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The perils of redefining marriage


Bride and groom holding handsLast Thursday, the Australian Parliament's 'new paradigm' swung into action with the House of Representatives passing a motion calling 'on all parliamentarians, consistent with their duties as representatives, to gauge their constituents' views on ways to achieve equal treatment for same sex couples including marriage'.

If this keeps up, we will have the High Court publishing a judgment calling on all judges to hear argument from counsel for the parties in taxation matters. Even under the old paradigm, it was the job of parliamentarians in a democracy like ours to gauge their constituents' views on matters likely to be debated in parliament, particularly contested moral issues.

Should my local member seek to gauge my views on same sex marriage during the summer recess, I would assure him that paradigms, norms, and symbolism do matter. The distinction between same sex marriage and legal recognition of same sex unions is not just a matter of symbolism. They create different realities regarding children's human rights. Because of that, I support the latter, not the former.

'Marriage' means different things to different people. For me, the paradigm of marriage is an exclusive, indissoluble covenant between a man and a woman entering a partnership for life, ordered to their good and open to the procreation and education of their children.

Not every marriage matches all the features of this paradigm. Some couples are infertile or too old to have children. But such marriages do not overtly breach it, so the paradigm still makes sense. In contrast, same-sex marriage overtly breaches the paradigm that marriage is an institution for the good of the children of the couple. 

Australian civil law on marriage varies from my paradigm. Under Australian law, marriage is not indissoluble. Either party can terminate a civil marriage on one year's separation. There is no requirement that the parties be open to the bearing and nurturing of each other's children. There are many married couples who choose not to have children. 

There are many couples in Australia who choose not to marry. There are many children born out of wedlock. There is an increasing number of children being raised by same sex couples. If same-sex marriage is legalised, because marriage carries the right to found a family, it may not be too long before a significant number of these children share the genetic inheritance of two same sex parents.

For the moment, every child has one biological father and one biological mother. In the best of circumstances, the child will know and be nurtured by them. 

Especially with an ageing society, the state has an interest in recognising and affirming relationships between persons committed to supporting each other, regardless of their sexual orientation. Discrimination against same sex couples should be removed in the public domain.

In the UK, this has been achieved by legislating for civil unions. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, President of their Catholic Bishops Conference, recently said, 'We were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognised that in English law there might be a case for those.'

I would tell my local member that it is time Australia went the same way. And I would hope our bishops would see it that way too, though I concede that the present Pope did not when he was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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. Our parliamentarians could legislate to recognise civil unions, though there is some constitutional doubt whether this would best be done by the Commonwealth or State parliaments. 

In considering whether to advocate a change to the definition of marriage, citizens need to consider not only the right of same sex couples to equality but even more so the rights of future children.

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.

That is why there is a relevant distinction to draw between a commitment between a same sex couple to establish a group unit in society and a commitment of a man and a woman to marry and found a family.

An infertile married couple might expect State assistance in providing them with children who are genetically theirs. In the name of equality of adults, future children should not be deprived the opportunity to be born of a man and of a woman.

I rather like having a Mum and a Dad, and I suspect in future that will remain the case for most children. Often, orphans too are consoled to know they have a biological father and a biological mother. And most countries are now legally recognising they have a right to know who they are.

Decisions about adoption and assisted reproduction should always be informed by the best interests of the child. If we go down the track of same sex marriage, we are acknowledging that same sex couples will have an entitlement to utilise technology to produce children with the genetic inheritance of each of them, and that same sex couples will be equally situated with a husband and wife team to adopt children to whom they bear no relationship.

As a matter of social policy, we will be affirming that the State has no interest in privileging a social institution which ensures that children have a genetic inheritance from one biological father and one biological mother, and that, all things being equal, they have the possibility of being adopted by a father and mother.

I think we can ensure non-discrimination against same sex couples while at the same time maintaining a commitment to children of future generations being born of and being reared by a father and a mother. To date, international human rights law has appreciated this rational distinction.

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.' The Covenant asserts: 'The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.'

I believe our parliamentarians should maintain this distinction, for the good of future children, while ensuring equal treatment for same sex couples through the legal recognition of civil unions.

If our parliaments were to legislate, redefining marriage as a relationship centred on the couple regardless of the concerns of children, religious groups should be free to maintain their paradigm of marriage for their own members. After all, we Catholics classify marriage as a sacrament, and even now most civil marriages in Australia are not capable of sacramental recognition in our Church. 

After the summer recess, I do hope our parliament can get on with its real work for the good of present and future generations of Australians.

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. A fuller treatment of this issue can be found in his book Acting on Conscience (University of Queensland Press, 2007). Flickr image by Auntie P

Topic tags: frank brennan, same sex marriage, civil unions, adoption, mother, father



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Existing comments

This is a disappointing article by Fr Brennan in that I hoped that it would have more substance.

The reality is that many people are brought up by non-biological parents who love them as dearly. The woman I regarded as 'mother' was my stepmother. My brother and his wife fostered and adopted two children who are now adults.

Biological relationships actually do not account for a lot. But that is what Fr Brennan hangs his argument on.

In any case, we are talking about civil marriage here which is a civil union and not one in which any church needs have any involvement if they choose not to.

There are many people who are infertile, past child-bearing age or who choose not to have children. These are at liberty to marry under Australian law. There is no reason why same-sex couples should not be able to do likewise.

The paradigm was long ago abandoned. Was there any time in the last century that a woman past child-bearing age was refused marriage by the state?

Malcolm McPherson | 23 November 2010  

"'Marriage' means different things to different people. For me, the paradigm of marriage is....."
and "Australian civil law on marriage varies from my paradigm. Under Australian law, marriage is...."

These quotes from Fr Frank show me the problem that our nation has in addressing the call of the Greens which was passed by the Parliament.
Will the Greens discuss Fr Frank's points of argument?

Are the Greens willing to consider civil unions legislation as a way to respond to this matter?

