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Gay marriage not a trivial pursuit


Men holding handsGay marriage has polarised the Australian community. 

For many, it's a no-brainer. If you're serious about human rights and anti-discrimination, you can't allow heterosexuals to marry the person they love while denying the same right to homosexuals. For many others, such a radical redefinition of marriage would destroy the institution that has underpinned human relations in most cultures since time immemorial.

In what is fast becoming a witch hunt, public attention is focused on whether politicians and community leaders support gay marriage. Media interviewers are cornering public figures to ask if they support gay marriage, in manner reminiscent of the 'Are you a Communist?' taunts of the 1950s.

Political expediency is driving both sides of the debate. On Friday, union boss Joe de Bruyn told The Australian a change in Labor's party platform to accommodate gay marriage would be an act of 'electoral suicide'. Given the minority Labor Government's need to appease the Greens, it had been looking similarly difficult electorally for Labor to hold to its established position of opposition to gay marriage.

Labor will tear itself apart unless it realises that a 'yes' or 'no' on gay marriage is less important than the process of reaching a position. It can choose to go down the path of political expedience, or it can adopt an approach of moral integrity.

Of course both sides of the debate will claim that their position is one of moral integrity. The problem is that we can make such concepts mean whatever we want them to mean, as long as the opinion polls and focus groups will let us get away with it. Perversely a principle such as moral integrity is used to serve our purposes, not the other way around.

Australian Catholic University theology lecturer Joel Hodge wrote in a blog for CathNews on Friday that 'postmodern … human rights discourse has become skewed, especially because of the sentimental individualism that now defines what it means to be a human'.

We have lost a fundamental understanding of our natural, human rights, which undergirds our democracy and its laws. Instead, the ground has shifted to an ill-defined notion of individualism where the feelings and choices of individuals with power predominate.

Meanwhile political commentator George Megalogenis reflects on Labor's poll-driven 'power without purpose' in the December Quarterly Essay that is titled 'Trivial Pursuit'. 

He says Labor's chequered fortunes demonstrate the folly of following the polls: 'A good poll or two from now on can't be taken seriously because Rudd had them for two years before losing his job.'

Megalogenis argues that the logical consequence of the failure of poll-driven government is 'the revival of policy-driven government'.  

For issues such as gay marriage, this means a moratorium on a quick yes or no. Instead there must be time for a rigorous philosophical enquiry into the purported goods that underlie the understanding of human rights on both sides of the debate.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, gay marriage, George Megalogenis, minority, labor government, greens



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Existing comments

I am a member of a Religious Congregation. Many years ago, I heard another of our members proclaim. "What is good for me is good for the Congregation". This sort of thinking can support arguments for my having a gas-guzzling sports car, super holidays etc. The gay marriage phenomenon gets the same support.

Ray O'Donoghue | 22 November 2010  

I agree that the party in power has to clearly show some leadership here but I'm puzzled that the issues of marriage for same sex couples and a change to the laws on euthanasia are really central issues in the electorate today. With the conflicts in Iraq and Afganistan abroad and the parlous state of hospital care and general health as well as the need to make some positive moves to recruit more police to sort out the growing problems of effective policing of law and order might be of a higher order of priority. Where is the moral fibre of this present government or is it just pandering to the Greens unhealthy social agenda which is driving politics today.

Paul Rummery | 22 November 2010  

Let's have a referendum.

Jane Waller | 22 November 2010  

My sister has been 'married' for 20 years to her female partner. It is wonderful that we have progressed as a society that such a loving union exists, quite naturally, just like that of me and my husband, only we haven't been able to have the marriage to celebrate and sanctify it in the eyes of their friends, family and community.

Every body has their own moral integrity - the law's principle is secular, that is ought to be non-discriminatory. If people don't believe a same sex union is valid - that's their issue.

The depth of feeling and responsibility to each other is a good foundation to society's well being, and so the Government should support changes to the Marriage Act to make us all equal before our God if we have one.

What would Jesus say today?

