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Challenging Frank Brennan on gay marriage


WHY vs WHY Gay MarriageIf St Thomas More is looking down on us from Heaven, his attention will be drawn to Fr Frank Brennan, another Catholic reformer and humanist wrestling with his dual spiritual and temporal loyalties on the vexed question of what makes a legitimate marriage.

In his recent article against allowing same-sex couples to marry, Brennan describes the orthodox Catholic view of marriage, but then accepts more readily than some other clergymen that this is not how marriage is defined in Australian law.

Catholic marriage is 'an exclusive, indissoluble covenant between a man and a woman' that is 'open to procreation'. Even an infertile heterosexual union counts because it is not 'overtly' infertile like a same-sex union. I assume 'overt' means 'deliberate' or 'by design', excluding from marriage heterosexuals who contravene Catholic teaching by using contraception.

In contrast, Australian marriage law allows divorce and does not require of marrying partners the capacity or desire to conceive or raise children.

There the matter would seem to end, except that Brennan seeks a way to reconcile the two different conceptions of marriage he has given us.

He does this with an appeal to what he believes are shared cultural expectations about marriage and its relationship to the best interests of children. He states: 'every child has one biological father and one biological mother. In the best of circumstances, the child will know and be nurtured by them.'

For Brennan, it is this cultural norm which should underpin secular marriage law because 'The State has an interest in privileging group units in society which are likely to enhance the prospects that future children will continue to be born with a known biological father and a known biological mother who in the best of circumstances will be able to nurture and educate them.'

There is an obvious problem here.

Australian policy does not hold that children suffer from being raised by people who are not their biological parents. We allow children to be adopted and fostered. We allow singles and same-sex couples to have children, and to foster and adopt.

Brennan may retort that he is not talking about unfortunate situations where nuclear family units break down and others must step in to take on the parenting role. He is talking about the benefits of such units 'in the best circumstances'.

But science does not agree that being reared by one's biological parents confers any benefit. An Australian Psychological Society report published in 2007 concluded that children raised by same-sex couples are just as well emotionally, socially, intellectually and sexually adjusted as their peers. Some studies show they are better adjusted.

Brennan's ideal is a false one, and certainly not a sound basis for making laws on marriage.

Perhaps realising he is on shaky ground, Brennan provides his case with several buttresses.

The least of these is an odd unexplained reference to the possibility future children might share the genetic inheritance of two same sex parents. Needless to say, speculation about future technologies is not a good basis for law making.

Two more serious points are about human rights law and public opinion.

Brennan points out that, 'Instead of stating "All persons have the right to marry", the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides: "The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognised."'

What he omits is that numerous superior courts from Canada through the US and Latin America to Europe and South Africa have established that the right to equality, to personal autonomy and to marry do extend to same-sex partners, and that the wording of the ICCPR is not an impediment to this.

Further, they have established a canon of human rights jurisprudence about the apartheid-level inadequacy and offensiveness of civil unions — Brennan's preferred way of recognising same-sex couples — as a substitute for equality in marriage.

As much as any Australian, Brennan knows the human rights case does not always carry the day, so he also bolsters his argument with an appeal to public opinion.

'Many same sex couples tell us their relationship is identical with marriage. Until the majority of married couples are convinced this is so, politicians would be wise not to consider undoing the distinction between marriage and civil unions.'

The first point to make is that the relevant majority here should be a majority of all adult Australians because the definition of marriage affects all who have the right to marry, even if they don't exercise that right. We know from repeated polls that a majority of Australians believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

Second, if the views of married partners are called for, national polls consistently show they support same-sex marriage in equal measure to Australians more broadly. Interestingly, Australians with children are more likely to support same-sex marriages than other Australians. Clearly, Australians with children do not agree their family structure is somehow threatened by same-sex marriages.

Finally, Brennan appeals to his own experience. 'I rather like having a Mum and a Dad, and I suspect in future that will remain the case for most children.'

