencies to deny their commercial services to the no campaign.  The ABC has had to instruct its staff to avoid partisanship. On the ‘no’ side the Australian Christian Lobby has made the hurtful claim that the children of same-sex couples are a new stolen generation. Offensive ‘Stop the Fags’ posters have appeared in Melbourne. There can be a tendency on both sides to so frame the debate as to unavoidably demonise the opposing view that is destructive. And it seems to me to be in the interests of both sides to avoid this. The ‘yes’ campaign, in my reading of the polls, can only lose if a perception of suppressing alternative voices alienates many in the middle, and the ‘no’ campaign can risk all credibility for its proponents in Australian society if they are identified with prejudiced or hateful language.

It is important to the understanding of the emotions generated already in this debate to recognize not simply the two different positions, but also to recognize the two different lenses through which the debate is seen. For many on the ‘yes’ side the issue is about equality and the human rights of the LGBTI community, and from this perspective a vote on whether they have such rights, or not, in itself seems offensive (especially now that so much of the Western world have already recognized same-sex marriage). It leaves some exposed and feeling vulnerable to attacks about the most intimate part of life. On the other hand, many in the ‘no’ campaign believe marriage to be integral to social structure, and therefore an issue of significant social policy that is deserving of debate. They fear that something they cherish is being diminished and society is weakened.

For many Christians another dimension to the debate is that there is an understanding of marriage that predates civil marriage. In our Catholic tradition, the marriage vows (the priest does not marry a couple) signal a mutual covenant, based in God’s creative and loving relationship with us, anchored by Jesus’ teaching that God created us male and female, and that the two become one body. It is not simply a social construct and thus has an extraordinary importance for the believer. There are related concerns about religious liberty, about the freedom of those who will continue to hold to an understanding of marriage as a spiritual ideal.

Our Church leaders face a difficult path to tread in discerning how the Church should have its voice heard in this debate, both from a pragmatic point of view (what is achievable in a pluralist society) and from an ethical view (what is right or desirable). And to be brutally honest, the Church speaking out in controversial areas around sexuality risks being mired in vitriolic attacks on its credibility in the aftermath of the Royal Commission.

Two reflections have been helpful for me. One Jesuit pastor notes that “the Catholic Church has two distinct modes of teaching about marriage and they should not be confused. The far more important teaching is about marriage as a sacrament grounded in earthly realities; the second concerns the role of marriage in God¹s plan and so about its social aspects. Of course, these two sets of teaching are related. Whereas, most other Christian Churches don’t make the distinction, so that any threat is a threat to the whole.” In our social history, understandings of marriage have evolved and changed as our culture has changed (arranged marriages, the role of women, divorce and so on).

A Jesuit theologian writes about “the importance of the Christian ideal of marriage for society”, but that “its power lies in being lived not in enforcement”. Such an emphasis leaves room for the Church to respect those who believe or live differently, while still witnessing to its own belief in the meaning of marriage. It could be argued then that “the vote is not for or against Christian marriage but about what definition of marriage best serves the harmony and unity of civil society in its imperfect state”.

In this context, the Church needs to find a voice that is appropriate to the secular sphere – after all, the vote relates to marriage as a civil right, and is not in essence about the Catholic sacramental understanding of marriage. There are of course legitimate public issues about the nature of marriage as an institution in civil society, for the relationship of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks in society that impacts the common good, for good or ill. But such discussion, in which the Church has every right to participate in, needs to be determined on the merits of the arguments rather than through appeals to authority, religious or otherwise. There are also important aforementioned considerations of conscience and religious liberty connected with important social change, but they are more likely to be respected if the Church is not seen as an uncompromising enemy of same-sex marriage in civil society. At the same time, some proponents of same-sex marriage are disingenuous in reducing concerns about religious liberty to excusing religious marriage celebrants from requirements to officiate as same-sex marriages. Will, for example, Catholic school be free to teach a traditional approach to marriage? Will religious bodies be open to all kinds of civil suits if they only recognize traditional marriage in their specific religious contexts?

As one who works in a school and who is charged with witnessing to our faith to the young, it is clear that the debate exposes a real disconnect between the Church’s public opposition to same-sex civil marriage and the attitudes of young people. In my experience, there is almost total unanimity amongst the young in favour of same-sex marriage, and arguments against it have almost no impact on them. This has been the experience in many similar countries. In Ireland, Archbishop Martin of Dublin picked this up with his comments after the Irish referendum delivered a result in favour of same-sex marriage:

‘I think really that the Church needs to do a reality check, a reality check right across the board, to look at the things it’s doing well, to look at the areas where we really have to start and say, ‘Look, have we drifted away completely from young people?’

Again it is important to draw the distinction between the argument about public policy in a secular state and our own moral positions. As Archbishop Martin commented further, “That doesn’t mean that we renounce our teaching on fundamental values on marriage and the family. Nor does it mean that we dig into the trenches. We need to find…a new language which is fundamentally ours, that speaks to, is understood and becomes appreciated by others.” The Archbishop added that:

“We tend to think in black and white but most of us live in the area of grey, and if the Church has a harsh teaching, it seems to be condemning those who are not in line with it. But all of us live in the grey area. All of us fail. All of us are intolerant. All of us make mistakes. All of us sin and all of us pick ourselves up again with the help of that institution which should be there to do that. The Church’s teaching, if it isn’t expressed in terms of love – then it’s got it wrong.”

I believe that this last sentiment by the Archbishop is critical in how we communicate our views in areas like sexuality. It is a challenge for the Australian Church in our debate today, where the rhetoric of political discourse and partisanship can over-ride a pastoral priority.   Pope Francis’ call needs to be heeded:“Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.”

Whatever of the postal vote, the Church needs to reflect on why there such strong support for same-sex marriage among the young. They are driven by a strong emotional commitment to equality, and this is surely something to respect and admire. They know the reality of homophobia, and the destructiveness that it, like racism and sexism, can have in the lives of people, and especially on the young. They are idealistic in the value they ascribe to love, the primary gospel value. Any argument against same-sex-marriage must respectfully address these core values, or they will fail a basic test of credibility with our young. Such arguments must appeal to believer or non-believer alike.

A start is made by Archbishop Costelloe of Perth who in a pastoral letter written in defence of a traditional view of marriage articulates some carefully chosen words about a Catholic approach:

“This view presumes that marriage is about more than the ­mutual love between two people: it is also about the creation of a family. None of this suggests that there should be any unjust discrimination against same-sex couples. Nor does it suggest that legal protections and government benefits should be denied to same-sex couples.

“Many of us have family and friends in same-sex relationships: we love and respect them and want to see them treated with ­dignity,”

For many Catholics engaged in the debate the critical question is whether the denial of the right to civil marriage is an “unjust discrimination”?

Chris Middleton SJ is a Jesuit Priest and Rector of Xavier College Melbourne

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