A symbolic solution to the marriage debate



Someone once asked what happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object. One suggestion — an indescribable catastrophe! I wonder if that is where we are heading with the debate about the meaning of marriage?

xxxxxThe rhetoric is sometimes bordering on the irrational. Speaking about the age old definition of marriage is now 'hate speech'. People in same sex relationships feel that their love for each other is seen as worthless. So the arguments go on and on.

Marriage, and more broadly any other close domestic relationship, is a fundamental social institution. Its meaning and worth ought not be determined by a poll where whichever side loses is left disenchanted and the other gloats 'victory'.

Is it possible to devise some legislative words that will do justice to both sides of the debate so that a Bill can be brought to the floor of our democratic process and find genuinely bi-partisan support? If we could achieve this, we do not need a plebiscite with the attendant risk of even further social divisiveness and even bitterness and spite, not to mention the cost.

I offer the following as a conversation starter.

When I was in the high school debating team it was impressed on us that it is important to define the terms of the debate. At the moment we are not debating the legal rights of same sex couples. Following legislative changes some years ago they have, in a practical sense, all the rights of married couples.

We are debating the use of the word 'marriage' — how the law ought to define it. It is a symbolic issue. Perhaps the solution needs to be symbolic as well.

Could not the federal legislation move away from defining marriage to a regime where it recognises marriage? It could recognise Catholic marriage (as described in the Code of Canon Law). It could recognise Anglican or Jewish or Islamic marriage and it could recognise secular marriage (which could include a same sex relationship). On this basis the various 'marriages' are different but equal.


"Catholic theology and social teaching about the common good has long recognised that not every activity that it holds to to be immoral needs to be or can be an illegality."


Some basis rules would apply. You have to be 18 years old (no child brides). You have to enter into the relationship freely (no forced arranged marriages). You can only be lawfully married to one person at a time (no polygamy). You cannot be within certain degrees of relationship (no affinity or consanguinity). On separation, rules, analogous to those under the Family Law Act, apply.

Everyone is left free to believe what they like about marriage and to propagate their views personally and within institutions, without recrimination. Former Human Rights Commissioner, and now federal politician, Tim Wilson wrote some very thoughtful comments on the issue of discrimination law a year or so ago. This could be the basis of clear law that recognises freedom of conscience. The so called LGBTI ideology needs to step back and treat others as it would want to be treated. In other words, neither side can impose its views on the other or enlist the media so people are cowered into silence.

If both major political parties could set about finding the right words for a bipartisan bill I suspect that the Australian Catholic bishops and other people of good will might find it an attractive compromise.

Catholic theology and social teaching about the common good has long recognised that not every activity that it holds to to be immoral needs to be or can be an illegality. The great Dominican friar, St Thomas Aquinas is often quoted on that point.

The bishops, if they supported this approach, could well find themselves a voice of reason, as the Church has often been in contentious community debates. It would do wonders for their credibility at this particular time.

It is very unedifying to watch the proponents of both positions playing silly politics, whether by using the numbers to block plebiscite legislation, or to try delaying tactics and stare down the opposition.

Other countries have legislation of one sort or another. Perhaps Australia can stand apart and say our elected representatives truly listened to both sides, saw the merits and weakness of both positions, and found a solution that promoted the common good and the peace and welfare of all its citizens.


Brian Lucas headshotFr Brian Lucas is National Director of Catholic Mission and these are his personal thoughts.

