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A third way in the marriage equality debate


A recent episode of Doctor Who contained a fascinating scene. Two parties in conflict with each other — in this case humans and an alien race called the Zygons — were each given access to a box with two buttons. One of those buttons would give them everything they wanted, the other would result in catastrophic consequences for their own side.

Keyboard with win/lose buttonTo proceed with the conflict they just had to push one of those buttons. But they could not know the consequences of the button they pushed, until they pushed it.

This story comes to mind as the conflict between advocates for marriage equality and the defenders of traditional marriage moves to the courtroom.

The Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission recently found the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has a case to answer for its distribution of the 'Don't Mess With Marriage' booklet in the state's schools.

A process of arbitration will decide if the distribution of the book was 'conduct that is offensive, intimidating, insulting or ridiculing of Ms Delaney and the class of same sex attracted people'. These legal cases will mirror similar actions in the United States and elsewhere, where opponents of same sex marriage have been taken to court for actions seen to discriminate against the rights of LGBTI people.

Some might feel that court actions are inevitable. But the Doctor Who experiment provokes us to look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in such a polarised conflict.

Let's say those opposed to same-sex marriage are overwhelmingly successful in their defence of their teachings and institutions, and are able to maintain the distinct privilege of heterosexual marriage in the country's legislative structure.

In this outcome, adoption, reproductive health and nursing home providers will be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples in their provision of services. Private schools will be allowed to teach to traditional models of marriage and sexuality, and to discriminate in their hiring practises on the basis of orientation. All of this will reduce the options available to LGBTI people.

The majority of people will maintain, as they currently do, that same sex couples should not be marginalised or demonised. But those moved to vilify and target same-attracted people will only be encouraged. Same-sex couples will likely also continue to have difficulties with everyday activities such as dealing with utility companies, and they'll be more vulnerable when one of them gets sick or passes away and next-of-kin is being determined.

From a LGBTI perspective, such an outcome would represent a catastrophic blow to their aspirations of inclusion. Their hopes of acceptance would be hemmed in by a series of legal decisions that only confirm their marginalisation. The battle for recognition among those who are same sex attracted would of course continue, and their animosity towards Christians would only get deeper.

Now let's say, instead, that the proponents of marriage equality are overwhelmingly successful in their efforts. Marriage is redefined at a federal level so that it becomes any lifelong union entered into by two parties regardless of gender. Those who deny marriage equality would be considered in the same way as those who deny racial or gender equality.

If Christians propagate teachings or act in any way that is seen to deny marriage equality they could be treated in the same way as those who propagate racist or sexist views.

In this world, it would be easier for same-sex attracted couples to sign up for bank accounts and utilities, and work through legal issues around power of attorney and next-of-kin. Young people would be taught that same-sex attraction is no different to heterosexual attraction, so their teenage years will become more about discerning rather than fearfully reconciling their orientation.

Christian welfare, health and nursing home providers could be forced to provide services to same-sex couples or be closed. Christian schools could also be forced to teach to the new models of marriage and sexuality, and not discriminate against staff who reject Church teaching on those issues in their hiring.

Some of these institutions could choose to remain open, but it's easy to imagine many religious leaders staying true to traditional Christian teachings on these issues and choosing to close them instead. In jeopardy will be health and welfare institutions that serve hundreds of thousands of people, not to mention an education sector that provides for a quarter of the country's students.

What will be left in this scenario are more introverted, isolated and fundamentalist religious communities — places increasingly hostile to the rest of contemporary society.

There is another way. People on both sides still have an option to work together to build a lasting peace.

The argument of both marriage equality and traditional marriage advocates is that their way of life is one that best leads to a flourishing society. The proof in both cases is not something to be established in a courtroom or parliamentary debate, but in everyday life.

A negotiated path would see both marriage equality and traditional marriage advocates work together to remove the barriers that get in the way of the other's flourishing.

