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Wrestling with the sacking of Israel Folau



The post on Instagram by Australian Wallaby, Israel Folau, is an example of the impact of our use of social media, and of the complex issues that are raised by it.

Israel Folau (right) and Karmichael Hunt celebrate Folau scoring a try during the round six Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Crusaders on 23 March 2019. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)Folau posted a passage from St Paul's biblical Letter to the Galatians (chapter 5 verses 19-21), along with a warning that hell awaits eight categories of people unless they repent, in the conviction, as Folau posts, that Jesus loves them and desires their repentance. His post caused immense offence to members of the LGBTQI community and many others, as it referenced homosexuals, even though this reference is not in St Paul's list of 'sins of the flesh'.

Folau is a lay minister in his church and has been filmed preaching and baptising. There is no doubt that he, as an evangelical Christian with a literal understanding of the text, believes a whole lot of people will go to hell unless they repent.

But he is also an Australian representative, a sporting hero to many, and a contracted player for Australian Rugby. In that position, many found his post to be unacceptable hate-speech that violated the sport's code of conduct. Rugby Australia determined that he should show good cause why his $4 million contract should not be terminated. In all likelihood, the case will go to the courts.

Important issues around the role and responsibility of professional sport stars, the relationship of sport to social policy, sport as a business, and the rights and limits of free speech all come into play in what is emerging as a significant case in Australian public life. Numbers of commentators have taken up his case and some voices have linked it to a perception of attacks on religious freedom.  

I remain conflicted about the sacking of Folau, as I believe his case does raise questions around important issues in a society that values diversity and that promotes inclusivity and tolerance.

Highly paid sports stars are indeed role models, and to publicly canvas that gay people risk going to hell because of their orientation has an impact on young people and their wellbeing and safety. A sporting star has clear responsibilities in this area to weigh the consequences of their words or actions. It is appropriate for governing sports bodies to enforce codes of conduct in this area and to insist on the responsibility of players.


"Is Australian Rugby heading dangerously towards imposing a religious or a political test for sporting selection?"


Moreover, the fact is that Rugby is a business and has a brand name to protect. Folau is an employee and has contractual expectations. After a previous incident around the same-sex marriage plebiscite he gave his word that he would not venture into this space again.

But he is also a sportsperson with a private life, and is a member of a small church. Should his employer have required of him to be silent on issues related to his faith? Is it discriminatory to require this on some issues but not on others? Should sports, and sportspeople, have public positions on social issues that don't directly relate to their sport, for example, officially endorsing same sex marriage, as distinct from ensuring a lack of bigotry or hate speech within a sport?

Rugby Australia enjoys a monopoly in terms of employment (playing Rugby), and unlike in other employment contexts Folau doesn't have a choice about employers — if he wishes to express himself he cannot simply look for another employer. It seems to me that this monopoly situation is relevant in what can or should be asked of a sportsperson. Selection for a sport to represent a country cannot be reduced to an employee relationship.

Is Australian Rugby heading dangerously towards imposing a religious or a political test for sporting selection? If a conservative Muslim player was to publicly support Sharia law would that disqualify them from representing Australia? If a Maronite Catholic player was to publicly affirm their opposition to same-sex marriage would that disqualify them from representing their country?

There is an important side issue here: how much influence should big sponsors have in determining policy? Qantas is clearly an issue — they are the Qantas Wallabies, and CEO Alan Joyce, and the company itself, were vocal supporters of same-sex marriage. It seems Rugby Australia feels the pressure here.

As a Catholic priest I have a very different understanding to Folau about the redeeming love of God. Threatening hell has no place in my way of seeing faith. But as a member of the Assemblies of God, Folau has a much stronger belief in the likelihood of people going to hell. In his post he named a whole lot of 'sinners' as he saw it, and how he wished to help 'save' them. I don't agree with his theology but it is hard to see in its intent, at least in a layperson's terms, as meeting the threshold of hate speech. His intent is repentance so that they can be saved.

Now, I don't for a moment doubt that many find these views hateful, but in a pluralist, multicultural society that cannot be, in itself, justification for silencing someone. I think his way of reading the Bible is dead wrong, but the Church learnt some time ago that it can't impose its understanding on other Christians.

Can Folau be held to account by Rugby Australia for expressing a religious belief that is shared by many millions? As one writer noted: 'there is no distinction between a person's beliefs, and publishing material consistent with those beliefs, as much as the latter might be dressed up as a code-of-conduct issue.'