I wrote last year that our nation needs a national discussion on what 'marriage' is in order to address the rights of all - including children.
I'll be contacting my local member to engage him in a discussion which will include the possibility of legislation for recognition of same-sex unions to protect the rights of the adults, but also the chldren 'obtained' for such unions.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 24 November 2010  

In my faith tradition, marriage is a sacrament, a holy act able to enhance my ability to achieve salvation. The marriage between my wife and I, supported by our families and our faith community has produced four children who are now wonderful adults and supported all six of us through some very dark days.

No where in biblical writings or tradition of Catholic Christianity is such status given to single sex unions. This may be a reaction to the sexual excesses of the First century where Christianity confronted the hedonistic culture of the time.
Civil sex unions should not in the public domain attract lesser treatment than traditional marriage in matters such as inheritance, and medical decision making, but they do not approach the saving and life giving nature of Christian marriage.

Gerard Gill | 24 November 2010  

Through the decrimininalisation of homosexuality, gay people were damned to a moral no-man's-land. Anyone who insists that we should, as policy, maintain the pluralist concept of same-sex love being 2nd class, wants, at heart, to see it relegated to a crime.

Jane Waller | 24 November 2010  

Any sexual union outside marriage is a mortal sin and can lead to eternity in hell if no remorse is shown and the situation stopped.

For any Catholic who supports these arrangements, they also are in mortal sin. Marriage and the marriage act must always be between a man and a woman and they must be open to procreation of children and the education of these children to help save their souls to Heaven.

True Catholics must live a life of purity and never allow lust to take over their soul.I don't know why so many Catholics do not hold fast to Catholic teaching. It seems many do not have a personal horror of sin and the offense given to God by sins of the flesh.

Before Vatican II most Catholics understood the nature of sin and tried to avoid all sin.Vatican II gave no one the right to take part in any sin, but many seem to have interpreted the council as a right to do and hold sinful approaches to life.

We all have a duty to save our own souls and to try and save as many souls as possible from the devil and eternity in hell

Trent | 24 November 2010  

It is true that not all people are brought up by biological parents but study after study show that biological relationships DO count for a lot. It is one of the elements - along with stable traditional marriage between a man and a woman - that provides the best context for the nurturing and flourishing of children.

It is vital that these sociological factors be recognised and that marriage of one man and woman, biological mother and father of the children, be privileged by the State whose responsibility it is to encourage optimum conditions for a healthy society.

The Church - that is to say those Australian citizens who happen to be Christians - does need to be involved in this discussion about marriage and civil unions because they, no less than non-Christian Australians, have a stake in the welfare of the nation.

It is true that some married couples are infertile, past child-bearing age or choose not to have children but those relationships at least resemble fertile marriage and that symbolism is very important. Same-sex unions do not and cannot resemble fertile marriage.

Fr Brennan makes some good points about marriage and civil unions but because of the symbolic factor, to which he refers, the homosexual lobby is absolutely determined for idoleogical reasons to get marriage opened up to same-sex couples because, in its view, there must be no legal distinctions or differences whatsoever between heterosexual and homosexual persons. That necessitates the redefinition of marriage itself. For the homosexual lobby civil unions will never be anything more than a staging point on the way to marriage.

chris.dowd@op.org.au | 24 November 2010  

As a Catholic, I too 'classify' marriage as a sacrament, Father Brennan, but believe that the genuine union of same sex couples is also filled with grace. How can it be otherwise in a relationship of love, commitment and care? If there are children involved, it seems to me to be both presumptuous and narrow minded to suspect that these children cannot have the same nurturing and love given in heterosexual marriage or partnerships. And most of us also 'rather like having a Mum and Dad', if fortunate enough to have them. Children in same-sex families rather like having parents also - and with them it's two Mums or Dads plus, hopefully, the biological parent involved.

Jan Coleman | 24 November 2010  

Fr Brennan grounds his argument on the presumption that children benefit from the sexual difference in their parents. There is no evidence for this. What benefits children is to have two "parents" who openly love each other. The children of single mothers are at more risk than those of loving same-sex parents.

Michael Grounds | 24 November 2010  

The debate over gay marriage in this country is messy, messy, messy. The reasons are manifold, but one of the main ones is the impossibility on all sides to find and define an agreed position on the word ‘marriage’. If you are Frank Brennan you have the courage to establish a definition, but as if everyone is going to agree with Frank’s definition. I find the whole debate dis-spiriting in the extreme. It is impossible to reach even a low level of consensus about anything while everyone is either yelling loudly or refusing to engage in the debate out of fear of judgement from one side or another. It’s not surprising that the major parties act cautiously.

I am now going to say something that you don’t hear in any of this debate. The love between two people is a Mystery. How it happens and why it happens is known to those involved, but not always understood or even respected sometimes by those around them. Fools give you reasons, sociologists come up with charts, psychologists explore some ‘family scene’, but it’s a Mystery. Mystery has nothing to do with the Law, or My Rights, or Discrimination, or any of the other driving forces in this debate and this is where the problem lies. Between our own experience of this Mystery, which is private, and the public terms of marriage. It is kaleidoscopic in its manifestations and not reducible to slogans and politicking. The amazing thing is that Love keeps putting itself out there where it risks all.

Nor do the churches agree on marriage teaching, even within the one church. It is easy for me to see that Mystery is to be reverenced through sacrament, but some people have trouble with that, or don’t talk in such terms. It is time the churches were forthcoming on their teachings, as we see here with Frank Brennan, but are they as fearful of the subject’s divisive nature as the politicians and society at large?

PHILIP HARVEY | 24 November 2010  

i agree with malcolm mcpherson, this is indeed a disappointing article.

i understand the difference between civil unions and marriage, and that mostly (to me) marriage is a definition bound with religious significance (regardless that it has a legal definition). as long as the debate does not demand that religious institutions change their club rules, there is no issue.

who cares what gender people are, as long as they are serious about supporting each other and any children they are responsible for (be they biological, adopted or whatever)

a same-sex couple's union does nothing to diminish the value of my heterosexual union, nor the validity of their children's existence

louise | 24 November 2010  

this article, and the predictable homophobic comments it has attracted, is why i'm unsubscribing. i could debate marriage as a concept; but i don't feel this is a 'safe' environment.

michael | 24 November 2010  

Children do best when they are nurtured and raised by their biological father and mother united in stable marriage. At the very least, in the absence for whatever reason of either of the biological parents, it is important that there be father-type figure and a mother-type figure living together in the domestic setting. Children need for their balanced psychological development an intimate, caring, relationship in the home with both a man and a woman. Two 'dads' and two 'mums'- however well intentioned or whatever personal qualities they might have - simply cannot, by definition, replicate this situation, irrespective of how many male and female friends, 'uncles' and 'aunts', pop in from time to time to say hello.

