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Catholics and the marriage equality plebiscite

Frank Brennan |  02 September 2017


Homily, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Garran, Transfiguration Parish, North Woden, 3 September 2017

Last Sunday, Jesus was asking the disciples who people thought the Son of Man was. The disciples in Matthew's account replied that some thought he was John the Baptist and others, Elijah. Unlike in Mark's account, some also thought that he was Jeremiah — the prophet we hear in today's first reading (Jeremiah chapter 20 verses 7-9) lamenting that he has become a laughing stock in the public square. For Jeremiah, speaking up and proclaiming the word of the Lord meant 'insult, derision, all day long'. He thought he would withdraw and just shut up. But he felt impelled to keep proclaiming the good news.

Last Sunday, Peter thought he was in the box seat. He had rightly proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus declared, 'You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.' Jesus gave him the keys of the kingdom and told him that whatever he bound on earth would be considered bound in heaven. No sooner has Jesus done all this for Peter than Jesus begins to teach about his pending suffering and death 'at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and scribes'. Little wonder that Peter thought himself well situated to take Jesus aside and give him some stern worldly advice, 'Heaven preserve you, Lord. This must not happen to you.' What's Jesus' response to this, his chief disciple, to whom he has just entrusted the whole box and dice for the future? 'Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God's way but man's.'

Controversy even within the faith community is not unknown. Here it is at the very outset of the disciples' mission to establish the Church. Not even Peter gets it, during his first encounter with the revelation that the path of Jesus is the path to Jerusalem, the path of suffering and death.

You may have noticed that there is more than enough controversy brewing at the moment about all manner of things involving the Church in the public square. There is to be a plebiscite or a survey about our opinion on the desirable law about marriage. What to say?

For us Catholics, a baptised man and a baptised woman can exchange their marriage vows before the Church's minister. The sacramental marriage bond is 'established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptised persons can never be dissolved'. The couple pledge themselves to each other exclusively for life, freely and without reservation, being open to the bearing and nurturing of each other's children. Most civil marriages in Australia are not recognised by the Church as sacramental marriages.

Many of us Catholics understand our world through the prism of God's revelation or natural law. Through such a prism, we can describe marriage, and not just sacramental marriages, as being 'established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws'. Mind you, even those of us who find this prism useful need to admit that in Old Testament times, polygamy was seen as acceptable and presumably approved by Yahweh, and the law of Moses allowed the man to divorce a wife.

We live in a pluralistic democratic society in which most citizens are not eligible for a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church, and in which many citizens do not espouse marriage as an institution established by the Creator. Many of our fellow citizens view marriage as a purely human and malleable institution. We Catholics need to concede that marriage under Commonwealth law is very different from a sacramental marriage.

Civil marriage in Australia is a contract terminable on one year's notice by either party. The parties are then at liberty to enter in to a new contract with another party, and to do so ad seriatim. The parties can enter into the contract with an intention not to bear and nurture each other's children even if they be physically capable. None of these present attributes of civil marriage in Australia coincide with the aspects of a sacramental marriage recognised by the Catholic Church.

Should civil marriage be redefined by our Parliament to include an exclusive contract between two persons of the same sex? Some of our bishops have joined forces with others campaigning for a 'No' vote. Some of our bishops are urging people to vote 'No'. Some of our bishops are not urging people to vote 'yes' or 'no', but pleading that they remain respectful during the campaign.

It is important for us to understand that a Catholic could vote 'yes' or 'no' in the forthcoming survey. It is not for me as a priest or for any bishop to tell you how to vote. I have been happy to tell people how I will be voting, but I have no interest in campaigning and urging my fellow Catholics or even my fellow citizens to vote a particular way. As with most public controversies arguments appealing to Catholics of good will can be made for either side in the dispute — as to what constitutes the common good, and as how best to respect the rights and entitlements of all persons, including children.

