Garry Everett. Who’s Messing with marriage?

Jun 8, 2015

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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