Topic tags: Brian Lucas, same sex marriage, marriage equality



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Existing comments

Brian's comments make a lot of sense. If those in the LGBTI community wish to make a life long commitment to a relationship which is built on the unconditional acceptance, respect and care built on knowledge that love demands, then this needs encouragement and recognition. I have often said that church management let the horse bolt by not making the distinction when the issue was gaining a head of steam, that "marriage" is between a man and a woman, and that they could have suggested at that time that the LGBTI community call their equivalent commitment by any other name they like. All these 'committed' unions would then be enshrined in law as Brian says, and be subject to the same legal rights and laws that are encompassed in the Family Law Act. Equal but different.
Bob Munro | 06 September 2016

"Some basic rules would apply", such that marriage is an exclusive relationship between two persons for life? Actually, these days, (hetero) marriage is an outwardly expressed INTENTION to have a lifelong exclusive relationship but if things get difficult, proof of a twelve month separation will dissolve this intention to allow the parties to evince another intention to have a lifelong relationship, each with another person, as many times as it takes until death actually does part or the parties tire of the effort and settle for cohabiting without the certificate. The LGBTIs might actually have some respect for the Christian position if the Catholic Church had done something about John Paul II's opinion some years ago that there were just too many annulments, or even, with the other Christian churches, re-discerned whether Christians, in the first place, should even be divorcing. Purely on a fairness basis, if LGBTIs are denied just one opportunity to certify their 'love' in a marriage while Christians (like CEOs awarding themselves pay raises) get to award themselves several attempts, it's not difficult to imagine why LGBTIs would see anti-same sex marriage Christians and other heteros as full of it.
Roy Chen Yee | 06 September 2016

There is no need for the state to recognise religious marriage. This debate is not about religious marriage. It's about civil marriage, which is the only form of marriage that the state recognises or is interested in. Religions have no ownership or copyright over the word 'marriage', nor should they. The vast majority of marriages are no longer religious marriages. The state has determined what is and isn't civil marriage for more than 150 years in this country. The constitution provides for the Commonwealth to make laws with regard to marriage. This is not the time to back-track and relinquish the Commonwealth's role and responsibility in making laws about marriage.
Ginger Meggs | 06 September 2016

At first you propose that the government stop defining marriage and relegate itself to the role of simply recognizing marriages, which is all fine. You say that the government would recognize same-sex marriages and Islamic marriages but then you say that the government would not recognize polygamous marriages. I find that unfair and discriminatory, as well as contradictory. The two questions that come to mind after reading this solution are as follows: Why would the government recognize only some Islamic marriages and not others? Why would the government recognize same-sex marriages but not polygamous marriages?
J.S. | 07 September 2016

Often and with good reason we use misleading language about marriage. We say things like "Father Smith married us in Saint Mary's church", when more accurately a couple should say "We married each other in Saint Mary's where Father Smith witnessed and blessed our marriage. They could add "Which we consummated at the Regent Hotel". We should always consider most carefully the role of the people who are married.
Gerry Costigan | 07 September 2016

What would be the basis of the limitation of marriage to two spouses? Mormon and Islamic marriage, historically, have been polygamous marriages at time. And secular marriage is starting to include it.
John M | 08 September 2016

As an advocate of the traditional marriage definition, I think this piece betrays an ignorance of the substance of that position. A very strong point we are trying to make is that broadening the secular definition of marriage is actually detrimental to the common good in fundamental ways. For example, it sets up further violations of the in principle right of every child to be raised by his or her married natural parents, and of the corresponding natural duty of parents towards their children - violations already occurring via the legalization of donor insemination and so on. So, as St Thomas would no doubt point out, while one could not and should not hope to legislate the entire moral law, the state, for the sake of the common good, certainly has the duty to enforce justice to the extent it can do so. Of course I realize that in our pluralist society there is serious and sincere disagreement as to what the common good is on many issues such as marriage. But just as Catholics are not free to hold that the common good of our society as a whole is not damaged when non-Catholics have abortions, they are equally not free to hold that the common good is not damaged when the rights of children and the duties of natural parents are ignored by the state. Moreover, we are fooling ourselves if we think that the fundamentally antagonistic views of man, marriage and society that drive this debate can be resolved through some artful legislative wording.
HH | 08 September 2016