The well-being of children, who should be of paramount priority in this debate, necessitates the preservation of the tradtional, immemorial definition of marriage in Western civilisation and its privileging by the law and the State.

Sylvester | 24 November 2010  

I appreciated Fr Brennan's piece. I believe that these things are not easy to weigh up, and require some anxiety and wrestling with conscience and spirit. I appreciate the considered viewpoints that have been added as comments.

Thanks, too, for the Counsel of Trent! (sorry, couldn't resist) It's actually quite refreshing to hear a traditional Catholic view so clearly and unabashedly put. While I may come from a different faith tradition, and my own views differ somewhat, it's healthy to have people say what they really believe and think, not to hold back.

For me, I agree with the importance of marriage. In my tradition, marriage is the supreme ordinance of the gospel, the creation of eternal family unions. I understand that the Catholic view of the sacrament of marriage is also of tremendous importance.

And yet, both our traditions recognise that marriages occur outside these circumstances. Marriages take place in the civil realm, among Buddhists, Rastafarians and atheists. We all accept the role of the civil, secular law in temporal matters - while reserving a special role for the unique traditions of marriage within the faith.

My argument is that, just as there are marriages outside the faith - outside any faith - which are still recognised for all civil purposes; and while falling short of the ideal set by adherence to our respective faith practices, they still exist. They don't affect our ability to consecrate marriage in our own way, with the strictures and special purposes that we place within our churches.

So it would be with same-sex marriages. They will exist for civil purposes, and they may be as plain or fancy as people wish. They may have the blessing of bare civil authority, or the solemnising presence of a willing religious figure. They do not, however, affect in any way our ability to make marriage special in our own way, in our own places of worship. Those are protected and are undiminished.

If you don't want a same-sex relationship, then don't have one. If you don't want a same-sex marriage, then don't have one. If you don't want to perform a same-sex marriage in your church, then by all means, do not feel obliged to do it. There will be someone else who does, and some other church that will make provision. This is the reality of a pluralistic society. It is also a fair and just society.

Mormon Socialist | 24 November 2010  

My memories of sexual union outside marriage as a young man are paradisal. Contrary to the declarations of Trent above, they did not lead to eternity in hell. It’s how I learnt what sexuality is, though it isn’t all Edenic. I speak as one who knows what it is like to be expelled from the Garden.

I also find it impossible to countenance the idea that I was in an “arrangement”, as Trent puts it. Do lovers in love check to see if they are in an “arrangement”? Do the happy pair in The Song Of Songs (Scripture) look like they are in an “arrangement”? Trent also talks rather clinically of something called “the marriage act” and how it must always be between a man and a woman. This would have been of interest to the author of The Song of Songs, as it is to me but for different reasons.

We must live a life of purity and never allow lust to take over, according to Trent, which rather makes me wonder how any of us are lucky enough to be alive. Sexuality is one of the definitions of being human. Christianity bodies forth Agape, and for that I am thankful every day. But Christianity becomes mean and torturous and punitive once it denies the body, especially as the Body is at the centre of Christianity. What I am saying is that Eros will not be denied and to live through and understand Eros is to grow in wisdom before God. Let Love take over.

Desiderius Erasmus | 24 November 2010  

Thanks Frank for your usual reasoned arguement, will you be sending it on to the Parliament? If not why not? Our political masters and mistresses would benefit greatly from your sage and decent arguements.
Rosemary Keenan.

Rosemary Keenan Gwelup WA | 24 November 2010  

Fr Brennan's concern about same sex marriage seems to be founded on three issues that all relate to the potential children of the relationship. The issues are: the inherent uncertainty of the biological inheritance of the child; the need to be raised by both father and mother, and the place of the sacramental nature of marriage in this context.

As things currently stand, large numbers of married couples give birth with the assistance of IVF, so that the child is the biological child of only the mother. These children may not even know they are not the biological child of the father who raises them. That is at least, is not a problem that the progeny of same sex couples would have.

Like Fr Brennan, I too was lucky enough to have both a loving father and mother. I would find myself very hard pressed however, to conclude that the traditional unit is so inherently superior to alternative forms of family, that I would be prepared to deny those other forms the opportunity to exist as part of a marriage unit.

Rightly or wrongly, we have as a society acquired godlike status in being able to determine who can, and who cannot have children by way of access to IVF. I cannot in conscience see that I have the right to declare one lot of potentially loving parents worthy on the basis of their gender, while I declare another lot unworthy for the same reason. I do not believe that it is in the best interests of potential unborn children to do so, nor do I believe it is in the best interests of society as a whole.

As for the sacramental factor, to consider marriage as being primarily for the purpose of childbearing (with the typical church sidestepping over the 'we just won't look too hard at the older or the infertile couples') is to denigrate the commitment being made between the couple and God. It is also insulting to any infertile couple who chooses to marry.

I had hoped for a more nuanced nuanced approach from this leading lawyer, theologian and thinker.

Kathleen Donnellon | 24 November 2010  

The word "paradigm" seems to be on everyone's lips!

A paradigm is shorthand for describing a world-view or life perspective. In other words a blueprint that we help use to build our world.

We can no longer afford to think in world-views that seek to divide and estrange each other.

Whether we like it or not, same-sex couples believe that their love and commitment has the same value as marriage, and should be celebrated and affirmed as such.

Our world becomes a richer and more generous place when people value all kinds of relationships ... and, it seems that marriage is the world-view that same-sex couples believe they have the best advantage of having their relationships supported and affirmed.