Is race also an issue in this case? Over 40 per cent of professional Rugby players have Pacific Islander or Maori heritage, with many belonging to 'fundamentalist' churches. Like all communities there are a range of views within Islander communities, and various judgments about the rights of Folau to express his views the way he did, but I sense a growing unease among this part of our multicultural society about how Folau is being treated.

Are their cultural and religious sensibilities to be respected? As Paea Wolfgramm, who won Tonga's first-ever Olympic medal, silver, at Atlanta 1996 in heavyweight boxing, and who was critical of Folau writes: 'It now feels that Folau is under a sustained attack, and therefore his and our "Tongan-ness" is being attacked as well. As we counted our connection to Folau, perhaps with each attack our empathy as well as our sympathy grew.'

The Folau case remains disputed space that has raised genuine and serious issues on both sides, but also highlights how intemperate language and polarisation in our society poses such a challenge to debate in the public square.



Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne. This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the College's newsletter last week.

Main image: Israel Folau (right) and Karmichael Hunt celebrate Folau scoring a try during the round six Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Crusaders on 23 March 2019. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, Israel Folau, same-sex marriage, LGBTQI



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Existing comments

One of my favourite contemporary theologians in Australia is the cartoonist Leunig. On the weekend his offering on this issue says it all. A billboard in his cartoon states in effect: WARNING WE ARE AN INCLUSIVE SOCIETY If you do , say, write or think anything that is not inclusive, YOU WILL BE EXCLUDED.

john frawley | 13 May 2019  

I too, like you Chris, 'remain conflicted'. Is the solution to be found in differentiating between 'I think/believe/shall' statements and 'you are/must/will' statements? I don't know but I'd be interested in what others think.

Ginger Meggs | 13 May 2019  

Thank you Chris for rightfully challenging our thinking on this matter.

Maurice Sheehan | 14 May 2019  

I don't see that there is any issue here. An individual's sexual orientation is something they are born with, it's not a matter of choice. So if God really is running this show, why does she allow people to be born with a condition that is going to send them to hell? We really do have to stamp out this vilification of and discrimination against people who just are what they are. The majority of our population already appreciate this, so it's time for the rest to catch up.

Brian Finlayson | 14 May 2019  

So is it OK for any member of a religion to say publicly whatever the religion teaches? What if a religion teaches that women are inferior to men, or that Asians or caucasians are evil? If people want to believe such unsocial (and unChristian) teaching that's their choice and I guess OK. But it's not OK to state such discriminatory beliefs publicly in a society that values everyone as equal and that treats people justly. Chris, you do not need to "remain conflicted" on a matter that causes real distress to a class of people who have been demeaned. The message here is simple: religious freedom must not be allowed to excuse public demeaning of others. As you observe: "Highly paid sports stars are indeed role models, and to publicly canvas that gay people risk going to hell because of their orientation has an impact on young people and their wellbeing and safety. A sporting star has clear responsibilities in this area to weigh the consequences of their words or actions." Your further comments are really irrelevant and the contractual issues are incidental to the moral issue.

Peter Johnstone | 14 May 2019  

Isn't this a classic example of what Nobel Prize Winner Stephen Weinberg's meant when he said: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Ian Robinson | 14 May 2019  

I am admirer of Israel Folau as a footballer His skills are superb & his sportsmanship of the highest order. I admire his zeal for his religion & his concern for the saving of souls. I understand he credits his religion for his turning his own life around and away from the slippery slope of a self-indulgent lifestyle. He desires to share the joy. But in this mass communication age a pebble dropped into the pool of Instagram can create ripples, even waves, far beyond the user’s intentions or imagination. However if a person is going to use the moral prescriptions put forward by Paul in his letters to primitive Christian communities in 1st century Corinth & Galatia I would suggest he clear the text with a Pauline scholar & what he himself wants to achieve with a Spiritual Director. Too late now, the horse has bolted. I think Rugby Australia has been completely out it’s depth in dealing with this issue. But then again Sports administrators are rarely trained on how to deal with religious enthusiasm. A bit like the French bishops who didn’t know how to deal with Joan of Arc.

Uncle Pat | 14 May 2019  

What an over reaction to a Biblical passage. If people are not Christians why would this upset them so much? He is not sitting on the fence and perhaps a more discrete approach might have been more appropriate. However there has been so many lies spread about Christians recently it’s good to see someone standup and remind people of what our faith requires. It is uncomfortable. Folau is a man to be admired for his stalwart beliefs, even in the face of exclusion.