This process was modelled recently in the Victorian Parliament, where same-sex couples won the right to access adoption services, while religious organisations won the right to restrict access to their own adoption services to heterosexual couples.

Those on the extremes on both sides were unhappy with the result, but as a negotiated outcome it allows both same-sex couples and religious organisations to continue to pursue what they consider as their best interests unimpeded.

At the moment, the conversation on marriage equality vs traditional marriage is being driven by extremists on both sides, people who see the struggle as a polarised conflict with the goal of overwhelming victory. But most of us would find that victory unattractive no matter which side is triumphant. Instead, we can choose not to press the button, and to work together to allow both same-sex couples and practising Christians to live their beliefs faithfully, to the fullest of their flourishing.



Michael McVeighMichael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.

Image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Michael McVeigh, marriage equality



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Existing comments

Well said, Michael.

Edward Fido | 04 December 2015  

Another option is for the Church to continue 2000 year task of from Jesus of evangelising and transforming society with the teaching of Scripture and Magisterium on marriage and the unaceptability of Gay unions!

Father John George | 04 December 2015  

I support the idea of same-sex couples and Christians living their beliefs faithfully, since respect for freedom of conscience is a moral imperative. However, to couch the debate in terms of "marriage equality" is already to prejudice the outcome in favour of same-sex marriage since it implies that there is no real difference between same-sex unions.and traditional marriage. Rhetorically,this is clever, since what fair-minded person wishes to be seen as opposing "equality."

John | 05 December 2015  

Michael's approach is similar to that proposed some months ago by Frank Brennan. While both have the air of sweet reasonableness, I wonder why it is only now, when marriage equality in Australian civil law is within sight, that representatives of organised religion come up with 'third ways'. For years, the churches, and in particular the Catholic Church, has pursued what Michael calls an 'extremist' position, seeking to deny others marriage equality by whatever means it could marshal. It was a case of we are right and they are wrong. There was no sign of any attempt, or even desire, to find a 'negotiated path' which would allow each side to 'pursue... their best interests unimpeded'. Why should we now see the proposals of Michael and Frank as anything more than a last ditch attempt to secure privileges for organised religion as a trade off for backing off from absolute opposition to equality in civil marriage?

Ginger Meggs | 05 December 2015  

"At the moment, the conversation on marriage equality vs. traditional marriage is being driven by extremists on both sides." Is it extreme to want a loving, faithful same-sex relationship to be accorded the same rights as a loving, faithful heterosexual relationship? It is extreme for those who have always enjoyed this privilege to deny the same privilege to two fellow human beings who happen to be homosexual. Fortunately, there are many people who want everyone to flourish and that's where this debate can be resolved. Talking to each other in a way that says "We will work this out".

Pam | 05 December 2015  

Ginger Meggs, For many more years of human experience "marriage equality" was never even a concept - it took media celebrities, press sensationalism and Hollywood to get it into popular circulation, and it has about as much intellectual substance as this triad. Now you wish to brand Catholic teaching on marriage "extreme". What next in the fad stakes?

John | 05 December 2015  

Do Catholic institutions, services, workplaces currently refuse service/employment to divorced couples or heterosexual de facto couples or those who engage in pre-marital sexual activities?

AURELIUS | 05 December 2015  

John, I think you've misunderstood what I said. Michael, in his article, and especially the last paragraph, refers to 'extremists on BOTH sides' (emphasis added) who, says Michael, 'see the struggle as a polarised conflict with the goal of overwhelming victory'. It is this sort of extremism which I see as the position taken heretofore by the Catholic Church whenever there has been any suggestion of changing the nature of civil marriage. Do you suggest that the church has not sought to impose its teachings about religious marriage onto civil marriage?