So, why are we so keen to limit marriage to a relationship between a man and a women?

Time for a world-view change!!!

Tim Collier | 24 November 2010  

Fr Frank Brennan raises some excellent points I don’t think our media is ready to hear right now. But good on him. The truth is the truth.

Ben | 24 November 2010  

I have recently discovered that my marriage in a Catholic church is in fact not recognised as a civil union or a marriage in the eyes of the Commonwealth of Australia. The marriage certificate signed by the priest celebrant and witnessed appropriately is no longer a legal document and my marriage dates from the date that the marriage was registered with the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, not from the date on which the celebration took place. So, in the eyes of the State, what is the real difference, not a perceived or semantic difference, between my Marriage and a Civil Union? Why not keep the word, marriage for a religious ceremony controlled by religious institutions of whatever sort and use the words civil unions for the commitments controlled by the State, same sex or between a man and a woman? Then those of us who wish to see marriage in the traditional way can continue to do so and add on our Civil Union while those wish to see equal rights for same sex unions will have their wish. Since legalising a sexual partnership appears to be out of favour with many couples, at the moment, how many same sex couples really want to marry except that they see their inability to do so as discrimination? Is this wish to change the law any more than a political statement?

Sheelah Egan | 24 November 2010  

" 'Marriage' means different things to different people."

Indeed, and yet you feel quite comfortable to *force* your ideas of marriage on to all of us - whether religious or secular, in the full knowledge that your definition is discriminatory.

No one is forcing the Catholic Church or any other religious organisation to change their definition of marriage. But there is a level of arrogance to expect all Australians to submit to your definition.

Discrimination is ugly - whatever the guise it comes in.

Richard | 24 November 2010  

Unfortunately English speaking societies have already redefined 'marriage' into the market place describing company mergers as marriage. Little wonder it is seen as a word and concept that can be used for other situations.

Mary Perth WA | 24 November 2010  

In Australia a marriage ceremony celebrated by registered celebrants, which Parish Priest's in Catholic Church's have to be, is both sacramentally and civilly legal. In many European countries I've discovered require separate civil and sacramental ceremonies. Most churches know of this arrangement and advise accordingly.

Mary Perth WA | 24 November 2010  

We are in danger of moving into an "Alice-in-Wonderland" world in which anybody can assert that any word means anything that s/he wants it to mean. In our Greco-Roman-Judaeo-Christian civilisation marriage means, firstly, the "Condition of man and woman legally united for purposes of living together and usually procreating lawful offspring; act or ceremony or procedure establishing this condition" (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 6th edition, 1979, p. 668). If we cannot agree on the meanings of fundamental words and concepts, then life together - ie, society - becomes unworkable.

Sylvester | 24 November 2010  

One comentator in America perceptively said that we have not redefined marriage so much as undefined it. Marriage is now whatever you want it to be. Male-male, female-female, two or more of one sex with as many of the other sex you like. As long as it is love, who has the right to force their views on me? That is plain discriminaton.

And who has the right to restrict my right to have children? As long as it's love, what's the problem? Gender is just a social construct.

Going further, if we accept Peter Singer's views, why exclude animals from the equation? After all we are just naked apes.

For all those of you who call the traditional one man one woman for life too restrictive a definition of marriage, where would you draw the line? And, assuming you do draw a line, how would you defend yourself against the attacks you make on those who object to same-sex marriage, i.e. you are being judgemental and discriminatory?

patrick james | 24 November 2010  

@Patrick. Oh dear, slippery slope debating - the scaring of people with the notion that one thing *inevitable* leads to another. Because granting the vote to women, will mean that children will be voting next, and then apes, and then dogs and...Oh wait, that didn't happen.

We as a community determine the standards by which we live. These standards change - and hopefully progress. The majority of Australians thankfully see the relationships being formed by their gay and lesbian sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and friends, to be as meaningful, profound and deep as a heterosexual one. And as a result, see no problem with such relationships being recognised by the secular state.

The logical arguments put by Mormon Socialist are indeed persuasive.

Richard | 24 November 2010  

No havering this time Frank, you've doen well. Someone on TV reently asked if it might soon be ok to marry a chicken.

Claude Rigney | 24 November 2010  

Oh What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to believe.

Brian | 24 November 2010  

Richard, I remember when abortion was there only for women whose lives were in danger. Now it is defacto on demand. I remember when euthanasia was for those who were suffering intolerable pain in their death throes only. Now it is for those who are in depression and cannot bear life.

Besides this, you did not answer my question. If the community is happy with two men and three women being "married", I take it that would not object. This should be accepted and given all the privileges of one man and one woman.

If I characterise your position correctly, you would appear to deny that there is any normative morality. It is all culturally determined. Is this correct?

patrick james | 24 November 2010  

The discussion on 'same sex marriage' seems to leave out the needs of a child. It appears to be all about adults and their needs.

What are the needs of children?

Are THEY to be the by-product of a new concept of marriage.

Would THEY need a mother and a father, or perhaps THEY might like two mothers, and no father....or two fathers and no mother.

I agree with Fr. Brennan. Let us respect same sex unions, but I do uphold the right of a child to have a mother and a father, within this wonderfuland sacred entity called marriage.

In defining same sex unions as a marriage, are we undermining the purpose and value of marriage , with a husband and a wife.

Let us be very careful, lest we unwittingly lose something that has been of the utmost benefit to society .

Bernie Introna | 24 November 2010  

@Patrick. You do your argument no good by wilfully distorting the reality. Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal in all states and territories of Australia. Your suggestion that doctors are actively euthanasing people who are depressed or who cannot bear life is a lie.

Unfortunately Patrick, there seems to be a rather authoritarian streak in your position. An approach that suggests that the Australian public are unable to be trusted to determine the standards by which they live. The great unwashed need to be kept in line by the dictates of religious dogma. Your 'slippery slope' argument is offensive because it demeans all Australians and suggests they are unable to engage in the creation of what they consider the 'good society'. Allow too much debate and before long, marriage equality will lead to animals and humans marrying. The fact that we live in a liberal democracy and not a theocracy, means the discussion of moral issues is all our concern. Each issue should be debated on its own merits. At any time, there are countless groups agitating for change - many of whom I support, others I don't - and probably some trying to get support for polygamy. This arena of ideas, is how it should be.