Penny | 14 May 2019  

Thanks Fr. Chris for an excellent article. I agree with all of your points. What I have found baffling about Mr. Folau’s approach, especially given his Christian convictions, is that he seems to have overlooked the approach that Christ takes (at least according to the Gospels), in dealing with ‘publically’ condemning ‘sinners’. Christ says to the condemners of the woman found in adultery, who want to stone her to death: ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 7:53–8:11). And again among others: ‘Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.’ (Matthew 7:5). These are reminiscent of the many criticisms Jesus had of the religious lawyers, scribes and pharisees of the time, who were constantly berating people for not keeping the religious law, and who had set themselves up as perfect, when, in fact they too, were sinful. (See Luke 11:37–11:54; Matthew 23:1–23:39; et al). I think the message of Jesus is clearly that, as followers, we are not here to point out the faults of others publically, but rather, must look to, and rectify, our own behaviour and be in right relationship with God. Mr. Folau’s approach would be better centred around the love of God. As Jesus taught: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:34-35). Thus, I do not understand the need for anyone to take these public stances of calling out ‘sinners’ in this public way. In my view, it is unbecoming of a Christian.

Thomas Amory | 14 May 2019  

Well said, Thomas Amory. So often those who very loudly proclaim their own Christian values to everyone and sundry show little evidence of these values in their everyday behaviour towards their fellow humans. Is there any wonder so many are retreating from religion these days when religious labels are used by some more as a means of exclusion rather than inclusion and reaching out?

PaulM | 14 May 2019  

Why doesn't Israel have two accounts. One where he comments on Rugby and one where he comments on Religion. Let people choose what they want.

Jeffrey Wade | 14 May 2019  

At issue here is also the entitlement Middleton feels, as Xavier's rector, to raise doubts about the propriety of Folau's sacking. 'Holding the Man', for those who don't know, is a 1995 memoir by Australian writer, actor, and activist, Timothy Conigrave. The book tells the story of Conigrave's life and of his relationship with his husband and love of fifteen years, John Caleo. They met in the mid-1970s at Xavier. I cannot imagine that Middleton doesn't know this. Caleo was a star footballer at Xavier, captaining the school's team and winning the APS Best and Fairest trophy in 1976. The book, which highlights the Jesuitical nature of both characters' formation, has been made into an award-winning film. It raises crucial questions about the failure of Xavier to support two boys at the school who fall in love with each other. It also happened that both young men died of AIDS/HIV-related infections, arguably as an indirect result of this neglect. To cap it all, the description of the requiem mass, at Xavier, for one of them, in which the presence of the other party in their relationship was deliberately ignored, is harrowing.

Michael Furtado | 15 May 2019  

Israel Folau's approach is typical of home spun evangelism, ill-informed and based on sloganism. The sensationalising media has unfortunately not chosen to address exactly what he has said in both of his "homophobic" tweets. Israel has not said that homosexuals will all go to hell. He said that homosexuals (by far the tiny minority amongst all those heterosexual transgressors he also mentions) will go to hell along with the rest if they don't repent of their transgressions. Neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality equal sin and retributive damnation. However, some sexual practices within both orientations do and that is not for the media or others to judge. I would be prepared to bet my house on it that the vast majority of homosexuals who have heard what he said would laugh it off, don't give a toss one way or the other and would not see it as "homophobic", just as the majority of heterosexuals Israel mentions wouldn't see his comments as "heterophobic". The monster has been created by dubiously "offended" commentators. The whole contrived outrage is pathetic and even more childish than Israel's post. As far as the Wallabies are concerned and despite Israel's obvious talents, I don't mind if they drop him, simply because he jars the backline and buggers up its smooth operation with poor option taking, positional play and inaccurate ball passing - reminiscent of his brand of home spun Christianity.

john frawley | 15 May 2019  

One of the problems about social media is that anyone can get on them and start declaiming on any subject with little or no qualification to do so. I would regard Israel Folau as being in this category regarding sexuality in the Christian context. Tom Wright, former Anglican Bishop of Durham and renowned biblical scholar, has traditional Christian beliefs on this subject, which can be seen in a readily available YouTube clip on Same Sex Marriage. So does Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, whose clips are also readily available. Both are far more considered and nuanced than Folau and to my mind speak with far more genuine authority. This is a very contentious issue and an ignorant and ill thought out presentation of Christian beliefs can lead the whole community into ridicule. These are very trying times for Christians or any people of traditional religious beliefs and there are ways of positively engaging with those who disagree. I think Israel Folau has failed here. This has now gone on to be a purely legal dispute about contract matters with many interested parties involved. It will not end happily, I fear. It will be a lose/lose outcome.