My first thought when I read this was how sad it is that a child should let an expectation of what a 'Mum' or a 'Dad' should be colour their appreciation of their parents. I rather like my mum and dad too, but not because they conformed to some sexist stereotype of a 'mother' and a 'father'. I love and respect my parents because of their personal capacities and values, and because they taught me to value all individuals for the quality of their character, not their race, religion or sex.

Beyond all this, the saddest aspect of Brennan's case against marriage equality is what he doesn't say about the meaning and importance of marriage.

Through terms like 'husband' and 'wife' marriage provide us with our only universally-understood language of love and commitment. Moreover, marriage is an institution which joins partners not only to each other but to each other's families and to the community.

This is why marriage creates kinship through terms like 'brother-in-law' and 'mother-in-law'. It is why wedding guests are traditionally asked to assent to the marriage. And it is why the state still has a role in registering and entitling marriages.

If and when the couple have children, as more and more same-sex couples are, marriage also includes these children in a legal and social contract that is broader than their immediate family.

In short, marriage creates inclusion and belonging.

To exclude same-sex partners and their children from marriage, or worse, to corral them with another category called 'civil union', sends exactly the opposite message. It says we cannot love as deeply, commit as strongly, contribute as valuably or parent as well as others do. It says we do not belong.

It was my hope that a reformer and humanist like Fr Frank Brennan would understand that in this materialistic world of disposable relationships, valuing love, commitment and inclusion must be our paramount goal. Instead, like St Thomas, he has lost his urge to improve society and reverted to orthodoxy when confronted with a change that troubles his Catholic conscience. 

Rodney CroomeRodney Croome is a Board Member of Australian Marriage Equality and co-author of Why v Why: Gay Marriage published by Pantera Press.

Topic tags: rodney croome, frank brennan, gay marriage, civil unions



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Existing comments

Same sex marriage is a nonsense like liquid rock or solid water. If persons of the same sex wish to enter into a binding commitment, so be it - but do not call it marriage. Marriage (for all its flaws) is the foundation of family life - entered into between a man and a woman. I am not religious, and I believe that same couples should not be discriminated against eg by superannuation entitlements or even adoption where the same tests as are applied to married people are followed. The push for same sex marriage follows the pattern, ever increasing, of minorities wishing not to follow long established rules setting out the norms of conduct, leading to a disintegration of the fabric of judeo-christian society.

Antony Ames | 26 November 2010  

It seems to me that this is all about semantics. If we are able to recognise that a same-sex relationship unites a couple in much the same way as marriage does for a heterosexual couple then why not bless the union and allow the same rights and obligations? Forget about the label "marriage".

Ann Ryan | 26 November 2010  

Marriage is between a man and a woman for the procreation and education of children to save their souls to Heaven.

It is a natural law. God has given men and women two different ordinations and together these ordination of male and female provide the best care and example for children. To say "Mum" and "Dad" is sexist is truly absurd.

We are commanded by God to be pure. So many seem to be immersed in lust. No one should engage in any form of sexual act except for procreation within the marriage of a man and a woman. People who let lust lead them into grave Mortal Sins of the flesh can only expect damnation of their souls to hell.

It really is that simple.

I have included some web pages that may be of interest.


or download it as a pdf file below



Trent | 26 November 2010  

The tragedy of this debate is that it is taking place in the wrong forum. People on both sides seem to assume that the Federal parliament can do what it likes. It can not. It can make laws with respect to "marriage and divorce", because the Constitution says so. But the words have the meaning that is in the Constitution. There are persuasive statements by High Court judges that the word marriage in the Constitution means monogamous and heterosexual marriage. The Parliament can not expand the meaning of constitutional words that give it power. It might be possible at some future time to persuade a majority of the High Court to rule that the word could include homosexual marriage. But the point is that it is the High Court, and not the Parliament, that has the power to do that. Alternatively it could be done by an amendment to the Constitution pursuant to a referendum. Federal Parliament does not have power to make laws with respect to same sex unions. The State and Territory governments do. That is where the debate should take place. Provision needs to be made, not only for the official recognition of the formation of such unions, but for also for what happens to property and children when they break down.