It may surprise you, but there are many different ways morality can be conceptualised that does not require the belief in a higher deity – and your nasty misrepresentation of Peter Singer is not one of them.

Having lived in Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium, where marriage equality is law, the sky didn't fall in and you'll be glad to now Patrick that animals and humans don't marry each other.

The reality is that Australia will have marriage equality - the latest Galaxy poll showed that 62% support marriage equality and importantly, 80% of those under 25 support equality. This demographic surge in support, can only be ignored by our political leaders for so long, before change occurs. I'd suggest it is going to happen sooner than later.

Richard | 24 November 2010  

Philip Harvey’s post was thought-provoking. Love is a mystery, something we don’t ever completely comprehend. Why do we feel it for this, not that, person? A lot is fuelled by physical desire - pure and simple - but inevitably alloyed by fascinations and needs and joy of being with a person. Marriages - formal, acknowledged partnerships - often result from such things.
They also often follow immature infatuations, and we know of the bitterness that can ensue. Marriages have often been cold business-like contracts for property and power acquisition. Unwilling partners went about the business of having sex with someone they reviled and rearing children they would rather have had with one of their own choosing. Traditionally such contracts were marriages, but loving unions - however formalised - between non-believers were not.
Consider the deficiency in such an attitude. The fact infertile couples are included in the traditional marriage paradigm but impotent couples are not, is also interesting. This reveals that traditional marriage is founded not on human love per se, but only a particular human capacity, where man-woman sex is possible, whether they have it or not, have it lovingly or not, or children come of it or not. Whether people love each other or not seems to be, strictly speaking, unnecessary.
This suggests the traditional paradigm is not really about loving conjugality but primarily a device for particular social ends. This may explain why people are considering enlarging what they think marriage is.

Stephen Kellett | 24 November 2010  

With typical ease and simplicity Fr Brennan explains the critical points of a complex issue in a simple and straight forward manner. Thank you for your continual reflections on the issues of the day, You are a true National treasure!

Andrew Teece | 25 November 2010  

The Anglican Church has long held a broader view of marriage than simply procreation:

First, it was 'ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.

Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
(Marriage service, BCP)

Malcolm McPherson | 25 November 2010  

How disappointing, Claude Rigney, to read your unusually lightweight, flippant comment on a matter deeply important to individuals in our community who deserve far more respect than this implies.

Helen H | 25 November 2010  

The following link to an article at Quadrant by Bill Muehlenberg, puts the slippery slope argument very neatly. It shows that once marriage is defined whatever you want it to be, then look out.

Pets do actually get a run here, Roger. In the Netherlands, surprise, surprise.

Patrick James | 26 November 2010  

It seems to me that the really interesting thing is what what Father Brennan seems to consider his main excellent knock-out point: in the future, when same sex couples can marry, they will insist that both their genetic material be combined (in some yet-to-be invented process) to make their children, and that this right, to pass on one's biological heritage, inheres to the state of marriage. Circular, futuristic, way out there.

Deborah Kelly | 26 November 2010  

Sorry Helen, no offence intended, although I do now tremble to go to the Quadrant article by Bill Muehlenberg to which Patrick James refers.

Claude Rigney | 26 November 2010  

"No one is forcing the Catholic Church or any other religious organisation to change their definition of marriage. But there is a level of arrogance to expect all Australians to submit to your definition" - Richard, where in Frank's article does he expect everyone to submit to his definition? He's just expressing his own opinion - when did he lose that democratic right?

I'm getting exasperated with the kind of 'argument' that takes refuge in this kind of ad hominem attack as an alternative to a rational engagement with the argument!

Joan Seymour Albion, Vic. | 26 November 2010  

If I were asked my opinion by a politician I would say the restricting gay couples to a civil union is to treat them like second class citizens much the same as my parents were treated as second class citizens when they were not allowed to be married at the altar because my mum was a "non-catholic".

Second-Class Citizen | 26 November 2010  

If I were asked my opinion by a politician I would say the restricting gay couples to a civil union is to treat them like second class citizens much the same as my parents were treated as second class citizens when they were not allowed to be married at the altar because my mum was a "non-catholic".

Second-Class Citizen | 26 November 2010  

The vital issue here is that a child is provided with the greatest opportunity to be reared and nurtured by his/her biological father and mother. This is not a case of discrimination against same-sex couples. It is a particular issue where nature has prescribed that the perpetuation of the human species comes through the relationship of a man and woman, and that they therefore should have the responsibility of raising and looking after their offspring. Whether a man and woman in relationship choose to have children, or want to but can't, or even if they are married or not.

This should not alter the need of the child for a Mum and Dad - the paradigm that Fth Brennan refers to.

David Mills | 27 November 2010  

Have read with fascination Fr Brennan's essay and ensuing comments. 

However, may I point out one flaw in the argument that heterosexual marriages provide the best environment for children? As a teacher, I often see the outcomes of neglect and abuse in such family units. This suggests two things: that in reality marriage does not guarantee protection for children, and that if gay couples were allowed to have children, we would still naturally hold them to the same standard of parental care as straight couples.    

Fatima | 28 November 2010  

I think it is fair to ask the question: "what percentage of gay people practice monogamous, life long relationships?" I understand that the gay community wants the broader community to accept and show respect to them, and to accept their lifestyle, but my personal observation of the gay lifestyle is that it doesn't see monogamy as a priority, even within so-called exclusive relationships. Some may say, 'how dare we even question what goes on in gay relationships', but I think it is a fair question if we as a community are expected to celebrate gay marriage as a new fundamental piece of our community's life.

Cathy | 28 November 2010  

It seems far too easy to dissmiss Frank Brennan as being locked up in catholic dogma. I believe that a revision of thought about the stolen generation may lead those detractors to doubt their interlectual assertions,or maybe, listen to the 'donor generation', who regardless of their success in life,recognise an uncomfortable enptiness within themselves.