Ginger Meggs | 05 December 2015  

I was reading this and thinking the same as Ginger Meggs: they are in retreat but will keep trying to throw up barriers as they defeat themselves. Why defeat themselves? Because even most Catholics don't support their position. The churches will go on shrinking as long as they maintain their insistence on hanging on to this power - the power to judge & condemn others based on their primitive beliefs. But look, here's a friendly counter offer: that the Catholic Church be allowed to go on running its discriminatory institutions, but, reasonably, receive absolutely not one cent of public funds - no government money or contracts; tolerated, but not supported.

Russell | 05 December 2015  

Who are the "they" you perceive to be in retreat, Russell - if you mean the Catholic Church's hierarchy, I don't see bishops today failing to be accountable or relinquishing their duty to present Christ's teaching on marriage with integrity; in fact, some are facing civil prosecution for it through the powers of the secular state. Paradoxically, in history the Church has grown when it has faced crisis - but never by abandoning its constitutional beliefs, teachings and practices for alternate ones.

John | 06 December 2015  

We are well beyond the power of the Church in the Holy Roman Empire, Ginger. Do you accept the Church's right to a voice and influence in public affairs in a democratic and pluralistic society?

John | 06 December 2015  

I simply ask, what would Jesus do?

Tim Collier | 07 December 2015  

Unfortunately, the 'third way' you describe is not a third way at all, merely a continuation of the status quo with slightly different labels attached. And hence, quite impossible. Religions will easily be able to keep their schools, hospitals, aged care homes, universities and breakfast cereal factories as true to their religion as they wish, provided they become private institutions servicing only paid up members of the faith in question. Private institutions not open to the general public, and not in receipt of any state funding or business. But if the churches, mosques and synagogues wish to continue operating as businesses in the Public marketplace, in competition with secular businesses, then in a pluralistic society, it is only right, fair and just that they operate under exactly the same laws as everyone else. You are merely arguing that you should be allowed the maintain the extraordinary privileges you currently enjoy. These are not normal in most of the civilised world, and they ought not that be so here. And that is not an extreme position, but a fair and reasonable one. It is time to step out of your privileged and blinkered cloister and into the real world.

Doug | 07 December 2015  

A well-reasoned article, but misses the point, I think. For centuries the hallmark of holy matrimony has been its indissolubility. Not for nothing was it called "holy deadlock"; Henry VIII had to resort to extreme work-arounds to get out of his. This no longer applies to civil marriage in our Australian context where marriages are terminable at the whim of either party. But holy-matrimony style marriages still take place in churches everywhere, and are still regarded as being for life. Same sex marriage was for centuries off the agenda, because same sex relationships were regarded as unnatural, incomprehensible, illegal or inconceivable. But they are no longer. And civil marriage has to expand to make allowances for the changed understanding of the society in which we live. Holy matrimony in church can continue to run its own race, with life-long commitment, exclusion of divorced people, consanguinity rules and ddispensations, rules abput how children are to be brought up, and, if needed, exclsion of people of the same sex. Only don't impose those rules on the rest of society, which may not agree with tem.

oldG | 07 December 2015  

Thanks Michael for putting into words the silent majority's perspective on this matter. As a supporter of traditional marriage and the Catholic Church's teachings on marriage, my main concern was that the Church's teachings would become illegal and also that Catholic couples would not be able to pledge to a Catholic marriage recognised by the Government, as is the case now. For example, the preservation of such terminology as husband and wife is at risk, if, as you say, no compromise solution can be found to help all couples. Let's hope the questions to be put in the national plebiscite respect the position of both sides and offer our nation an opportunity for a genuine debate on marriage as it is to be determined by the law.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 07 December 2015  

Does this issue not have deeper roots? How can Christians, especially the Catholic Church accept any compromise when it still teaches that homosexuality as an act is "intrinsically evil"? LGBT people demand nothing less than equality, and they have a right to it. This does not remove my believe that sacramental marriage is part of my own belief system.