Julie McNeill | 22 November 2010  

Yes equality before the law is a powerful democratic and moral principle. In a pluralist and tolerant society such as Australia, which gives rise to a diversity of ethical and religious principles and the sub-groups defined by them, where there is a conflict between the democratic principles of the parent society and those of the ethically diverse sub-groups, the democratic principles of the former take precedence over the latter. If this were not the case the core values of the parent democracy would soon disappear as would the possibility for existence of and subsistence by the sub-groups. Realization of this symbiosis is important for if you kill the host then you own longevity is somewhat problematic.

Gay marriage is a logical consequence of holding the key democratic principle of equality before the law.

John Edwards | 22 November 2010  

Jesus was an unmarried Jewish man, still living with his mum when he was in his 30s. He spent most of his time hanging around with a bunch of blokes and a prostitute....sounds gay to me but I don't know if his itinerant preaching and healing would be possible if he was shackled by the demands of holy matrimony.

Sebastian | 22 November 2010  

Legislation relating to homosexual 'marriage' and euthanasia are big issues with the Greens. People who vote for them are generally supporting sustainable ecology. Such are thw twists of politicking.
I don't support the bastardisation of the word or concept marriage in any way. It is not merely a legal contract but a holy sacrament in all religious beliefs and practices. Some people try to change this with soft thinking and aggressive determination to have what they want. We make too many laws cart before the horse; lets get more profound thoughts on these issues. I think Jesus would still say to Julie McNeill's question: 'Go and sin no more.' Human beings and their natures haven't really changed very much in 2000 years. Ask any doctor.

Mary Perth WA | 22 November 2010  

I just don't follow the logic that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry somehow undermines marriage. Sure these couples can't reproduce with each other - but will we say that infertile couples must not marry? I believe that if two people want to commit to a lifelong sacred union together, that is a cause for celebration, not censure.

Pauline Small | 22 November 2010  

"natural humn rights......" Surely the right to love and be loved is one of those rights. Marriage (betweena man and a woman) is an institution of society, generally recognized as implying mutual love and (perhaps) the desire to have a family. When Vatican 11 removed the old distinction between the primary and secondary ends of marriage, we saw the Church acknowledge that the mutual love of the couple was at least as important as having children, in the ends of marriage. Part of the homosexual debate at present is confused by equating having children with the only end of marriage.

We need to keep in mind that "marriage" of homosexual people may in their minds have both ends of marriage, with children arriving by adoption, surrogacy, or other assisted means of conception. Of course even some heterosexual marriages may not regard the having of children as an essential component of marriage. Further confusion arises when we try to establish that a child needs a mother and a father, or two loving parents regardless of genders, in order to have a chance to develop naturally in a loving environment.

Clear thinking demands that we explore the raft of issues involved and not simply argue from fear or prejudice. The only way forward is to reason our way, not bully our way by bludgeoning the opposition with closed minds and arguments.

Garry Everett | 22 November 2010  

What a sterile debate...excuse the pun. Marriage by its nature is a holy contract between a man and woman who have the desire and intention to form a new nuclear family,composed of father,mother and children...even if in the event they find that they cannot achieve that. Without that intention there is no marriage, even if they go through with the traditional ceremomy. That family is itself in the context of their larger extended families involving grandparents , uncles, aunts , cousins etc....and indeed to an extent the whole of society of which their are becoming a fundamental unit.Which is why the wedding by its nature is such a public as well as landmark and family affair. Gay relationships just cannot achieve this.

That is not to say that they cannot be loving and lasting, and important for the individuals involved...but it is not of any meaningful societal importance beyond the happiness/fulfillment of the individuals involved. Get over it...move on.

Eugene | 22 November 2010  

Suddenly everyone is an expert on marriage and yet in as much as it is an institution of society it can have very different implications in different cultures.
Marriage has appeared in various forms: monogamy, polygyny and polyandry, etc. I can't say when exactly monogamous marriage became more concerned with the sentimental and sexual gratification of the two people involved than with procreation. The Song of Songs would indicate that it was a delight for some in the time of King Solomon (970 - 928 BCE)

It seems to me that much study of marriage in the West was directed towards butressing the view that Christian monogamous marriage was the ideal. Even more so when Islam allowed polygamy.
In more recent times social scientists have tended to concentrate on the pathology of marriage breakdown - a bit like medical research concentrating on disease and less on a healthy life style.

