Garry Everett. Who’s Messing with marriage?

Current Affairs

A response to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s Pastoral Letter entitled “Don’t Mess With Marriage”, May 2015.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference issued this Pastoral Letter with three purposes in mind: to engage in the current debate about marriage equality; to present the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage; and to explain the position of the Church to the wider community. The letter does not succeed as it should on any of the three nominated purposes.

The letter is a curiously constructed document basically in two parts. The first part attempts to set out the Church’s views about marriage and marriage equality (“same sex marriage”); the second part provides a long list of undesired, and perhaps unintended outcomes, in other countries, of legislation which impinges on marriage equality. In essence, the Bishops re-state that marriage can only be between a man and a woman; that every child deserves to be raised by a mother and a father; that it would weaken the institution of marriage to share it with homosexual couples; and finally, they warn that marriage equality will lead to the erosion of long held freedoms of conscience, belief and worship.

In setting out the Church’s teaching on marriage and same sex marriage, the Bishops restate certain philosophical-theological argument about treating like with like, concluding that a heterosexual marriage is not like a homosexual marriage, and therefore the two should be treated differently, and certainly not be identified by the same term, ”marriage”. “To do so would be unjust” the Bishops argue. Much of this part of the Pastoral Letter depends upon the definition of marriage. The definition advanced by the Bishops is: “A covenant between a man and a woman, to live as husband and wife, exclusively for life, and be open to the procreation of children.” In entering the debate the Bishops have argued that supporters of same sex marriage are trying to re-define marriage. However, the same charge could well be brought against the Bishops.

In the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church held a Council known as Vatican11. The Church is still struggling to agree upon significant parts of the documents which emanated from that Council. In one document, the Council made an historic decision to change part of the church’s understanding of marriage. For centuries the Church had taught that there were two ends to marriage: having children (the primary end) and nurturing the love of the couple (the secondary end.) The Council removed the distinction between primary and secondary ends, thus rendering both ends as of equal significance. The Council went further acknowledging that “authentic married love “ was at the heart of marriage. Given this historic change, it is curious that in the definition of marriage provided by today’s Australian Catholic Bishops, makes no mention of the word” love”.

This is significant, because their limited definition forces the Bishops to resort to a justification of marriage, based on “difference and complementarity”. These terms are explained as basically biological or anatomical concepts, indicating that men and women have different sexual organs, and that there is a natural fit (complementarity), which is not possible for homosexual couples. One cannot deny this argument, but it is not sufficient in itself to support a full definition of marriage. Most people would accept that marriage is the result of love. The usual sequence is: two people fall in love; they decide to marry; they decide whether to have children or not, and if so how many. The basis of marriage is both a reality and a mystery: love. To deny this is unjust and illogical.

This leads us to consider the second aspect of the Bishops’ definition of marriage, namely having children (the Bishops use the religious term ”procreation”). Generally societies everywhere acknowledge that marriage provides a safe and suitable environment for the rearing of children. Again, research in the area of families tells us that a loving, nurturing, self-sacrificing family environment is what contributes most to the healthy development of young people. The Bishops argument is essentially that such an environment can only be provided by a mother and a father.

Unfortunately, we know that this not always true. We also know, from a smaller set of cases, that homosexual couples can provide, and can fail to provide, such an environment. Successful child raising does not appear to flow from the genders of the parents, but rather something that is achieved through the love of the couple raising the children. This further underscores the centrality of the significance of love in any definition of marriage. As Fr. Richard McBrien in his classic text Catholicism puts it: “Consummation (intercourse) without love, is without meaning.”

The Bishops also indicate that the notion of marriage equality as proposed, will de-stabilise marriage, and change retrospectively, the basis on which all existing heterosexual marriages exist. This is akin to saying that: “You can only make your candle glow brighter, by extinguishing the candle of another.”