Peter | 07 December 2015  

I wonder why homosexuals don't consider their sexual preference as something special and private not to be bandied about in the public domain. Life is unlikely to change if they do not marry in the modern world with its political correctness and anti-discrimination laws. I also wonder why they are so keen to marry when today 2/3 of heterosexual relationships choose not to. Time for the homosexual community to embrace adulthood, and for this country to stop following the USA blindly in its quest to destroy all that is good in civilised Western society.

john frawley | 07 December 2015  

Great article!

Clare Deignan | 07 December 2015  

How can 'flourish' be a desirable value? There's a well-known saying that evil flourishes when good men do nothing. Since the Eichmann trial, the phrase 'banality of evil' - which seems to mean that it doesn't take an ogre to commit evil in a routine, mechanical way, merely a normal person who doesn't think through the consequences of what he or she is doing - has also become a well-established idea in the culture. Who gets to define evil? In the Catholicverse, it's the Church because evil is a spiritual concept, not one can be analysed and defined purely through human understanding. The Church has defined the outcome of two lonely people of the same sex who enter an emotional and sexual relationship akin to heterosexual marriage as an intrinsic evil, ie., an evil for which there are no extenuating circumstances. The same applies to a harrassed woman who seeks the service of an abortuary. And there are a few (but not many) more. In fact, most of the dysfunctions in this world are not intrinsic evils and Catholics are given the liberty by their Church of having different opinions.

Roy Chen Yee | 07 December 2015  

The respondents to this article covered a whole spectrum and I must say I was personally drawn to Ginger Megg's argument. I would only like to add that with our quite recent understanding of the history of the universe and our place in it 2000 years is a very short time. Marriage as taught by the Catholic Church is, in terms of our history as a species, a very short story and its political background heavily compromises it. That elderly men alone decide what marriage should or should not be also is in need of examination.

Tom | 07 December 2015  

I agree that most of the heat is generated by the polar opposites in the marriage debate. Is there a composed and rational middle way between "libertinism and repressionism" (Anglican priest and Prof. Sarah Coakley)- she says no if we stay on the path of an anthropocentric approach. She sees a solution with freedom of expression for whoever but in modes of spiritual yieldedness to God attendant on God's infusion of Spirit in due (possibly undue) course. Such life will/ can then be best expressed in lifelong fidelity to their spouse/partner irrespective of gender. Here attitudinal contingency to God precedes that to any social encounter. Her clear erudition and theological views have clarified my own, often somewhat homophobic, stances.

ReinZ | 07 December 2015  

It is ironic that in the same sex marriage debate it seems to be its proponents who are shooting themselves in the foot. The case of Martine Delaney is one in point. The Catholic Church and other pro-traditional marriage groups are not going to simply roll over and die. In fact, this case is probably being very carefully watched by Middle Australia. The opinionati need to be disabused that their opinions are shared by the silent majority who realise civilised public debate on the issue is being stymied by vocal interested parties. I am glad the matter is going to a referendum. The result could be a surprise.

Edward Fido | 07 December 2015  

Thanks, Michael, for an excellent article pointing to the way forward requiring letting go of the win/lose scenario and negotiating a win/win compromise instead.

Jose Sanchez | 07 December 2015  

Marriage is defined by Nature. Its definition depends on the anatomical complementarity of the two sexes. Governments are not competent to overrule Nature and substitute a different understanding of what marriage is, at least unless they give us a new word for what we call marriage now. They can legislate on matters such as age restrictions and avoidance of incest, but they can no more legislate the actual nature of marriage than they could make laws about how many legs we should have.

Gavan Breen | 07 December 2015  

The article fills me with hope (thank you Michael). So many of the comments fill me with despair. Marriage as experienced by most of our community is not 'ours' to defend. It will continue to evolve to meet contemporary needs and expectations, as it has done for many centuries. Marriage (holy matrimony) as taught by the Church is ours to defend with passion and courage. It too will evolve as we become more deeply aware of the full dignity of the human person. We are beginning to risk losing the latter because we are hell bent on meddling in the former.

Margaret | 07 December 2015  

it is not extreme to want to be married, regardless of one's sexuality or gender. It is normal.