Alan Hogan | 26 November 2010  

This article by R Croome could also be subjected to selective extracts as he has done with F Brennan's. In reality most Australians are not against gay civil unions but they cannot qualify as marriage. The term marriage has been used down the ages from the rise of organised societies for a special type of union with all its concomitant societal connections, some of which Croome has mentioned and these words are symbolic as they carry a particular context.Other unions, whilst important to their partners, carry no criticism per se but they are different and require another name.

Michelle Sydney | 26 November 2010  

Any religious group can set up what marital conditions they wish. I don't see why they should have any say in the definition of civil marriage.

David Fisher | 26 November 2010  

anthony ames referred to the fabric of judeo-christian society. I object to the locution, judeo-christian. They are two separate religions. Christianity centres around the life of Jesus. He has no status in Judaism. Christianity has the concept of original sin. Normative Judaism holds that guilt for sin is not transmissable. Sin is an individual matter. We are guilty for our own sins and cannot put them on any other entity or take other's sins upon ourself. As a religion Judaism conflicts less with Islam than it does with Christianity.

David Fisher | 26 November 2010  

“Marriage is an Athenic weaving together of families, of two souls with their individual fates and destinies, of time and eternity - everyday life married to the timeless mysteries of the soul,” according to St Thomas More. Frank and Rodney would agree on that. But More’s understanding of marriage would have been much closer to Frank’s than Rodney’s. Personally, I’d say Frank would be deeply sympathetic with Rodney’s position, but not at all happy about Rodney’s misrepresentations of his views. It is interesting that Rodney’s first move in the article is to engage in fraternal conflict, bringing in a big gun like More to topple Brennan (as it were), rather than speak to Brennan as an equal.

The Gay Marriage lobby is driven by high emotion and a righteous desire for equality, its idea of equality. But Rodney’s definition of marriage is different in kind from Frank’s, they are arguing from different premises. This is why when Frank sets out the Catholic teaching on marriage his gay readers see red. He is accused of being “arrogant” (see the blogger Richard yesterday) and “forcing” the teaching on everyone. This is not what he is doing but it seems to be what his gay readers want to see. While the gay lobby only sees the debate from their position, there can be no progress. It’s good that the terms of this debate are starting to come out in the open. The thing I worry about is the gay lobby setting itself up for disappointment through an unwillingness to acknowledge others’ positions in a civil way. The debate needs to mature.

I also must say, I take exception to Rodney’s claim that “through terms like 'husband' and 'wife' marriage provides us with our only universally-understood language of love and commitment.” The world would be bleak indeed if this were the case. Statements like these are unrealistic in the extreme. The whole debate heads toward a stand-off and a stand-off between the gays and those who are sympathetic with their cause. I is good that the debate, which is new to Australian society, is happening. But is St Thomas More on Rodney’s side, or not? The real collision could happen when gays and their sympathisers come face-to-face with the, for the moment, silent anti-gay elements in our society.

PHILIP HARVEY | 26 November 2010  

David Fisher - the Christian doctrine of original sin attributes personal guilt only to Adam and Eve, the perpetrators of the first sin (or the Fall - according to the biblical story, regardless of whether they actually existed), not to their descendants. Original sin in the rest of the human race is the damage done to human nature through the loss of sanctifying grace by the first pair and does not involve transmitted guilt in subsequent individual members of the race. As such, original sin is sin only by analogy. Weakened human nature is transmitted by generation but not sin properly so called and, therefore, not guilt. In Christianity, guilt can be the result only of personal sin, a wrong action, or omission, deliberately chosen by an individual.

Sylvester | 26 November 2010  

Gay marriage has been around for years in Europe and more recently in South Africa and South America.

The sky has not fallen in, conservative heterosexuals and christians still get about their daily business and beliefs unimpeded, and a few more people live freer and more secure lives as full members of society.

Most Australians support marriage equality. As always, conservatives argue against freedom, progress and even, remarkably, in this case, love.