Edward Fido | 15 May 2019  

Any harm done by a comment such as that made by Israel Folau needs to be weighed against the harm done to the functioning of a democratic society when free speech is discouraged. The latter is becoming increasingly tenuous if censorship intentions such as those made recently by the leader of the Greens are any indication.

John RD | 17 May 2019  

I agree with Brian and Peter. I believe in ‘love one another’, be non- judgemental and inclusive. Lead by example, be the change you want to see, without damming people. His words are very dangerous for some and that’s not OK.

Kate | 17 May 2019  

Biblical scholars have spent years interpreting the Old Testament. Has Israel Folau? My understanding of religious freedom is that it enables you to practise the religion of your choice, rather than to proselytise your personal interpretation of the Bible in order to determine, godlike, the eternal fate of your fellow man? Perhaps Israel who has a foot in both the Rugby and the Church camps and is not a theologian, would be wise to confine the imparting of his views to those in his own church and making it clear he was not speaking as a high profile rugby player whose views may influence the young, the undiscerning and the vulnerable. And yes, he is a great player, but why not stick with Rugby- if it is not too late, as the cobbler sticks to his last? And why not engage the brain -the socially intelligent part, - before the mouth takes over?

Henri | 17 May 2019  

Seriously, folks what is this all about? A. Why would anyone take any notice of a footballer talking about theological matters? B. Freedom to practice ones religion is not the same as evangelizing. C. This business of cult adoration of immature youths is just unfair and silly. Even if it makes money. D. Since I have seven years of ascetic, moral, dogmatic, biblical theology and three plus years of philosophy and have practiced Zen Buddhism for several decades I expect that will qualify me to be chosen to play rugby for Australia.

Michael D. Breen | 17 May 2019  

Your education and practice probably will not qualify you to play rugby for Australia, Michael Breen, but will no doubt place you high on the selection list in heaven where rugby is the only game played.

john frawley | 18 May 2019  

A good question, Michael Breen. One has therefore to ask Fr Middleton, with his Jesuitical undertaking of personal loyalty to the Pope - who has publicly stated in regard to the homosexual question, "Who am I to judge?" - why he feels it necessary to use his office to raise this question. Would Chris feel equally confident in expressing his support for those Muslims whose zealotry on matters of sharia law is inspirational to so many? And, I respectfully add, do his letters home to parents and as published on this website ever depart from the generally conservative arguments associated with his name and high office?

Michael Furtado | 18 May 2019  

As a pacific islander who has been accepted into a country unlikely to be flooded by climate change he would have done better to advocate for the benefit of the smaller island nations as they get driven from their homes by rising sea level.

Phillip Edwards | 19 May 2019  

I'll be archiving this article and the responses to it for reference later in the year when the debate turns to legislating for 'freedom of religion'. It will be interesting to see whether what's good for the 'goose' is also seen as good for the 'Gander' [capitalisation intended].

Ginger Meggs | 21 May 2019  

Michael Breen: "Freedom to practice one's religion is not the same as evangelizing." Yet the Founder of the Christian Religion said to His disciples: "Go therefore and teach all nations … " (Mt 28, 19). To deny the freedom to evangelize is to prevent Christians from carrying out an explicit requirement of the Christian religion, as laid down by its Founder! Objecting to Israel Folau for promoting his Christian beliefs is thus objecting to his Christianity. Ironically, if he sought it, Folau would have support from the very secular Victorian Supreme Court (VSC) in its decision which defended homosexuals promoting homosexual acts. In the Phillip Island Case (Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw, 2014) it said the following: "So understood, [CYC’s] attempts to distinguish between homosexuality and promoting homosexuality failed. Mr Rowe’s objection to promotion of homosexuality is, in truth, an objection to the same sex attraction, or as [CYC] characterised it, homosexuality....." Albeit it was a VSC opinion, and Folau is based in NSW, Folau has nevertheless a devastating legal precedent to deploy against Rugby Australia, given the current legal understanding, as expressed by the VSC (as illustrated), that objecting to someone’s promoting X (Christianity) is “in truth” an objection to that person’s X (Christianity). Watch this space, but I suspect Folau won’t pursue it, because like me he will think the distinction the P.C. VSC defended is patently absurd: there are many people with homosexual temptations who acknowledge such yet sincerely oppose promoting homosexuality, in the sense of advocating the morality of the acts they are tempted to. They are homosexuals, yet oppose promoting homosexual acts. One can have all manner of temptations, indeed for a whole lifetime, but not necessarily think it’s morally OK to succumb to them. Is that news? To the VSC, yes.