I'm reminded of the young boy, battered and bruised by his father,who, upon being offered a good home by a good soul, ran to collect his meagre possessions,one of which was a photo of his father.

ken mckay | 29 November 2010  

Some people are gay - get over it!

Sebastian | 03 December 2010  

I don't know about anyone else but I think that it is disturbing that one of the respondents is going to unsuscribe to "Eureka Street" because of what he perceives a degree of homophobia in the comments received in response to Frank Brennans article. I think that if we consider ourselves christians we need to reflect on the way the church contributes to homophobia in society and how it manages to incorporate its gay ministry into the church as a whole. The 100 Revs who were public in there denouncing of homophobia is a way forward and maybe we all need to examine the depths of our own homophobia before we can feel inclined to engage in any debate on this issue.

My apologies to Michael that we can't as christians make you feel comfortable to respond here. My prayer is that all of us may find the christian community a "safe" place and "a refuge" to express ourselves,openly and without fear. I'm afraid there is a lot of work to be done.

Ros | 05 December 2010  

Nature is prior to convention, and the natural law is prior to human positive law. The parliament has no more power to declare that homosexual marriage is possible than it has to dissolve by legislation the filial bond I have with my biological mother, or to bring it about through legislation that the law of gravity not operate in the State of Victoria on Tuesdays and every second Thursday.

Hugh Henry | 13 December 2010  

Hugh Henry:

Strange isn't it that when people invoke supposedly universal 'natural law' in the gay-marriage debate, it always ends up looking specifically like 'Summa Theologica'?

Cousin marriage, mating and producing offspring with numerous partners, and polygamy are far more 'natural' - meaning, performed by a majority of human societies throughout history - than the family ideal presented as being under threat by gay marriage. A basic grounding in biology/history/anthropology could tell you this.

If you want to use 'natural law' defend heterosexual marriage against homosexualists, get ready to defend polygamy and marriage to first cousins (which makes up an estimated 60% of all marriages throughout human history). Did I forget to mention marriage to inanimate objects? many cultures in Central Asia, Africa and Australia allowed young girl to be married to inanimate objects of symbolic/religious significance. Rape inside marriage is natural, so why not allow that?

State approval and support of relationships is convention, not nature. Your marriage to your wife is not natural in the same way that gravity or a biological link to your brother is. My point: why not modify that convention in the interests lifting a few people out of second-class citizenship?

Alex Lewis | 14 December 2010  

Oh, come on, Alex, since you insist it's only about convention, why restrict "marriage" to heterosexual and homosexual couples? Why not include all these multifarious perverse combinations you speak of, which anyone with the slightest curiosity about human history and culture is well aware of? Why not threesomes, etc, and marriage with animals? Aren't you being heartlessly prejudiced in excluding them, in favour of a precious few heterosexual and homosexual couples? (Why 'couples'?)

The onus is on your lot to draw a line and defend it - unless, of course, you think that "marriage" is a term without substantive content, in which case your concept of "marriage" has died the death of a thousand qualifications. (Or, as W.S. Gilbert put it: "When everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody!")

I've drawn my line at what Christianity and Western Civilization has upheld as the authentic marriage: one man and one woman committed to sharing "bed and board" exclusively and open to raising a family. Relation of husband to wife has, in that culture, always been understood as being as indissoluble (till death) as, for example the relation between son and mother, etc. (Perhaps you need to expand your anthropological explorations to include Christianitas?)

So: draw your line and reasonably defend it. Or yield.

Hugh Henry | 14 December 2010  

Henry: I was arguing for the intellectual bankruptcy of 'natural law' theory as you used it, on the grounds that it could not be considered genuinely 'natural'. You might have some perfectly good arguments against gay marriage based on something (I consider) legitimate, say, the need for democratic consensus. But natural law is not one of those good arguments. You have no criteria with with which to deep such practices perverse - they are the human norm. "One man and one woman committed to sharing bed and board" is as culturally arbitrary as Muslim polygamy. If you want to invoke genuine 'natural law' (as opposed to theology that isn't going to convince anyone who doesn't already believe in its divine premise) in the gay marriage debate, you have must admit that first cousin marriage, polygamy, and rape inside marriage (which was legal until the last 60 years) are also justified by natural law. I doubt that you or John Finnis are willing to take this step. There are legal rights that the state grants to heterosexual couples, even infertile ones - in our society that values equality under the law, how can you not grant this to samesex couples?

Alex Lewis | 15 December 2010  

Alex, marriage is between one man and one woman. That's my line. I ask again: where's your line?

Hugh Henry | 17 December 2010  

Henry, my line is this - from an anthropological standpoint, marriage has historically been a community-recognised partnership between a woman (or many women) and a man (more than one is seldom, but not unknown) that all human cultures are known to form for reasons such as: producing children, forming alliances between different groups, and occasionally, love.

I do not know what you mean when you say marriage is “between one man and one woman” – as a description of the facts of human behaviour, it is simply wrong. If it is a value-judgement, I still don’t think you have provided any reason why “man and wife” is right and King David with his six wives wrong.

My line is that the state should either support a relationships solely if it is raising children, or not concern itself with citizens’ private relationships at all. If the state wants to be involved, then on paper it should use a blanket term like ‘co-habitation’. People can call their relationship whatever they want, I don’t care– just so long as the state is not arbitrarily favouring one some people over others.

My question to you is why should an infertile heterosexual couple receive state benefits and a homosexual couple with children not? What’s your take on this?