In response to HH, "the in principle right of every child to be raised by his or her married natural parents" might apply in cultures where the nuclear family is the norm. I wonder if it is relevant in cultures where the extended family or clan is the norm and in which various people can and do take on the responsibilities of mothering and fathering children.
Janet | 09 September 2016

Clearly a plebiscite does involve "the attendant risk of even further social divisiveness and even bitterness and spite, not to mention the cost." This article rightly recognises that marriage equality “ought not be determined by a poll”, but the suggested approach introduces complexities that could delay action indefinitely and offer dubious value. Secular marriages and religious marriages are already dealt with in the law. Marriage equality will enable LGBTI people to be married under civil law. There is no need for separate legislation for religious marriages just as there should be no need for separate legislation for civil marriages of LGBTIs. And religions ought not seek to impose their religious views on the civil institution of marriage.
Peter Johnstone | 09 September 2016

When I was at school (i was born in 1934) i was taught that marriage was administered, not by the priest, but by the couple to each other. Marriage, a sacrament, was to give grace to each person to support them in their aim to be true to and support each other. It seems to me that the sacrament of marriage is a blessing which should be extended to a couple of the same sex as much as to a heterosexual couple.
Clare Flanagan | 09 September 2016

Well-meaning twaddle.
Peter Goers | 09 September 2016

Great article: way to go.
Pamela Jones | 09 September 2016

Entirely agree Brian ! Very sensible approach. Rob
Rob Colquhoun | 09 September 2016

Interesting rhetoric, but is it ever possible to compromise on a human rights issue?
P Stewart | 09 September 2016

This is a great solution to a very complex problem. It would respect all parties. Persons of homosexual orientation have endured centuries of discrimination and often hatred and the death penalty in many countries. As a practising Catholic I feel ashamed and distressed at the loud dissent of our bishops to this issue when our own Church leaders including many bishops and other major superiors deliberately concealed terrible crimes of sexual perversion by Catholic priests and other church personnel. This has been exposed by the ongoing Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse. This shocking behaviour has been extensive on a world wide scale, the credibility of our church is no longer credible! I hope that a dignified justice can prevail for same sex attracted persons. Margaret M.Coffey
Margaret M.Coffey | 09 September 2016

Brian I agree with most of what you say, especially that a plebiscite is not the way. But it is not true that same sex couples have the same rights as hetrosexuals. Not all States and Territories have enacted the same laws, and they do not make the same provisions about children. There should be one law for all Australians. Also, I do not see how the Family Law Act could be made to apply equally without changing the definition of what it deals with, namely marriage. 'Recognition' is not a substitute. The politicians are just going to have to face up to their duty. Otherwise, I agree entirely with your comments.
Alan Hogan | 09 September 2016

In 2004 politicians like PM John Howard and AG Philip Ruddock saw what was happening in UK with regard to same sex relationships . They moved to include a definition of marriage in the Marriage Act and also to declare certain relationships as not marriages. The ALP naively thought this would simply enshrine the common law understanding of marriage. The only opposition was from Greens Senator Bob Brown, who had real life experience of a committed loving same-sex relationship. The conservatives claimed they were protecting the common law understanding of marriage. In fact they were looking for another issue that would divide the body politic. The Opposition was so keen to neutralise the issue that they agreed with the amendments. The debate in 2004 was pathetic. Neither side would see or refused to see that it was because members of the LBG community so respected marriage as a social and legal institution that protected intimate committed sexual relationships that they wanted their relationship to treated in the same way. The 2004 Amendments tied a Gordian knot around the Marriage Act. Australia needs a 21st century Alexander the Great - who was gay - to cut through it.
Uncle Pat | 09 September 2016

there is confusion between the cultural and religious aspects of marriage and the family.. In the early Roman Church Christians took part in \\ the domestic wedding ceremony that took place in the home, The Church only became involved when christian families invited a priest to bless the couple. In modern times couples see marriage as a partnership between equals. The concept of the nuclear family with the husband as the provider and the wife as the home maker has given way to wider family support networks
john ozanne | 09 September 2016