HH | 24 May 2019  

The most insightful article I have read on this topic so far. And as this recent election has shown, many of us live in a bubble only sharing our ideas with people of like mind. There is a real need for more diversity of thought.

MICHAEL POLIN | 24 May 2019  

Janna Thompson has a thought-provoking piece on this subject in todays Inside story. See < https://insidestory.org.au/the-identity-trap/ >

Ginger Meggs | 29 May 2019  

This article is not about a person's sexuality or sexual behaviour HH, it's about whether an employer (in this case the NRL) can sack an employee (in this case Israel) for speaking out when s/he is told not to. If you're looking for a parallel, then the sacking of Bishop Morris is probably a better example than the case you cite. So my questions to you (and to Michael and others) would be (1) are they parallel cases? and, if so (2) were both the disciplinary actions justified? and, if not, why not?

Ginger Meggs | 29 May 2019  

I am intrigued by HH's post, drawing succour from the Victorian Supreme Court, which rightly rejects the false dichotomy between homosexual orientation and homosexual behaviour. HH then proceeds to describe, with evident approval, those homosexuals who draw a line between their homosexuality and its practice. In researching this paradox, and as a homosexual person myself, I encountered the existence of a behaviour called Stockholm Syndrome, which is a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy during captivity. Anna Freud argues that those who draw a distinction between homosexual orientation and behaviour are victims of others who perpetuate the false dichotomy that while there is not much wrong with homosexual orientation - a 'disorder', they call it - those homosexuals who express their love for another by cohabiting with them are committing a grave sin. The Oxford psychotherapist, Neil Burton, considers the syndrome to be a defence mechanism that might give one a sense of power in a situation otherwise likely to be terrifying. In this regard it is possible to read the behaviours of those following Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality as demonstrating syndromic behaviours resulting from the Church's abusive teaching.

Dr Michael FURTADO | 31 May 2019  

G.M. I was addressing a proposition raised by a commenter, not Fr Middleton’s post in which I think there were some very good points. But on the point you raise, I entirely agree: it’s about the terms of the contract. Somewhat contra to Fr M, as I read him, I think it’s contestable that Folau (employee) was legally bound by a post-contractual verbal request from the head of the ARU (employer) that he desist from, in effect, proclaiming the Ten Commandments. M.F.: I understand Stockholm Syndrome. But to experience a certain inclination – even chronically and powerfully – and to judge that it is as an inclination to do something evil is not ipso facto Stockholm Syndrome. Moment to moment, it could be the reasonable conclusion of any of us postlapsarians for whom, as C.S. Lewis put it : “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”

HH | 03 June 2019  

HH, While a great fan of Lewis, I cannot imagine a God who imbues those he loves with the gifts of sexual longing to be mediated by the lifelong decencies and commitments that the rules of marriage everywhere command, while denying those who experience that calling in a different way from expressing their love for their marriage partner. It speaks to a perverse and hateful god, which is a theology that I find unsupported by the Christian Gospels.

Michael Furtado | 05 June 2019  

Well, the author may disagree with Folau & interpret God's love whichever way he sees fit. Do not forget Christ did tell the story line of a tax collector gone home free of charge as he accepted his sin/repented while the Pharisieu kept busy talking about his deeds & be condemmed. So, to understand, appreciate the true and valid perspective by Folau preaching. My theory is better to believe there is hell exist to avoid sin. If it does exist & you do not believe it, one day you woke up after your own death and see yourself in it, too late !

Anh Dang | 18 June 2019  

These words were originally intended for communities of mainly non-Jewish Christians in a province called Galatia (in what we would call modern Turkey) somewhere in the decade 50-60 AD. They are not the words of Jesus. They are the words of Saint Paul. The King James translation, although widely loved for its beauty, is not as precise as modern translations. It is nevertheless pretty clear that the sins referred to here can be summarised as sexual promiscuity, idolatry, drunkenness, violence and other bad stuff. Whoever composed the original Instagram post has also attempted to summarise these sins. Note however, that Galatians 5:19-21 does not, in any translation, mention homosexuals. Folau and whoever wrote the original post have projected homosexuality into the promiscuous category. That is their bias.

Glenn | 18 July 2019  

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