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Michael Kirby on sexuality and churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Michael Kirby, homosexuality