The concluding part of the Bishops’ letter provides a long list of undesirable outcomes which they claim flow directly from accepting same sex marriage. These are prefaced by a statement warning that “freedom of conscience, belief and worship will be curtailed in important ways.” In fact all the examples are cases of either poor legislation or its interpretation/application, or of both. It is indeed unfortunate that such incidents as those mentioned by the Bishops occurred, and the Bishops are right in drawing to our attention the need to be clear on how any new piece of legislation is framed in relation to existing legislation .The Australian Human rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, makes an astute observation in this regard. He says: “ Conservatives rightly debate whether any change to marriage could lead to a slippery slope, particularly opening the door to polygamous marriage. But the two are not comparable……… The present push for same sex marriage has gained support precisely because it is a fulfilment of conservative expectations about the role of stable relationships as an essential building block of society, and a form of private social welfare through mutual dependency.”  Creating fear, by listing examples as the Bishops do, is not a defensible tactic.

If we are to have a mature debate about the topic of same sex marriage or marriage equality, then all parties should show a willingness to listen compassionately and genuinely to the other’s experiences. Love not fear should be the guiding principle of the debate. The parties should be seeking a common solution, not a partisan victory. All this is part of the long evolutionary journey of our understanding of marriage. The term is resilient, and has shown an irrepressible ability to be modified and accommodating, in surprising ways.

Garry Everett is a Catholic layman. He has been an adult educator for more than 40 years. He has a strong interest in Church, Theology and Scripture.

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5 Responses to Garry Everett. Who’s Messing with marriage?

  1. Dr John CARMODY says:

    My understanding (which may be faulty) is that “marriage” — which is certainly not a prerequisite for producing children or their stable nurturing and upbringing — has ALWAYS been a civil, legal and contractual matter. It has been, principally, entered into for reasons of money, property and dynastic stability and succession.
    Those matters have existed for more than 2000 years and, hence, they long predate the Christian Church.
    Whatever the liturgical and ecclesial blessing of marriage might bring to the couple and their life, marriage remains, in most parts of the world, a contractual decision as anyone who has, say, been to Europe would know well. It is likewise subject to the civil law in Australia where only a minority of marriages take place in Christian churches or are conducted by clergy of any kind. And when clergy do conduct marriages, they require the authorisation of the law to do so,
    Of course, like any other individuals or groups, the Australian Catholic bishops are fully entitled to argue for their point of view and moral system. But, in doing so, they must act from a base of reality. Their problems are also historical. One is that very few of them have any experience (and therefore real knowledge) of marriage — except, perhaps, from the inadequate perspective of childhood, so they can hardly be surprised when people — whether Catholics of others — take those opinions with a pinch of salt. Another problem is that, over the centuries, the Catholic church has been a willing supporter of many royal dynasties and their marriage arrangements, almost NONE of which have been based on love; rather they have been dynastic. So, unless the Bishops, at the same time, repudiate those centuries of being complicit in a degraded form of marriage (as they currently argue for and defend) there is more than an element of hypocrisy in their position.
    But, far and away the most important point in Garry Everett’s essay, is the difficult question of love and the disdain which many bishops seem to maintain against “Vatican II”. Apart from the fact that few priests and bishops have the remotest experience or knowledge of conjugal love, the other dispiriting truth is that so few of them ever seem to speak with any indication that they know or respect other forms of love either. It always seems to be about power and that is the antithesis of authentic love, of any kind

  2. Garry Everett says:

    Thanks John for your insightful comments. I am not sure why any definition of marriage omits reference to love. As one commentator said: “this is the first age in which people marry, and stay married because of love”. The bishops may not include the word love ( e.g “a covenant of love…”.), because of the general acceptance that homosexual people also love one another and others. Recognizing such love as valid, would cause the Bishops difficulties , requiring them to include homosexuals in those who are eligible to marry. One of the supreme ironies here is that Christians regard God as Love: a reality and a mystery, yet some can’t accept that such a reality and mystery is open to all people regardless of their sexuality, particularly through marriage.

  3. John Challis says:

    Congratulations and thanks to Garry Everett and John Carmody for spotting the basic weakness in the argument of the Catholic Bishops Pastoral ” Don’t mess with Marriage” which has a marked similarity with Archbishop Fisher OP’s column in the SMH 30/6/15.
    As Garry observes ” All of this ( the debate) is part of a long evolutionary journey of our understanding of marriage. The term is resilient and has shown an irrepressible ability to be modified and accommodating in surprising ways”
    The episcopal author’s rigid Aristotelian , essentialist thought process does not allow for the fact that marriage has evolved and changed significantly over the centuries, and is now primarily a legal contract, sponsored by the state, and no longer a religious contract owned by the church. As such all citizens are entitled to access to it.
    Similarly, the notion of what is a family has evolved – there are now several legitimate types of families, recognised by the state : single parent families,same sex families,families made up of divorced parents sharing equally in the upbringing of children, often with new partners also involved.