Alex Lewis | 19 December 2010  

Thanks, Alex, for your questions. 1. There are lots of perversions of marriage. Even by biblical characters such as the one you nominate: David. But the Son of David condemned these, saying "From the beginning it was not so". 2. I'll remind you of the concept of original and personal sin. It means that many "customs" are in fact perversions of the right and the good. For example, slavery, and female circumcision. And of course, abortion and infanticide - these two which were practiced in many cultures (including, according to Daisy Bates, the Australian aborigines... but who are we contemporary Australians to point the finger?) Why should marriage escape the net of perversion, so that every cultural instance of “marriage” is, simply on the ground of being traditional, acceptable? 3. Have you enquired as to which women prefer belonging to a polygamous marriage? You should read the life of the heroic and saintly Bishop Gsell MSC in the Northern Territory who "married" hundreds of women to release them, to their great relief, from oppressive "marital" bonds to old men. Or do you hold it was perfectly OK for men to hold women in their sexual thrall in this way on the basis of custom? (His biography is called "The Bishop with A Hundred and Fifty Wives" -­ look it up.) If I could nominate a paedophilic culture (such as those spoken of by Plato) would that be acceptable, too? 3.) Switzerland is right now voting on the legitimacy of incestuous relationships. That's OK with you? 4.) As to the question: what benefits should an infertile (married) heterosexual couple receive? The recognition that theirs is a genuine marriage. Obviously they can not receive child-related allowances since they have no children. And as to homosexual couples—I have no real idea, but here’s some tips in these crazy times. Certainly homosexual couples, along with all unmarried couples, homosexual or heterosexual—or singles, for that matter— should not be allowed to adopt children. And IVF or surrogacy for anyone (heterosexual or not) should be illegal. To allow as much is a gross violation of the right of children to live in community with their natural parents. [Why do I have to point this out?] The only issue is with those who have split from their spouses and, taking up with homosexual partners, nevertheless have their children in tow. I think in that case the benefits, if any, should be tied strictly to the child, not to the custodian parent.

Hugh Henry | 21 December 2010  

I apologize for the unreadable nature of my previous post. Late night postings are invariably hazardous.

One qualification for those who manage to read this piece: when I opined that IVF should be illegal, I was thinking of donor insemination IVF in particular. Of course IVF itself should be illegal anyway. But donor insemination IVF aggravates the evils with respect the children that are fortunate enough not to be exterminated in this procedure.

Hugh Henry | 23 December 2010  

Henry, I’m not sure that your Biblical case for monogamy is so strong. Judging from the rest of the verse and the verses following it, the passage you cite seems more interested in prohibiting divorce rather than polygamy itself. I can see no reason to read the passage as a condemnation of David, Solomon etc. I do not believe polygamy is explicitly condemned anywhere in the Christian Bible. The closest it comes is urging temperance (taking only one wife) for Bishops, or in certain passages a renunciation of sexual relations altogether.

Exodus 21:10 explicitly allows the taking of multiple wives as part of Mosaic Law, and Christ later states that this is not to be superseded: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law". From what I’ve read, Christianity’s rejection of polygamy has less to do with a strong scriptural argument, and more to do with its adoption of Roman law for political reasons. I would urge you to read Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana for an eloquent theological defense of polygamy. It should be in the little Penguin edition of the prose work.

Independent of this, arguing for the a privileged conception of Christian marriage by appeal to Christian doctrine is no more convincing to a non-Christian than a Muslim citing the life of Mohummed to justify polygamy would be to you. You have not made a strong argument against it, either from scripture (which is unconvincing to a non-Christian anyway) or from ethics. Again, I think you need a stronger argument to demonstrate that all conceptions of marriage other than monogamous man/wife are perversions of an ideal.

Let me be clear - I was not citing these cultural practices because I think they are acceptable, but because I think they pose a challenge to the natural law invoked in your first comment, which is what originally caught my attention. Of course I am against women being forced to enter polygamous marriages. I would also reject slavery, female circumcision, Platonic paederasty etc. on the grounds that these are violations of a person’s right to personal autonomy. In the case of incest between consenting grown adults ie. Father/Daughter, I would treat it as a psychiatric problem rather than a criminal one. As for marriage between first cousins, I would have no problem – 40% of all marriages today and an estimated 60% of all marriages in human history have been between first cousins. But I see no against consensual polygamy. That polygamy can be abusive is not a strong argument – monogamous marriage can be abusive too, and by modern standards it has been for most of its history.

Christians have the right to claim that gay marriage is not valid in God’s eyes. But secular marriage-rights have nothing to do with what a particular tradition considers a valid marriage. In a secular state, you cannot argue for marriage benefits for infertile couples by not gay couples on the grounds that one marriage is a Christian and therefore genuine marriage, and the other is not. As equal citizens, gay couples want the same benefits extended to straight couples. If benefits were only given to couples with children there would be no grounds to complain, but these benefits are given on the basis.

A question of clarification: is opposition only to granting the world ‘marriage’ to gay relationships, or do you oppose the state granting any legal rights to same sex couples?

Why do Christians worry so much about whom the state grants marriage rights to? Surely it weakens the idea of Christian marriage to make it so dependent on being recognized by the state.

Alex Lewis | 23 December 2010  

Thank you, Alex. 1. The Biblical case and the natural law case for monogamy are two sides of the one coin. But let me point out that it was you who introduced biblical facts. In citing counter arguments, I was only fighting on the ground you chose. So please don't imply I'm standing only on biblical authority. You introduced it, not I. Moreover, it's obvious Jesus was opposed in the relevant passage to both divorce and polygamy. "For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife." ... Or "wives"? Come, now. 2. I'm very pleased to see you think a whole lot of traditional practices we both oppose are inimical to the "right to personal autonomy". And yet you turn your nose up at the notion of "natural law"!! Tell, me: whence this alleged "right to personal autonomy"? Is it an arbitrary creation of the state? Or of social consensus? The tribe? Evolution? The human genome? If so, why the moralising? 3. I've no objection to first cousins marrying - neither does the Church, provided certain conditions are met. But I'm interested in your view (extended) that as soon as a man decides to have sex with his daughter (or brother with sister), with one swoop the white-coat psychiatrists are to be parachuted in. Assuming Switzerland does pass its law, should the UN certify its legislators?

Hugh Henry | 26 December 2010  

Fr Frank Brennan. Your arguments are self refuting and I call on you immediately to publicly recognise this!

Firstly I call on you to recognise that several cultures around the world have at times included same-sex marriages within their marriage traditions. For example Indigenous traditions amongst the Native Americans Two-Spirit traditions. I am told the word marriage comes from the Romans and before it was re-defined by Christians the marriage traditions included same-sex marriage and even one of the Emperors of Rome was married to someone of the same sex!

