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Australia's rainbow Church



We all know what rainbows look like. They have many different colours, and we can apply the notion of a rainbow to a church in several different ways. In one general meaning it is an image, adopted by the Synod on Synodality, of the whole multi-hued international Church. In the language of the synod, it stresses the inclusion on an equal basis of all members within the Church. We are called to ‘enlarge our tent’ to accommodate such increased diversity. My home Parish of the Transfiguration, North Woden, ACT, has adopted this multi-coloured image of its parishioners as its parish logo, together with the Gospel announcement by Christ’s faithful, ‘Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here’. It is a celebration of our diversity.

In a more specialised meaning, it refers to the LGBTQIA+ Catholic community, sometimes referred to as the rainbow Catholic community. That community uses the term to describe itself, though not everyone is comfortable with it. The Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry, for instance, is the leading Australian representative voice of their community.

Both meanings are at the heart of the current test of the boundaries of church diversity. It was posed by Pope Francis late last year in his statement Fiducia Supplicans (On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings), which emphasised the offering by clergy of pastoral blessings to Catholics including those in what the Church describes as ‘irregular’ relationships. Those in such relationships included same sex couples, heterosexual unmarried couples, polygamous couples and divorced and remarried couples.

Its reception has shown just how polarised the international Church has become. The statement didn’t cause the polarisation, but it revealed its existence by bringing it out into the open. Despite widespread support for the Pope’s position, there have been senior leaders of the Church, especially in Africa, who have publicly dissented and assertively refused to allow such blessings by its clergy. The emphasis of their dissension has been on same sex couples, though the general principles of the blessings apply equally to many heterosexual couples within the Church too.

Some of the resistance to acceptance of diversity and the pastoral inclusion mapped out by Pope Francis has its origins in theological concerns which apply across the international Church. But some of it is cultural, strategic, and political. While the West has largely accepted homosexual rights and adopted same sex marriage, the culture and identity of global South countries oppose such rights even to the extent of criminalising them in some cases.

Many of the Catholics in Africa, for example, live in societies where homosexuality is condemned. This is reflected in the statement from Congolese Cardinal Ambongo, that in the African cultural context, LGBTQ+ unions ‘are seen as contradictory to cultural norms' and blessing such unions ‘would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities’.  

Another consideration is that, unlike the Church in the West, Catholic Church leaders in Africa and Latin America are locked in conflict with Evangelical churches for adherents. Some fear that anything which can be interpreted by their conservative parish communities as supporting LGBTQIA+ unions will provoke some parishioners to turn to other hard-line Christian churches.


'The full range of attitudes demonstrated internationally are present within our Australian Church. They flow not just from long-standing theological differences, but are impacted by the cultural diversity of Australia’s congregations and priests.'


The whole matter is a bigger question than acceptance of diverse sexualities within the Church, as Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego in the USA has pointed out. Yet it is sexuality which makes the debate so heated. Other so-called ‘irregular’ relationships are often overlooked. Concentrating on other groups, equally deserving of inclusion, might take some of the heat out of the discussion and return it to general principles. The Pope’s critics do not want that.

The Australian Church is not just an observer of these developments but a participant. It is a microcosm of the diverse international Church and as every year goes by is becoming more so. The accelerating changes to the composition of the Church in Australia recorded in official sources has been brought about by the declining Mass participation of Anglo-Celtic Catholics and the growing participation of recent immigrant communities from Africa, India, Asia, and the Pacific, plus priests from these same communities.

These new communities bring many gifts to the Australian Church but they also inevitably change church dynamics by bringing with them their own cultures, politics and theologies. This means that the reception of Fiducia Supplicans within the Australian Church has become increasingly diverse and complex, mirroring the international Church.

Australian church leaders should have been prepared. My experience of such complexity occurred in late 2022, centred on the November meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), when the bishops considered a statement presented to them of celebration and support for the LGBTQIA+ Catholic community (with the concurrence of the latter’s representative bodies). This statement was signed by close to 50 former Plenary Council members, including about 20 leaders from Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), the peak body of male and female religious orders and congregations. Since then, CRA has continued to emphasise this theme, including hosting a major tour of Australia by LGBTQIA+ ally Fr James Alison.

