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Michael Kirby on sexuality and churches


In Western countries, gay rights is a hot button issue, with a focus at the moment on gay marriage. US President Barack Obama recently came out in favour of gay marriage, while in Australia leaders on both sides of federal politics are against it.

In the Vatican's Notification published last week censuring American nun, Sister Margaret Farley for the views expressed in her book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, the Catholic Church has once again affirmed its stance against homosexual acts and gay marriage.

It quoted the 1975 Catechism of the Church: 'Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.'

With regard to gay marriage it cited a 2003 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith: 'Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.'

Nevertheless there is widespread disagreement in Australia with the Church's teachings. Surveys have consistently shown growing majority support for gay rights. A recent major survey conducted by Federal Parliament and published in April showed 64 per cent of Australians in favour of gay marriage.

The interviewee featured on Eureka Street TV this week, Michael Kirby, is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, a practicing Christian, and one of this country's best known openly homosexual citizens. The video shows excerpts of a speech he delivered at the Uniting Church, Paddington in Sydney's eastern suburbs launching a book called Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality edited by Nigel Wright.

Kirby wrote the introduction to the book, in which five Anglican theologians rework interpretations of biblical texts traditionally used to condemn homosexuality. Kirby argues against the view that homosexuality is an unnatural 'disorder', claiming that modern science and psychology reveal it to be a natural condition for a minority of people.

Kirby was born in 1939, grew up in Sydney and attended the prestigious Fort Street Selective High School. He studied Arts, Law and Economics as an undergraduate, and received his Master of Law with first class honours from Sydney University.

This began an illustrious career in the law and judiciary including stints on the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, as a judge in the Federal Court of Australia, as President of the NSW Court of Appeal, culminating with his appointment to the High Court of Australia in 1996. He retired from the High Court in 2009.

Kirby has received many honours for services to the law including being made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1982, and Companion of the Order of Australia in 1991. In 1991 he also received the Human Rights Medal, and in 2006 was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities.

From 1984 until 1993 he was chancellor of Macquarie University, and since 1987 he has received honorary doctorates from some 20 Australian and overseas universities.

Kirby has been open about his homosexuality since 1999 when he outed himself in Who's Who by naming Dutch-born Johan van Vloten as his same-sex partner. Since then he has been outspoken about gay rights.

He is a prolific writer, having penned scores of articles for legal journals, and a number of books, including a number of legal tomes and a memoir entitled Michael Kirby: a Private Life, Fragments, Memories, Friends.

There are also many articles and books written about him including Freckelton and Selby's Appealing to the Future: Michael Kirby and his Legacy, and A. J. Brown's Michael Kirby: Paradoxes/Principles. 

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Michael Kirby, homosexuality



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Existing comments

Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1994. Which one are you referring to?

george connolly | 14 June 2012  

Peter, the survey results you quote re same-sex marriage rights is problematic. The survey was an on-line one, excluding a significant proportion of citizens who don't have personal access to a computer and those for whom internet is still an unreliable dial-up task. The only valid testing of this issue for the nation who woud need to live with any consequences of any changed marriage laws is one where all eleigible voters get a vote, at a properly supervised Commonwealth election after a Parliament supervised information process where all voters receive written statements for and against. As it now stands, the campaign is being managed as an activist one, both for and against. Not one political party has taken to an election a properly drawn policy showing all the facets of any proposed change to the marriage Act, allowing for voters to accept or reject. "Please note that the online survey is not a statistically significant survey. There is an insignificant rate of duplication (duplicate email address, multiple responses from the same IP address, invalid email addresses) of approximately 4.4% (3.6% for ‘agree’ responses and 0.8% for ‘disagree’ responses)." Govt warning re results. Give all Australians a vote.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW | 14 June 2012  

Please correct me if I am wrong, but is it not the case...and it would intrigue me if it were so confirmed ...that Michael Kirby...along with two other high profile self proclaimed gays,Senator Bob Brown and Senator Wong have all publicly declared that even if gay marriage were allowed they would not marry their partners?So what is is...a walk down the garden path or a refusal to go up the aisle? With regard to President Obama's recent support for gay marriage it does have to be noted in any reference to it that he was blindsided by Vice President Biden who has a lesbian daughter. Might help to put things into context. As is so often is the case, it is not so much what is said but, rather, what isn't.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 14 June 2012  

For this to be an informed debate, it is necessary for the video to have captions. Please stop excluding those of us who can't hear fully. If videos can have picture and sound, it can have captions.