    The Catholic Church’s rigid linkage of permissible sexual intercourse to producing children is also out of kilter with evolutionary trends . With the development of effective methods of birth control, people can now marry with the explicit intention of not having children. While the state regards such marriages as valid, the Catholic Church does not and will annul them . Similarly marriages between infertile couples or disabled couples who cannot physically copulate are invalid in the view of the Church.
    The climate change crisis is also impacting on the evolution of marriage. The basic cause of increases in the levels of carbon emissions is overpopulation. In future couples , both heterosexual and homosexual, who voluntarily forgo having children, will be seen as making a valuable contribution to the welfare of society and the continuing existence of mankind on the planet.

    Pope Francis is reported to be preparing an Encyclical on climate change, but how can he make a credible contribution to the debate when he and his bishops continue to promote population growth by banning effective means of contraception?

    The final sentence of the Pastoral Letter is rather ironic : “Messing with Marriage is also messing with kids – it is gravely unjust to them”

    As Archbishop Martin of Dublin said : “The Church needs a reality check”

    l

  4. John Challis says:

    Congratulations and thanks to Garry Everett and John Carmody for spotting the basic weakness in the argument of the Catholic Bishops Pastoral ” Don’t mess with Marriage” which has a marked similarity with Archbishop Fisher OP’s column in the SMH 30/6/15.
    As Garry observes ” All of this ( the debate) is part of a long evolutionary journey of our understanding of marriage. The term is resilient and has shown an irrepressible ability to be modified and accommodating in surprising ways”
    The episcopal author’s rigid Aristotelian , essentialist thought process does not allow for the fact that marriage has evolved and changed significantly over the centuries, and is now primarily a legal contract, sponsored by the state, and no longer a religious contract owned by the church. As such all citizens are entitled to have access to it.
    Similarly, the notion of what is a family has evolved – there are now several legitimate types of families, recognised by the state : single parent families,same sex families,families made up of divorced parents sharing equally in the upbringing of children, often with new partners also involved.

    The Catholic Church’s rigid linkage of permissible sexual intercourse to producing children is also out of kilter with evolutionary trends . With the development of effective methods of birth control, people can now marry with the explicit intention of not having children. While the state regards such marriages as valid, the Catholic Church does not and will annul them . Similarly marriages between infertile couples or disabled couples who cannot physically copulate are invalid in the view of the Church.
    The climate change crisis is also impacting on the evolution of marriage. The basic cause of increases in the levels of carbon emissions is overpopulation. In future couples , both heterosexual and homosexual, who voluntarily forgo having children, will be seen as making a valuable contribution to the welfare of society and the continuing existence of mankind on the planet.

    Pope Francis is reported to be preparing an Encyclical on climate change, but how can he make a credible contribution to the debate when he and his bishops continue to promote population growth by banning effective means of contraception?

    The final sentence of the Pastoral Letter is rather ironic : “Messing with Marriage is also messing with kids – it is gravely unjust to them”

    As Archbishop Martin of Dublin said : “The Church needs a reality check”

    l

  5. Mal Gibson says:

    Apart from all the issues so well identified in these posts, the statement which most riled me in the Bishops’ Letter was: “sociological research…attests to the importance for children having, as far as possible, both a mother and a father”, with little supporting evidence.
    In stark contrast, a 2007 literature review of over 200 published studies conducted for the Australian Psychological Society concluded: “the research indicates that parenting practices and children’s outcomes in families parented by lesbian and gay parents are likely to be at least as favourable as those in families of heterosexual parents”.
    In 2013, the Australian Institute of Family Studies concluded: “Overall, research to date considerably challenges the point of view that same-sex parented families are harmful to children. Children in such families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers from heterosexual couple families.” Garry correctly identifies what all that research has consistently found for many years: it is love in the relationship with the child that counts, not the gender of the parents. Surely it’s time this myth was laid to rest.

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