Voters in Australia are in the midst of a heated weeks-long vote on whether to legalize same-sex marriage, and some church leaders seem ambivalent when it comes to how the nation’s Catholics should vote.
Earlier this month, registered voters received a letter asking if they think the nation’s marriage law should be updated to permit same-sex marriage. The vote is nonbinding, but Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that if a majority approves, he will introduce a bill to change the marriage code to include same-sex couples. The law was modified in 2004 to restrict marriage to one man and one woman, though some parts of Australia permit same-sex civil unions.
Many bishops in Australia have been vocal in opposing the measure, and as a body they have urged Catholics to vote no. But other church leaders, including at least one bishop, appear to acknowledge that people of faith may rely on their consciences to arrive at a different answer.
A statement published on the Australian bishops’ website puts the church’s position succinctly: “Please vote No, to keep marriage as a unique relationship between a woman and a man.”
Archbishop Coleridge: “It is love and it is valuable but it’s not and it can’t be the kind of love that we call marriage.”
The statement goes on to say that voting no is not tantamount to discrimination: “The recognition that marriage is between a man and a woman is not the assertion of bigotry, religious dogma or irrational tradition, but a recognition of human ecology. It does not preclude persons of the same sex entering into other legal relationships.”
That refrain was echoed earlier this week when Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said during a television interview that Catholics should vote no—not because there is no value in same-sex relationships but because the love between two people of the same sex is not equivalent to the love between a man and a woman.
“That love is like the love of friends,” he told Australia's ABC News. “It is love and it is valuable but it’s not and it can’t be the kind of love that we call marriage.” He also pointed out that parents cannot marry their children and that siblings cannot marry one another, a comparison that drew rebukes from supporters of same-sex marriage.
“What we would want people to remember is that when they speak, words can inflict real damage, and there’s a need to be respectful in the choice of words we use,” Janine Middleton, a Catholic who co-chairs an organization supporting same-sex marriage, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
In addition to concerns about changing the marriage law, some Catholic leaders have expressed concern that the church’s religious liberty could be at risk, especially when it comes to what can be taught in Catholic schools.
As for employment practices, some bishops have warned that employees of Catholic institutions who enter into same-sex marriages could be fired from their jobs. Should same-sex marriage be legalized, they say, the country should adopt stronger religious liberty protections that would protect their current rights when it comes to hiring and firing.
Still, other Catholic leaders seem more ambivalent about the postal survey.
Frank Brennan, S.J., head of Catholic Social Services Australia, wrote for the Jesuit publication Eureka Street that he voted yes but believes the concerns about religious freedom are valid.
“I’ve voted ‘yes’ and I hope the ‘yes’ vote gets up,” he wrote. “But there’s plenty of work then to be done to protect religious freedom.”
Bishop Vincent Long, O.F.M., Conv., published a pastoral letter earlier this month that took a more nuanced approach to the vote.
He wrote that voters are being asked to decide a question related to civil marriage and that the decision “is not a referendum on sacramental marriage as understood by the Catholic Church.” He noted that even when divorce was made legal, the church’s view on marriage stayed intact.
Bishop Long: The decision “is not a referendum on sacramental marriage as understood by the Catholic Church.”
He also pointed out that for some L.G.B.T. Catholics and their families, the debate is more than a philosophical question about the nature of marriage.
“For many Catholics, the issue of same-sex marriage is not simply theoretical but deeply personal,” wrote the head of the Diocese of Parramatta, located northwest of Sydney. “These may be same-sex attracted people themselves or that may be the case with their relatives and friends. In such cases, they are torn between their love for the Church and their love for their same-sex attracted child, grandchild, sibling, cousin, friend or neighbour.”
The debate, he wrote, “should not be a matter of a simple answer Yes or No to the postal survey.” Rather, “it should be an opportunity for us to witness to our deep commitment to the ideal of Christian marriage,” he continued. “But it should also be an opportunity for us to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times.”
He urged Catholics to appeal to their conscience when casting their votes, and he said the church can do better in welcoming L.G.B.T. Catholics. “Throughout much of history, our gay and lesbian (or LGBTI) brothers and sisters have often not been treated with respect, sensitivity and compassion. Regrettably, the Church has not always been a place where they have felt welcomed, accepted and loved,” he wrote.
“Thus, regardless of the outcome of the survey,” he continued, “we must commit ourselves to the task of reaching out to our LGBTI brothers and sisters, affirming their dignity and accompanying them on our common journey towards the fullness of life and love in God.”
Last month, the head of a prestigious Jesuit boarding school also wrote in a school newsletter that the vote is about civil law and not the sacrament, and he argued that the church must reflect on why support for same-sex marriage is so high among young people.
“Any argument against same-sex-marriage must respectfully address these core values, or they will fail a basic test of credibility with our young.”
“They are driven by a strong emotional commitment to equality, and this is surely something to respect and admire,” wrote Chris Middleton, S.J., the rector of Xavier College wrote. “They know the reality of homophobia, and the destructiveness that it, like racism and sexism, can have in the lives of people, and especially on the young.”
“They are idealistic in the value they ascribe to love, the primary gospel value. Any argument against same-sex-marriage must respectfully address these core values, or they will fail a basic test of credibility with our young. Such arguments must appeal to believer or non-believer alike,” he continued.
Catholics comprise the largest religious group in Australia, with about 23 percent of the nation’s 24 million people claiming affiliation with the church. But 30 percent of the population claimed no religion. The church here continues to grapple with fallout from the church's sexual abuse scandal, which has ensnared a top Vatican cardinal from Australia.
A poll conducted before voting began by an organization supporting same-sex marriage found that two-thirds of Australian Catholics support same-sex marriage. But a poll conducted more recently found that overall support for the measure is slipping as Australians cast their votes.
The marriage debate has been contentious even within families.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is Jesuit-educated and once studied to be a priest, has come out firmly against same-sex marriage. “If you don’t like same-sex marriage: vote no. If you are worried about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, vote no; and if you don’t like political correctness, vote no, because this is the best way to stop it in its tracks,” he told reporters last month.
But his daughter, Frances Abbott, posted a video on Instagram recently, urging voters to vote yes. She cited the former prime minister’s sister, who lives with her same-sex partner. “You can’t help who you fall in love with. Love just happens sometimes and it’s unexpected and that’s kind of what’s the awesome thing about it,” she said.
Surveys must be returned by Nov. 7 and results will be made public about a week later.