The ACBC proceedings are closed to the public, but there is no doubt that the statement was the subject of formal and informal discussions and garnered some support. What emerged in private discussions with several participating bishops was that the discussions were both theological and practical. There was some goodwill, with many bishops giving positive commentary on Fiducia Supplicans. But a major impediment to moving forward towards positive inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community within the Church was the likely reaction of the emerging clerical workforce in Australia.

Increasing numbers of priests now ministering in Australia have come from countries in which same sex relationships are banned by law and vocally rejected by church leaders as ‘contrary to the will of God’. And now the church leaders in some of these countries are refusing to follow the Pope’s declaration allowing priests to bless same-sex couples. These objections to full acceptance of LGBTQIA+ Catholics stemming from the conservative church in much of the world are also influencing the culture of the Australian Church. Even those Australian bishops favourably inclined to back Pope Francis recognise this reality. It makes them more cautious, even reluctant, about moving forward.

Australian Catholics shouldn’t therefore treat the international negative reaction to Fiducia Supplicans as merely a spectator sport. The full range of attitudes demonstrated internationally are present within our Australian Church. They flow not just from long-standing theological differences, but are impacted by the cultural diversity of Australia’s congregations and priests.




John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Catholic, Church, Pope Francis, LGBT



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Existing comments

Thankfully, our Church communities mirror our ethnic diversity . When the secular community accepts diversity in peoples’ sexuality, living arrangements and remarriage after divorce then Church communities will inevitably be impacted. Pope Francis has emphasised that the Church is open to “all”. Do we want to return to the time in the 1960’s when Les Murray’s poem “The Barranong Angel Case” was published? In the poem the regional townsfolk rejected Jesus’ arrival as an angel: “Besides, what he told us had to do with love/And people here,/They don’t think that’s quite - manly.” From wherever our Church’s people originate they are now in the place where the community has moved forward from the reactions in The Barranong Angel Case.

Pam | 13 March 2024  
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For following him realistically, I imagine I'd have rejected Jesus as an "angel", too, and would have been looking for a working, earthed substantiation of "love" in his life and teachings. (The late Jesuit poet-priest, Peter Steele, insisting on definition, once offered as an example of loose usage: "Love": a term of endearment liberally employed by Melbourne tram conductresses.")

John RD | 18 March 2024  

In Murray’s poem, John RD, a lot of the women liked the angel’s plummy accent, but the men thought the angel haughty and a bit overdone with the flourishes of wings. “He’d just got off on the wrong foot from the start/And you can’t fix that up.” If someone “different” arrives in our congregations do we have these internal and external conversations?

Pam | 18 March 2024  

Why not, Pam? Differences are all the more reason, I should think, to establish appropriate understandings of why allcomers bother to be present in an ecclesial community that necessarily involves teachings and practices that convey purpose and identity.

John RD | 22 March 2024  

"the statement from Congolese Cardinal Ambongo that, in the African cultural context, LGBTQ+ unions ‘are seen as contradictory to cultural norms' and blessing such unions ‘would be in direct contradiction to the cultural ethos of African communities’." The problem with a statement such as this, although motivated by good intentions, is that it seems to require a social norm to validate Catholic teaching. The opposite is the case. A social norm is only an accident of history. It is Catholic teaching which validates a social norm inspired by it, and which remains true even if no social norms comply with it.

roy chen yee | 14 March 2024  

The critical question raised by John Warhurst's article is an ecclesiological one: Is the Church simply a sociological construction whose teachings and practices are determined by contemporary ideologies, or is it a community gathered around and committed to the revelation of God in the person of Christ?

John RD | 15 March 2024  

In the Old Testament the rainbow symbolized that the Great Flood was over, and that God had made a covenant with His people. The current state of sexual confusion in the Western world seems to me to be like another flood, but this time a psychological one, where many are drowning. Fiducia Supplicans and its aftermath don't seem to have solved the issue. Where do people go from here? Rather than look to the likes of the Pope or Cardinal Fernandez, I think they will look to the likes of Jordan Peterson, who they feel deal with issues of more pressing concern to them and address these in a relevant manner. We need to be very careful that the concept of 'inclusivity' does not become a shibboleth and exclude people. I think many people involved in various high-level palavers in the Catholic Church do not have their feet in the real world. Jesus did. They need to get them back there urgently.

Edward Fido | 15 March 2024