Penelope | 07 December 2015  

What a relief to read such an articulate summary of the issues. Let's do that. Let's try to flourish together. If one way really doesn't lead to human flourishing, it will die off naturally. This debate from the self-righteous extremes can only continue a war that's increasingly debilitating for everyone.

Joan Seymour | 07 December 2015  

John, you're right, of course - referring to 'marriage equality' does weight the debate! However, in their booklet 'Don't Mess with Marriage' even the Australian Bishops used the phrase 'same sex marriage' out of respect for the persons involved, though they did point out this doesn't affect their view that the relationship isn't, in fact, marriage. Language can be used to harm or heal - in this case I think it's healing.

Joan Seymour | 07 December 2015  

Penelope, of course it's not extreme to want to be married, and this article doesn't suggest it is. The extremes would be absolute and unreflected condemnations of the proponents of 'the other' side. These are the views we mainly hear in the press and online. However, they don't reflect the views of the silent majority, as Michael skilfully points out.

Joan Seymour | 07 December 2015  

"Marriage is defined by Nature. Its definition depends on the anatomical complementarity of the two sexes." Gavan, I don't know where you're living, but I'm in Australia, and we're perhaps unusual in the prominent examples we have had of long lasting same sex relationships: we have had a High Court judge, the leader of one of our political parties, and our Nobel Prize winning writer, all in public, long lasting, same sex relationships. So, in Australia, we know that two people of the same sex can have marriage-like relationships, it's just a fact. Ask people today why there should be a legal difference between Bob Brown and his partner's relationship, and Julia Gillard and her partner's relationship, and they just don't see why there should be one.

Russell | 07 December 2015  

I'm not at all happy with the implication that Christians are automatically on the "traditional" marriage side. Michael doesn't give any clear idea of what his 'compromise' position would be. Either marriage is open to couples without reference to gender, or it isn't. If the civil law is changed, the Catholic church and others who hold that marriage can only be between a man and a woman can continue to do so, in the same way that the Catholic Church can continue to teach and practice that divorced people cannot marry.

Peter Weeks | 07 December 2015  

What about the children who have absolutely no say in this negotiated outcome: the children who, as a result of it, will be denied the right to be brought up by their married biological parents? Wasn't there a lot of camera-ready weeping and gnashing of teeth about 'stolen generations' a few years back?

HH | 07 December 2015  

"What about the children"? A few points: look around and you'll see that children and marriage are two different things. Most of us know couples with children who have never married; same sex couples have children (you don't need a marriage certificate to do that); many children who were born to married couples are brought up by a single parent and 'denied the right to be brought up by their married biological parents" - what do you aim to do about that? What is your answer to my earlier point - if Julia Gillard and her partner can choose to marry, why can't Bob Brown and his partner? (the answer won't have anything to do with children).

Russell | 08 December 2015  

The point of the Dr Who episode was that it didn't matter which button was pressed (to say more would be a spoiler). The good Doctor also gave a fine speech about the futility of war. The compromise has been there all along. The Bills before Parliament provide an out for religious institutions to continue their existing ways (call it discrimination if you like). In a live-and-let-live world we can ask who is being hurt if two same sex people marry. How does it affect any other marriage? Civil unions have not led to a breakdown of society or "extremist" litigation in Australia. Hard to see marriage equality changing that. True equality would treat same sex couples the same as any other couple of consenting adults. Perhaps that should be the starting point.