Whatever way you are intending to vote, remember that it is important to respect the dignity of all, particularly those with whom you disagree. Both sides are agreed that the outcome should be the one which enhances respect and dignity for all. They just disagree on which outcome would achieve that. So, both sides should be committed during the process of the survey or plebiscite to actions and statements showing respect and dignity for all. Let's recall Paul's injunction to the Romans: 'Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind.' Let's wish all the fathers amongst us a very happy and blessed Father's Day, and let's pray for all our dads, living and deceased.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.

For those interested in what opinion Fr Brennan will be giving in the voluntary survey and why, see his Lionel Bowen lecture in Eureka Street and his opinion piece in The Guardian.



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The Archdiocese of Sydney, the Archdiocese of Hobart and the Diocese of Broken Bay have joined and are helping to finance the ‘Coalition for Marriage’. Other members of the coalition include the Australian Christian Lobby, the National Civic Council and the Australian Family Association. The Archdiocese of Sydney reports: ‘The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney is one of four lead members of the Coalition for Marriage. …The Coalition for Marriage is comprised of more than 80 groups from across Australia, representing over 3 million people and which, along with the Archdiocese, is led by the Australian Christian Lobby, Marriage Alliance, and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. It will be the leading voice in the campaign opposing changes to the Marriage Act.’ The approaches of the various archbishops can be found at: Archbishop Denis Hart, the President of the ACBC has issued a pastoral letter: http://melbournecatholic.org.au/Archbishop/Recent-Addresses-and-Pastoral-Letters/archbishop-denis-harts-pastoral-letter-on-same-sex-marriage Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the Deputy President of the ACBC has not issued a statement. Archbishop Fisher who says, ‘To vote with Pope Francis is to VOTE NO’: http://www.sydneycatholic.org/news/latest_news/2017/2017831_292.shtml Archbishop Philip Wilson: http://www.adelaide.catholic.org.au/__files/f/24376/Circular%20-%20Plebiscite%20on%20Marriage%20971%20150817.pdf Archbishop Tim Costelloe: http://www.adelaide.catholic.org.au/news-and-events/national-news/same-sex-marriage-postal-plebiscite?article=24473 Archbishop Christopher Prowse: http://cgcatholic.org.au/2017/08/same-sex-marriage-postal-vote/ Archbishop Julian Porteous has not posted any statement but his archdiocese is one of the members of the Coalition for Marriage.

Frank Brennan SJ 04 September 2017

Archbishop Coleridge has now issued his statement on same sex marriage. It is available at https://brisbanecatholic.org.au/articles/towards-marriage-vote/