Suzbat | 14 June 2012  

Good on the Judge. As a former lawyer, I have a lot of time for him and his previous judicial stances. I must disagree with him on this one though while I do believe he is open in this debate and presents the facts in a reasonable way. Of all those in favour of redefintion he has been honest enough to admit that the redefinition of marriage will potentially open the way to more redefintions. Polygamy (no not bridges or children!) will be next and how can we validy argue against it if it is all about love and equality. Anyway, I wanted to congratulate Fr Mick Mac. He is correct in what he says about this survey. The author of this piece should have pointed this out and indeed it should have been picked up by the editor. This is sloppy journalism IMO. In most of these pro redefintion of marriage surveys (conducted by Galaxy incidentally) the methodology is seriously flawed which questions the results.

present the whole picture on surveys | 14 June 2012  

Michael Kirby is a great example of someone who leads by the example of his own courage and truth. I am so grateful for him. Incidentally, when I tried to get this book through Amazon and Fishpond, they had both sold out - fortunately Amazon now have promised to fill my order in early August. Booksellers must love the Vatican!

Pauline | 14 June 2012  

An impressive CV, based on a no-doubt exemplary understanding and love for the Law. However, such does not necessarily qualify this man as any authority on matters of Christian teaching, particularly if that appreciation is flawed, not through his own life preferences but through his stated observations in this video. He chooses to argue against what he called a "Divine dislike of gay people", his preferred interpretation of Christian teaching. Christianity does not preach this, but rather, that the Divine indeed loves all He has created regardless of what an indivual's sexual preference might be - and that includes Kirby's "gay people". What Christianity does teach, however, is that regardless of sexual orientation moral and amoral behaviours are applicable to both hetero- and homosexual orientations. Christian teaching espouses the morality of sexual behaviour within a union between man and woman blessed by God according to Christian teaching. Alternative self-interest views should not be allowed (particularly by a Cathoolic commentator of influence)to sabotage Christian teaching. I suppose this is justified in the name of either social inclusion or [pseudo] intellectual discourse.

john frawley | 14 June 2012  

The following is an extract from a conversation between Jesus and one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church :... For all the harm that befalls the world comes from a Failure to Understand the Truths of Scripture in all their true clarity, of which not one iota shall fail.I thought that I had always believed this, and that all the faithful did so. Ah- He said to me, how few there are that truly love Me- do you not know what it is to love Me truly? It is to know that everything which is not pleasing to Me is a lie. You do not realize this yet but you will come to see it clearly in the profit it brings to your soul.

Myra | 14 June 2012  

TO note my position I find the carrying on about gay marriage over-loud, largely irrelevant to the state of the commonwealth. On the other hand I do not care if it becomes legal. People, no doubt including the neanderthals, out of love , economic need, sheer ease of existing as hunter and gatherer, etc etc have lived together down the aeons. And we can include non-humans as well. To many of these associations the name "marriage" or its linguistic experience got attached. Some centuries ago the Christian church tacked religion on it, Jesus had little to say on the matter including some jokes with a woman and a statement on "divorce"_ Jewish divorce no doubt although over the centuries the churches have re-applied it. Most strongly "What God has joined together". Now there is a big ask.

Brian Poidevin | 15 June 2012  

What a great Jesuit theologian Justice Michael Kirby would make! Jesuit theologians I have read have a tendency to discuss issues from three perspectives. They put the strongest arguments in favour of a proposition; then the strongest arguments against; and then a middle way. This middle way is not a compromise or a half-way house. It is usually a position that absorbs what is intellectually acceptable in both the positive and the negative arguments and produces a humane synthesis. Where this synthesis cannot be achieved, they declare the proposition an open question. Same-sex attraction is a fact of life. At 4/5% of the population people who declare themselves to be attracted exclusively to members of the same sex do not claim to be normal. Normal is a quantitative measure - like the normal cycle on a washing machine. For same-sex attracted people their condition is natural. In fact psychological and physiological studies have shown that there is a little bit of the feminine in the most macho of men and a little bit of masculinity in the most delicate of women. Hence same-sex relations are not "intrinsically" disordered for same-sex couples who are naturally attracted to one another.

Uncle Pat | 15 June 2012  

Brian Haill, your comment about Obama being "blindsided by the fact that Biden's daughter is a lesbian" is like saying that he was blindsided by reality - that's not really what "blindsided" means! And Bob Brown's statement you referred to was about civil union/registry, not full marriage rights. He commented that the registry idea was not much different to registering a dog.
I am also gay but I have no current intention of getting married, but I still hold onto the principles of human rights for those who want to.

AURELIUS | 16 June 2012  

So Fr Mick, is your belief system based on opinion surveys, the catechism of '75, the catechism of '94 or your conscience?

AURELIUS | 16 June 2012  

I don't see how polygamy, or its lesser known friend, polyandry, will result from gay people and lesbians being able to be married. I think within my lifetime I may see gay marriage in the Anglican church in Australia (or at least in the more progressive bits of it).

I do hope so. And I expect Eureka Street will send a photographer (if the happy couple don't mind).

Penelope | 17 June 2012  

Yes Jesus did say a few things on homosexuality
As a judge Michael Kirby would realise where the word Sodomy comes from

Matthew 10:1-15 Jesus said: "And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomor'rah than for that town."

Individuals with homosexual tendencies who do not practice homosexual acts are acceptable to God. (same as unmarried individuals who, despite urges, do not commit fornication) not that difficult (1 Cor. 6:9-11.)

Luke | 28 July 2012