Brett | 08 December 2015  

Dear Michael, the comments show what a hot topic this is. Everyone wants to love and be loved. If marriage is simply a matter of finding a soul mate and declaring life long fidelity before the world, then heterosexual relationships and same sex relationships are essentially equivalent. Sexual relationships between a man and a woman usually result in pregnancy, unless moves are made to prevent it. Sexual relationships between same sex couples can never result in conception. Though artificial reproductive techniques or surrogacy arrangements can enable same sex couples to have children, these are not offspring of both members of the same sex couple. Sexual relationships between a man and a woman not only transcend the person, but, through conception, transcend the couple. Same sex relationships lack this potential. Hence same sex relationships cannot claim to equate to marriage however much people may hope and desire that they may

Paul Burt | 09 December 2015  

"Sexual relationships between a man and a woman not only transcend the person, but, through conception, transcend the couple. Same sex relationships lack this potential. Hence same sex relationships cannot claim to equate to marriage however much people may hope and desire that they may". Can I just ask my question again? If Julia Gillard and her partner (who don't have the 'potential' to conceive a child) can choose to marry, why can't Bob Brown and his partner?

Russell | 10 December 2015  

Russell: I'm not up with Ms Gillard's relationship status, but I'd assume In the one case, nature herself has deprived the couple of procreative possibility; in the other, human agency in the choice of a same-sex partner has precluded procreation. As with same sex marriage and traditional marriage, the cases are not really comparable because the two realities are distinctly different.

John | 10 December 2015  

I am not an "extremist" in supporting traditional marriage and in opposing "same sex marriage" and adoptions by same sex partners (even if the resulting "family" is much better than some ordinary families). However. my Church (C.of E.) does not condemn all homosexual relations as intrinsically evil, and the third way I still prefer, as an ancient, liberal Episcopalian, is that of authorising and commending legal, committed, civil unions. I do myself think, however, there are far more important issues confronting us and our world.

Chaplain Bunyan | 11 December 2015  

Good question, John Frawley .Might it be that the mantra "politicise everything" has morphed into "sexualise everything."?

John | 11 December 2015  

It is in in comparatively recent times that the state has been involved in marriage, Why not fall into line with the State's requirement for birth and dead; registration of a union only. This would give any couple the same legal rights.( as in ACT) Marriage should left to the church (or mosques or temples)

John Thompson | 11 December 2015  

"nature herself has deprived the couple of procreative possibility; in the other, human agency in the choice of a same-sex partner has precluded procreation". Why not say that nature deprives 60 year old women from the chance to procreate, just as it denies a same sex couple the chance to procreate?

Russell | 11 December 2015  

I completely agree with Doug's comments (7/12): "Unfortunately, the 'third way' you describe is not a third way at all, merely a continuation of the status quo with slightly different labels attached." There is a third way, and that is for the state to completely opt out of marriage (a cultural ritual that precedes the secular state by thousands of years). The default position for ALL should be civil union. Then allow people to add on whatever cultural/religious ritual they want, but that should have nothing to do with a secular state and the equality of all who live in it.

Peter McEwan | 11 December 2015  

At the present time our homosexual brethren are living together. A very large heterosexual number are also living together. the basis of our Christianity is "loving our neighbour" Let us start from there.

Enid Mulcare | 12 December 2015  

No one is allowed to oppose same sex couples but they continue to force their demands down my throat demanding the right to adopt other parents' children with law reform commission disallowing discussions on protecting children from being adopted by same sex male couples even though evidence clearly states children are at risk in such family environments -they cry inequality and discrimination - it is children's rights that now face inequality and discrimination with government intrusion over natural parental rights in favour of same sex male couples and now same sex couples demand religious institutions to change their spiritual beliefs I personally resent been told my spiritual beliefs have to change we would not tell Muslims what to belief so why Catholic church what if I demanded they change their sexual beliefs - so why are they allowed to dictate to me I will continue to fight against adoption of children by same sex male couples I will not bow down to their demands but fight for safety of future children intrusion of governments deserting children's safety sold out same sex male couples - something humanly wrong here it will be too late when children's life's harmed beyond repair as a women I am expected to be silent or falsely accused of bigotry

Brenda Coughlan | 23 August 2016  

Why should the State be involved in marriage at all. After all it does not celebrate births and deaths, so why not register all unions between people for legal and statistical purposes and let the various faiths marry according to their beliefs.

NameJohn thompson | 18 March 2017  

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