Frank Brennan SJ 07 September 2017

My comments on Lateline 11 September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2016/s4732751.htm EMMA ALBERICI: Frank Brennan, when it comes to this particular question of being able to accommodate religious freedoms, how do you balance that in your mind?  FATHER FRANK BRENNAN, JESUIT PRIEST: Well, I think we have got the predicament at the moment where we are dealing with what I would call an indicative-type plebiscite. And the question is, well, do you say "yes" to this, provided the Parliament does something? Or do you say "no," not until Parliament has considered these things? My own view as a citizen is to say: well, I think these are complex questions of religious freedom, particularly in Australia where we do not have a Commonwealth human rights act. And I think finding the balance on these things is very difficult. The Australian Law Reform Commission said it needs further consideration. The Senate committee said it needs further consideration. So for me, it's simply a prudential question: are these matters best thrashed out in the plebiscite campaign? Or is the plebiscite campaign one of saying, "We give the clearance to the Parliament to start the hard work?" And I opt for the latter.  EMMA ALBERICI: Because, of course, in the Catholic tradition, already when someone is a divorcee, they cannot expect to be married in the Catholic Church?  FRANK BRENNAN: Sure. Well, we are dealing, I think, with: you've raised questions about divorce law that were changed, no-fault divorce. All of those changes to the civil law, of course, Emma, meant that civil marriage came to be seen to be more and more different from religious marriage. And let's remember: we are dealing with a very changing social institution. I mean, at the time of Federation, just about everyone was married in Australia by a minister of religion. By 1999, over half the marriages being performed were by civil celebrants. Now, more than three quarters are performed by civil celebrants. And as I say - and it's not to be in any way derogatory about civil marriage - but it is basically, in legal terms now, a contract which parties enter into. It can be terminated on one year's notice and it's not necessary for the parties to have a commitment to bearing and nurturing each other's children, even if they have the capacity to do so. Now, those things are very different from the notion of marriage in my church tradition. And so the question is whether or not now there should be a further change to that civil law, while retaining religious freedoms.  ……… EMMA ALBERICI: Frank Brennan, where does the Bible sit on this question?  FRANK BRENNAN: Well, I don't see the Bible as being so relevant in terms of what the law should be, in that, for me: I mean, what the Bible teaches us, of course: I mean, take Paul's letter to the Romans, which we read in church just this Sunday. Paul said love is the only thing that cannot hurt your neighbour. So if we start with the idea of love and respect, of course we want to give respect to homosexual couples, as we do to heterosexual couples. And increasingly we want to give respect and accord the dignity to the children of unions which are of homosexual families, as well as heterosexual families. And so in that context, I think it's more about asking the question, regardless of what the Bible might say about notions of marriage - because let's remember, particularly in Old Testament times, you had polygamy; and definitely in Old Testament times the Law of Moses allowed divorce. And so you get into very difficult waters once you start trying to apply the Bible to the civil legal institutions in a pluralistic, democratic society. I think it's about: how do you give the respect to these couples? How does the civil law deal with the situation of increasing number of married homosexual couples coming from jurisdictions like the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand: how do we accord those sorts of things? And what I think the Bible injuncts us to do is to work on the principles of respect and dignity.  …….. JACQUELINE NINIO: I think any protections that are required are already in existence in the law and in the Marriage Act as it stands now. So I think we just need to say "yes" and change the law and everyone will find their way. EMMA ALBERICI: A brief comment, Frank? FRANK BRENNAN: The protections are clearly not there in federal law. I would say we should adopt the provisions of sections 14 and 15 of the Victorian Charter of Rights, which is about freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of expression. So yes, vote "yes" but insist that these things have to be included in any legislation. DAVID OULD: Hear hear, Father Frank. EMMA ALBERICI: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Frank, Ali, Jackie, David: appreciate your time, all of you. Thank you so much. ALI KADRI: Thank you very much. FRANK BRENNAN: Thank you. 

Frank Brennan SJ 12 September 2017

Sections 14 and 15 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act provide: 14. Freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief (1) Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief, including— (a) the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice; and (b) the freedom to demonstrate his or her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, either individually or as part of a community, in public or in private. (2) A person must not be coerced or restrained in a way that limits his or her freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching. 15. Freedom of expression (1) Every person has the right to hold an opinion without interference. (2) Every person has the right to freedom of expression which includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, whether within or outside Victoria and whether— (a) orally; or (b) in writing; or (c) in print; or (d) by way of art; or (e) in another medium chosen by him or her. (3) Special duties and responsibilities are attached to the right of freedom of expression and the right may be subject to lawful restrictions reasonably necessary— (a) to respect the rights and reputation of other persons; or (b) for the protection of national security, public order, public health or public morality.

Frank Brennan SJ 12 September 2017

The statistics I quoted on marriages by ministers of religion and by civil celebrants are available at https://aifs.gov.au/…/marri…/marriage-australia-source-data…

Frank Brennan SJ 12 September 2017

Frank, Ought not we Catholics have enough confidence in our tradition, moral theology and our belief that some absolutes do apply in life to say respectfully to our fellow Australians that voting "No" is being truer to what is authentically human, both in an individual sense and in a societal one? Gerard

Gerard 13 September 2017

Gerard, I respect your decision to vote 'No'. On the issue of the ABS survey on same sex marriage, I am one of those Catholics who finds the two pastoral letters from Bishops Long and Wright particularly helpful. See https://catholicoutlook.org/bishop-vincents-pastoral-letter-sex-marriage-postal-survey/ And http://mnnews.today/aurora-magazine/september-2017/22595-law-and-social-change/?source=dio

Frank Brennan SJ 14 September 2017

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