Secondly I call on you to recognise that the current definition of marriage is an abuse of religious rights! Because religious traditions of several faiths are not in conflict with marriage equality! In fact in some faiths their Gods themselves have been involved in same-sex and transgender unions! That preventing these religions from choosing to participate in same sex marriages, transgender marriages and the marriages of anatomically intersex people is interfering with their religious rights!

Thirdly all the quality studies show that the children raised by Gay men are as well raised as those by heterosexuals and that children raised by Lesbians are better! By your reasoning about imposing on people whats best for the child only lesbians should be allowed to have and raise children and only lesbians should be married!

Your arguments are self-refuting. People of your faith Re-defined marriage to exclude Intersex Transgender Gay and Lesbian people against tradition! Against the traditions of other faiths! I point you also to this http://aebrain.blogspot.com/2010/11/intersexuality-and-scripture.html

In the interests of children there is no measure of harm in the lives of children of Gay couples compared to that of heterosexual ones and Lesbian couples children score above average. So we only have a weak superfluous assertion that this is bad but the measurable outcomes show that it is not.

I challenge you to yield to the evidence just as Galileo's telescope made christians change our understanding of scripture because the evidence God wrote in the heavens did not match the interpretations of man of the bibles text.

Logic, reason, evidence, history and religious equality all completely refute your argument and your position is untenable. You cannot maintain it without hypocrisy on multiple counts. If faith or some other argument leads you to the same conclusion fair enough but all your arguments are false and in tatters and if you have any intellectual ethical and moral integrity you must disprove 100% of my points or publicly acknowledge this refutation.


Bayne MacGregor | 28 January 2011  

AMEN, HUGH HENRY! (what a cool name!)
Whoever you are, you have hit the nail on the head. Such an articulate argument, but unfortunately, one that goes somewhat unheard in this forum of "deaf" people.

Lids | 08 February 2011  

A Buddhist wedding is not valid if we are to follow these arguments of a certain type of Christian Ceremony, that has to be sanctioned under God, to be called marriage. What about a Hindu wedding?

Last time I checked people have a right not to be Catholic, Buddhist, or Hindu. The arguments against Same-Sex Marriage remind me of religious leaders who supported the segregation of people of a different skin colour, and stopped inter-racial marriage. The understanding of Civil Rights, is vital when we are talking about excluding people from government recognition of their marriage.

Dave | 10 February 2011  

I was asked to comment on the legalisation of same sex marriage in the News Review Section of the Sydney Morning Herald 26-7 February 2011.

frank Brennan SJ | 28 February 2011  

Frank: If you're open to argument on this matter - try this. Zach Wahls shows how powerfully experience speaks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSQQK2Vuf9Q&feature=player_embedded

Terry Laidler | 02 March 2011  

People are already struggling with issues related to identity, worth and belonging as acculturation (as understood by Fr Gerard Arbuckle) continues through existing stigmatising policies and practices. What is it like for a child who has been created in this way (non-biological parents)? Do they feel contentment or do they feel challenged in their own sense of identity, worth & belonging?

I support Fr Frank's argument and Jane Coleman's insights around grace. Until we, as a society, have discerned (and agreed to) what respecting children and life itself means (ask ARACY as well) we should remain cautious about such a significant shift in the way our childrens' rights are embedded in legislation and social policy. I know many gay people who are wonderful and can empathise with their need for relational recognition.

Ultimately though, we each need to determine the 'sacred' in our lives regardless of any law or policy. The 'spirit' and 'intent' of relationship is what is foundational; is what is tested; and is what holds up any relationship. There are many heterosexual couples who do not have any understanding of this concept. I think it is very healthy for dialogue like this to occur. Keep it up.

Mary Tehan | 02 March 2011  

I am absolutely amazed how so called slaves of God can be tolerant of homosexuals and other sinful depravity. I suggest for you to read the Bible through and through to understand that there is no tolerance from God, you either obey his commands or end up in hell. God is patient and will forgive who ever believes in Jesus and repent of their sins but not to a priest,but to God himself.Remember, the people who are preaching Gods word will be held accountable and judged more than other people. Good luck!

Sharon Devney | 06 March 2011  

Frank, i recall sitting with you in the law school at UQ in 1975 when you said to me words to the effect " the old man says that if this legislation (the Family Law Act ) goes through there will be thousands of kids who will be wards of the state." I think the Act passed the senate by a small majority. maybe the churches should have done more, prayed more, etc. what do you think?

alex crawford | 20 June 2011  

I recognise Fr Frank Brennan's intellectual abilities & knowledge but was very disappointed by his comments or lack of reasoning he gave,on ABC Compass, hosted by Geraldine Doughe, on homosexual marriage.
Fr Brennan, simply listened & when directed to speak, it seemed he essentially was sympathetic to homosexual marriage, but stated that marriage was a union between a man & women for the procreation of children.
When a lesbian journalist quoted the Holy Father's view that homosexuality "was a intrinsic disorder" he replied "he (the Pope) does not help by using those words".

Why Fr Brennan did you not proceed to explain the "reason" for the Pope's words? Why not explain further the "reason" why homosexual marriage is unacceptable for society, its effects or death of future generations?
I was very disappointed & this may explain why society is in its state because those we charge to speak up & defend our beliefs seem to fail. A speaking priest said "If Catholic priests preached the true gospel as they should , the whole world should be catholic"

ladymum | 06 August 2011  

Agree with the general thrust of the argument but the para beginning with"As a matter of social policy" seems to be counter when stating that the"state has no interest in privileging.." I think it should be, where children are concerned, or have I misunderstood?

brian mcgrechan | 22 August 2011  

I appreciate your respectful and considered language, but the preference of heterosexual people/couples over homosexual people/couples "all else being equal" is discrimination in a very distilled form. Advocate it if you insist, but do not follow it with the claim that "we can ensure non-discrimination against same sex couples while at the same time maintaining a commitment to children" with this policy.

Jasmine Ruscoe | 30 May 2015  

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