The sooner Australian laws are changed to reflect what most people plainly see to be just, fair and free, the better. It is sad that by international standards Australia is now a backward looking nation that no longer leads the way in extending freedom and creating a better society for all its citizens, in this as in many other areas.

Mike | 27 November 2010  

I am amazed that anyone thinks a child deserves anything less than its biological mother and father. Yes, parents can have many flaws, but there exists within a child a deep longing to know and be in relationship with their biological mother and father. I have just witnessed a dear friend be re-united with the child they had adopted out in the 1970's .. that child's (now an adult) first question was, "Why did you have me adopted?"... both the parent and the child shared a common journey of longing to meet each other one day. IVF and surrogacy has given homosexual couples the means to acquire a child, but this child is not truly of 'their making'... nor 'of them'. The Catholic Church teaches that these forms of acquiring a child are wrong because they are not in the long term interest of the child. Children born this way will eventually 'long' for their absent parent. It is not about donating 'cells'... or a womb... a sperm or an ovum is the substance of a human life, and a child is somehow imprinted with a longing to know its true parentage. Apart from this, children need the contrasting personalities of a mother and father. Although children 'can' be raised in other environments, this is not ideal.

Cathy | 27 November 2010  

Australia should follow the continental European model and make marriage a civil state, recognised by a ceremony in the town hall or registry office, followed by, optionally, a religious ceremony for those for whom this is important. What Australia inherited from England is a watered down post-Christian, (Protestant) version of marriage, which excludes gay people for no logical reason, and privileges heterosexual unions even when these turn out to be short lived, adulterous or deliberately non-procreative.

How people who do not subscribe to any religion can still pretend that this watered down version of marriage is something special and immutable, when, as Croome argues, all the pragmatic arguments, re children, security, recognition etc shows that many such marriages fall horribly short of the ideals is beyond me. Let such people get married in a civil setting, which makes no assumptions about indissolubility, faithfulness or child raising and let gay people do exactly the same thing,call it marriage or civil partnership or whatever, and let persons of faith get married according to the tenets of their faith, (which for Catholics means indissolubility and procreative intent.) But how many of those who want to deny marriage to gay people would be prepared to take on the full implications of sacramental marriage? Very few, judging by the divorce rate and the casual assumption that adultery is OK. What hypocrisy! Gays have every right to be annoyed.By the way, I am Catholic myself and the arguments raised by these defenders of traditional marriage are not valid outside a religious context.

Ann | 30 November 2010  

I don't have any problem with the Catholic Church deciding that only men and womman can get married, I have no desire to join them. I find Brennan's argument that his preference is for children to be raised by biological mum and dad odd given that it wasn't so long ago the same Church believed if you were a young single woman it was better that your child be taken from you and given to a non biological family, or if you were a woman in England suffering post natal depression that your sons be taken from you and sent to Australia without your knowledge as happened to a friend of mine.

If marriage is about the rights of children then presumably my forthcoming marriage of two people on their 60s is similarly invalid. Lets stop this nonsense and have a secular law that allows people of whatever gender to marry the person they wish to spend their life with. Those below who talk about heaven and souls and god I have no ambition to force my views on them, that is a battle for church members to fight, but I see no reason why I have to accept their medieval views in my own life and in the life of my gay friends.

John Hewson | 10 October 2011  

Dear Rodney, I don't believe I can change your mind, but men and women are made sexually for the opposite sex, not the same sex. "Same sex marriage", is a contradiction, and makes no sense biologically, historically, morally, intellectually, or socially. It is an absurdity. People of the same sex are not equal to marry. Marriage by its very nature is exclusive for one man and woman. The term "marriage equality" is a false oxymoron, like "gay marriage". What's more, this is an issue for you and an extremely small percentage of the Australian population, your lobby groups make it sound like a major issue- it is not. No, people of the same sex cannot get married. The answer is no. They are not equal to do so. It has nothing to do all with human rights, either.

mark | 14 July 2014  

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