A solution to a difficult problem that looks attractive is hard to resist. Has no one noticed that many have ignored the legal status of their relationship and just "got on with it." For Catholics who are concerned about a loosening of the meaning attached to the word marriage I suggest a simple solution: let marriage between two baptised Christians simply be defined as a Sacramental Marriage. That is what it is supposed to be, yet I fear that the equality debate proponents appear to lack the capacity to make the distinction. Until Catholic Christians can demonstrate their grasp of the value of sacraments then my supposition is that the outward form is not being matched by the inner commitment.
Ern Azzopardi | 09 September 2016

I think some of the letters have pointed out the weaknesses in this article. Marriage is a state institution although some churches seem to think it belongs to them. The marriage act was changed in John Howards time as PM without any consultation with the people. The churches are irrelevant to this argument and I often wonder why they try so hard to be involved. This article, as well meaning as it might be, is a thinly veiled attempt to keep things as they are.
Tom K | 09 September 2016

Yes equality does not mean sameness. Differences can be equal.
Jennifer Herrick | 09 September 2016

Thanks Brian Lucas - brilliant proposal. I think it will resonate with plenty of people.
Fabian Chow | 09 September 2016

In theory I applaud Fr Lucas' piece, in which he has acknowledge Tim Wilson's contribution. In practice, the proposal does raise issues - not least of all Church/State Separation. Section 116 of the Constitution does specify the Commonwealth is not to legislate in respect of religion, relevantly, the Commonwealth cannot make any law imposing any religious observance. So is it Parliament's role to recognise Marriage as decreed by Catholic Canon Law? All Churches have spent considerable energy fighting to prevent SSM becoming law, whilst this may been seen as a worthy end goal for them, a bigger issue that Churches surely face is why young people are abandoning in vastly increasing numbers weddings sanctioned by the Church in the first place....
Neil | 09 September 2016

Marriages were happening for thousands of years before there were States or Religions. As States and Religions evolved, each tried to address problems that arose by making laws and claims to address them, and appointing official witnesses to ensure these are observed when the partners wed each other. Many people these days are adapting to new and changing conditions by ignoring these laws and claims and making their own arrangements.
Robert Liddy | 09 September 2016

In many European countries, the state recognises only a civil ceremony. Those who wish have a religious ceremony afterwards. Ministers of religion could decline to hold a religious ceremony if against their conscience. In this scenario, Civil Law could be enacted so that heterosexuals and homosexuals would be eligible for a civil ceremony. People who would like a religious ceremony would need to contact a minister to discuss it.
Mary Samara-Wickrama | 12 September 2016

It is preposterous to suggest a forensic sleight of hand slick re-definition of marriage can satisfy church teaching which perennially, utterly opposed gay sexual acts.
Father John George | 13 September 2016

Genesis 1: 27. Laudato Si is not only about saving nature, it's about saving and restoring what humanity has lost: Ephesians 5 : 32. Marriage is not to be messed with. It is sacred ground, just as Mother Earth, Our Common Home, IS. There is only One marriage. As there is only One Earth. Let's not fool ourselves. Life is not a game, it is a means by which we learn to honour The Truth. The creature (humanity) was created in ''God's Image'', by God. The creature (humanity) was not created by his own doing in the Image of himself. Call it love, if you wish - but love between people of the same sex is not and can never be "a marriage". But only a "man willed union".
AO | 13 September 2016

This issue is yet another one that is basically about the separation of Church and State. As the article and commentators point out, various religions have different forms of marriage; these are mandated by the people who oversee those religions. Many people don't realise that the marriage ceremony as currently performed within the Catholic Church is both a religious and civil ceremony. The sacramental part, overseen by the priest is the religious part; the signing of the book after the sacramental event is the civil part. The current format of the ceremony can actually blur the fact that two separate activities are taking place. The issue for the State is to provide a clear explanation of what, in Australia, the decision of people (whether they have a religious affiliation or not) who wish to cohabit implies: what are their mutual rights and obligations to each other and their possible offspring. Such a statement needs to take into account the fact that Australia is now a multi-cultural society. The basis of our legal system might be British, but there are many people in Australia with no cultural or religious links to Britain or Rome. This difference must be recognised and respected.
Paddy Byers | 14 September 2016