Our English word marriage derives from the French mari = husband; the Latin conjugium stresses the conjugal aspect of the relationship; the Greek gamos = the result of the cojugium.

Why can't we have hetero-marriages and homo-marriages as sub-categories of legally recognised commitments of love between two people?

Uncle Pat | 22 November 2010  

Spit it out, Sebastian! What are you really trying to say?

Bernie Introna | 22 November 2010  

Bernie, If God is Love, children of same sex loving and responsible unions are as blessed as mine. Children of either are likely to become thoughtful, spiritually lifted and responsible adults for as much as environmental considerations achieve.
The problem always is how much prejudice and stigma is metered onto the child. (My mum was damaged as a child migrant in a Catholic orphanage, because she was 'illegitimate')
Surely God's pla
n has evolved to love everyone. The Nuns and Priests didn't love my mum they abused her - much I would have wanted a gay married couple to adopt her.
Or will I be burned at the stake?

Julie | 23 November 2010  

Marriage is a Sacrament. It must be between a man and a woman and the primary purpose of the marriage act is the procreation of children and the education of these children to save their souls. Vatican II did not change that view.

Why are so many concerned about sex? Lust is sinful and sins of the flesh are great offences against God. Our Holy Mother said that many go to hell for the sins of the flesh.

Those that defend same-sex marriage usually defend abortion, contraception, and seem to have no horror of personal sin.

We all need to have a pure mind and heart and not give in to our 'sex-saturated' society in order not to offend our Lord greatly and to save our souls for eternity in Heaven.

Trent | 23 November 2010  

Jane Waller says, "Let's have a referendum."

I think that the Federal Parliament is not capable of changing the meaning of Marriage without one. It is the Constitution that gives the Federal Parliament power to make laws with respect to marriage. Parliament does not have the power to change the meaning of words in the Constitution. That can be done only by a referendum, or by the High Court. It has not ruled directly on the point, but there are a number of statements by its judges tending to the opinion that "marriage" in the Constitution means heterosexual marriage. That is certainly what the word meant when the Constitution was enacted.

The states are capable of enacting legislation that gives official recognition to unions between people of the same sex. Would not that meet the needs of those people? Why get hung up on the semantics of whether such officially sanctioned unions could be called "marriage". The States would also have to provide for what happens when such relationships break down, as they now do to some extent with the De Facto legislation.

Alan Hogan | 23 November 2010  

Rather than add to the discussion what marriage ought to be, etc. I’d prefer to comment on the thrust of Michael's article, how should Labor approach arriving at policy on such a fractious issue? He recommends it adopting a course of integrity. The question is, what would that involve/require? Clearly, simply making a political assessment of the votes in either position and adopting the "safest" or majority view would be an approach based on moral expediency. Integrity, however, might require asking each Labor Member to reflect, without pressure, on a range of considerations from their personal perspective/understanding, e.g. what do I think marriage is and why do I think that? What is the need behind the arguments for and against? What degree of change might serve/respond most effectively, fairly to apparently conflicting needs? What good might come out of this or that policy change or retention? etc.

It might then require each Labor Member to submit his/her thoughts to their colleagues, to contribute in caucus - not to a debate, but a brainstorm - and to the preparation of drafts of legislative schema. It might require each Labor Member to ask his/her constituents to do similar reflection and submission, to be able to consider people's understanding and conclusions. Labor needs perhaps to ask itself does it exist in government solely as an extension of polled majority views or as the collective pooling of each representative's own considered policy reflections.

This might require Labor Members to do something they don’t usually do, or don’t do well, and might mean they have to try some philosophical reading/contemplation rather than focus so much on political commentary, but this might be the sort of approach that would result in better and more thoughtful long-term policy.

Stephen Kellett | 25 November 2010  

I was widowed when my children were aged 3 & 4 & were subsequently brought up by myself without the benefit of a dad. A relatively brief relationship introduced them to a 'dad' who although loving to them was a 'no hoper' with dubious moral values to my way of thinking which led to a speedy end to this relationship.

Does this mean my kids have suffered thanks to be being brought up without a father. I don't think so. As adults in their fifties they are great sons & people. As for marriage being a 'sacrament', this beleif only applies to some of our society & I do not blieve our laws should be coloured by a minority view. And in case you are wondering., I am not gay though wouldn't care if I was.

Rosemary West | 26 November 2010  

Anyone who has done even the most cursory study of the history of marriage will know that the current definition of marriage as a relationship between one man and one women based on love and the desire to have children together is a recent one.

For much of Western history marriage was about property rights, including the concept of women as property. Anyone who talks about Biblical family values needs to come to terms with polygamy and levitical marriage. Marriage may indeed be am "institution that has underpinned human relations in most cultures since time immemorial" but it has changed radically over time, and there is no reason for it not to continue to change.

The only reason not to support same-sex marriage would be the belief that homosexuality is a sin. Some people, including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, do still believe this - but the majority of Australians definitely don't.

Avril Hannah-Jones | 26 November 2010  

To Avril Hannah-Jones-The Catholic Church does not regard homosexuality as a sin.It is the act of homosexual sexual relationships that are considered sinful.

John Tobin | 26 November 2010  

Who is to organise and choose the participants who are going to take part in the 'rigorous philosophical enquiry'of which Father Mullins speaks? And who is to cast into law according to'the understanding of human rights' the consensus that derives from such an enquiry?

What about a good old fashioned referendum?

Claude Rigney | 26 November 2010  

I agree with Eugene ... Conratulations on a great letter. If we are to have 'gay marriage' Could it not be a horse by another name????...Why not call it a civil union [UK does I think] or whatever?...... then 'equality before the law' etc is presumably what gay rights activists want. They will get their 'rights'. Then the heterosexual community with its sacred right of marriage, as society has known it; and they will feel comfortable that their unions will not be confused, dishonoured etc in any way.
In all this debate has anyone considered the interests of children who will have 2 Mummies or 2 Daddies......what about male and female role models? Isn't there room for those anymore? [yes divorce is a further matter and I have experienced that and all it brings on children] Isn't the world confused and muddled enough already? Right? Wrong? No one suggests that we should hate our neighbour, owing to their personal arrangements. That is their choice, but should we all have to choose to accept their behaviours as normal....as regular practice, when it clearly is not, since their will be no children born of such a union, without the intervention of a third party in some form or another. Is that then not adultery of a sort? [Dare I say that?] And what happens in the furture when brother & sister are attracted and don't know of their genetic background? It gets weirder and weirder!! Sorry I can't help asking myself all these questions at the risk of sounding like a bigot. God help humanity.

Penny | 06 December 2010  

If the word "marriage" is the problem for some, then call it a "union" with all the rights and privileges inherent in a marriage, including ability to visit one's partner in the hospital, the ability to have one's union legally recorded, the equal right to have children, etc. I am astonished that no one writing in has mentioned how much damage a man and a woman's marriage can do to children. With the incredibly high divorce rates, I cannot believe that anyone could possibly piously speak of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage without blushing. The reality of heterosexual marriage is far different than the high-flung self-righteous rhetorical rants disguised as so-called moral high ground which usually accompanies any debate regarding essential human rights. Similar arguments were used to limit the rights of other minorities in the past; for example, Biblical verses were freely quoted in support of slavery in the early 1800's and again to support the suppression of women's rights, particularly the right to vote. However, the point has already been made in this forum that if there is no state religion (and in Australia there is not), then no religion's viewpoint can be allowed to prevail regarding marriage.

Gracie | 06 December 2010  

Marriage is a contract of love between two human being - it's that simple.

Vacy Vlazna | 06 December 2010  

Vatican II said this in it's Constitution Dei Verbum: "Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence." Vatican II showed that traditions should be kept with loyalty.

Jjo No | 12 February 2013  

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