It's a furphy to claim that those who oppose same-sex marriage are doing so from a religious bias. Those who advocate same-sex civil marriage refuse to address the philosophical untidiness of children produced for a same-sex marriage having three parents, two biological and one social. Western humans (courtesy of the Enlightenment) are rational beings but same-sex civil marriage, at least for now, is being defended by its advocates on grounds of whim or caprice only. Hence, for the moment, same-sex civil marriage, or same-sex de facto relationships into which children are produced, are irrational enterprises seeking to be promoted to the status of social institutions. On the other hand, while there are religious objections to the practice, there is no philosophical untidiness when homosexuals de facto co-habit child-free. A same-sex civil marriage would be irrational even if God did not exist. Being irrational, it’s beneath human dignity as rational beings to make it a social institution.
Roy Chen Yee | 14 September 2016

Irrational Roy? Why? Why is family grouping other than a mum, dad and two kids irrational? Would you call families that include adopted children, or melded families with children from both previous and current relationships irrational? Sure, there are some people who oppose marriage equality who claim they are not motivated by religious bias but do you really believe that? And in any case, we're not talking about the right or ability of same-sex couples to have children, or to adopt children, or to have both parents registered as such, or for the right of children to access their biological parents - most of those things are already in place or soon will be. We are simply talking about the ability of the parents to enter into a civil marriage. What are your rational, as distinct from your religious, grounds for opposing that?
Ginger Meggs | 15 September 2016

Ginger Meggs: How is it rational to pronounce different realities the same? Differences should be respected and awarded appropriately distinguishing names.
John | 15 September 2016

Thanks Fr Brian for providing a path through the war of words which is raging on this issue.
Bernadette Wrafter | 16 September 2016

The legal, moral and ethical considerations on the rights of children that are being used as an argument against same sex marriage are universal - whether a couple is homo or heterosexual, society has already dealt with the complexities and our legal system has managed to protect the rights of children without the sky having fallen in. But yes, if we want to discuss adoption and surrogacy and IVF issues - let;s do that - but it's UNIVERSAL and not a dilemma unique to same sex marriage. And yes Roy - same sex marriage is irrational for the majority of society - for heterosexuals, so it's perhaps worth pointing out that heterosexual couples will still be allowed to carry on as usual once Australia catches up to the rest of the civilised world!
AURELIUS | 18 September 2016

Roy, as a gay Catholic, let me assure you that my respect for my church would NOT be enhanced by some sort of ideological restriction on annulments and divorces. I really don't think couples facing marriage crisis make their decisions on whether to stay together or split is based on what the church says what they "should" and should not do. And as a gay Catholic who has already suffered enough through such intolerant and fundamentalist attitides, I can't imagine any other LGBIT person having respect for a church that excommunicates or refuses holy communion to people in a divorce situation. Spare us the preaching and spare us the hypocrisy.
AURELIUS | 18 September 2016

...and Napoleon came into Italy and arrested Pius Vll brought him back to France and held him prisoner. While there, by the way, Pius Vll got in one of the greatest lines in history. Napoleon came to see him and said. "I'm going to destroy the Church" and Pius Vll said " Oh, you silly little man, you're trying to do what 17 centuries of priests and Bishops have tried and failed to do". Yeh, Aurelius, but small is the gate...and only a few find it.
AO | 19 September 2016

AO, I'm not entirely confident I'm interpreting you comment accurately, but I get the impression you are blurring the line between the secular legal debate on these issues - and what's actually a very personal moral issue - and this comment column is not a confessional. No matter what my views on what should be illegal and illegal in the eyes of Caesar, my personal/private moral decisions are still ultimately only judged by God. Perhaps there may may be more moral integrity/consistency in the same sex marriage debate if churches called for what Indonesia is currently attempting to do - and make all premarital sexual activity illegal.
AURELIUS | 20 September 2016

The courageous pontiff lived on until 1823. He had led the Church during one of the darkest periods in her history. But before his death, he also had one more remarkable act to perform. At a time when the relatives of Napoleon Bonaparte were pariahs everywhere, Pius VII issued an invitation to Napoleon’s mother and sisters to reside under his protection in the Papal States. It was a fitting act for the former monk whom Napoleon—looking back in time and with regret while waiting to die on St. Helena—had referred to as "an old man full of tolerance and light."
AO | 22 September 2016

Aurelius, did you take note of what happened in Assisi on the 20th of September? http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/09/20/assisi_pope_francis_appeal_for_peace/1259464 Distinguished atheists were also present. I am wondering if distinguished ( peace loving ) representatives of LGBTI were present, representing also their commitment to world peace. If they were not, do you have any idea why not? Laws come and go, just as Civilisations, Kingdoms and Empires. Man made laws are just that; man made. What happens after the plebiscite is less important than the mode that sets the scene, to get there. All modes of hostility must be abolished. If LGBTI seek just laws I suggest they also commit to Peace and to having Good Will, first. Luke 2: 13-14
AO | 22 September 2016

I read your link AO and found Pope Francis’s words very encouraging. If humanity had a similar heart the world would be a better place. Then I read what I think is your suggestion that “representatives of LGBTI” (if such a group was any more possible than representatives of heterosexuality) must commit to peace and having good will before they can seek Marriage Equality. That’s all well and good and there is nothing wrong with peace and goodwill, but it isn’t a requisite. I know GLBTI people who are the most peace loving folk you could find and the same goes for some heterosexual people. But sexuality and being peace loving don’t necessarily go hand in hand. You only have to make the same suggestion of heterosexual people before they can marry to see the idea for what it is. Pope Francis said “nothing is lost when we effectively enter into dialogue”. My fear is that the plebiscite will only be divisive and any peaceful intent will be shot down in the heat of the “discussion”.
Brett | 23 September 2016

Aurelius and Brett: Pope Francis said “nothing is lost when we effectively enter into dialogue”. In his paper Bishop Robert Barron speaks of Peace as the authentic centre of every human being and orderly just societies - possessing orderly and just laws. Nothing is lost by listening to what he has to say. He starts to speak from 6.50 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrY1pfOMN0g
AO | 23 September 2016

Thanks AO, I did refer to that quote from Pope Francis as well. My concern is the plebiscite will not encourage people to “effectively enter into dialogue”. As it will target a specific group of people, it can only be divisive and hurtful. And yes, from my side of the discussion, it will be very defensive. It is also unnecessary as our elected representatives should be there to make decisions like this. As far as the discussion goes, I have yet to hear one valid or relevant argument against Marriage Equality that is not based on religion, and even the religious ones come down to a matter of interpretation.
Brett | 26 September 2016

I agree with Fr Brian. Section 116 should not complicate anything as the Commonwealth would not be making any law "for imposing any religious observance." It would simply recognise what recognised religions each recognise according to their own laws. The legislative drafting could require some thought so that the appropriate legal entity for the religious body concerned could be correctly named in the Regulations to the Act, and that entity be able to provide official records that the Commonwealth could incorporate into its own register of marriages. The whole point is to allow diversity by recognising differences. I just want to say that my heterosexual marriage is still distinct from a same-gender relationship registered under some new parliament approved category also called 'marriage'. It would be OK if I could still distinguish the different category by which my marriage might have ended up registered under the same legislation.
Quentin Schneider | 03 November 2016

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