I've recently been made aware of the latest ploy in the Australian Roman Catholic bishops' ongoing political campaign against marriage equality in civil society. It's one that calls for the recruitment of administrators, teachers and students in both Catholic high schools and elementary schools in the disseminating of an anti-gay and anti-marriage equality document penned by the bishops.
It's a new low, to be sure.
Messing with marriage?
So what exactly is going on? Well, according to an article by Brittany Murphy in the June 5 edition of The Goulburn Post, an 18-page "pastoral letter" entitled "Don't Mess with Marriage" has been written by the bishops and is being distributed to every Catholic parish and school across Australia. In this letter, civil marriage rights for same-sex couples are labelled a "serious injustice" and as a threat to the sexual complimentarity of men and women, which the bishops view as "the soul of marriage."
Part of the bishops' letter reads as follows:
We all know and love people with same-sex attraction. They are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours. They need love and support like anyone else. But pretending that their relationships are ‘marriages’ is not fair or just to them. As Christians we must be willing to present the truth about marriage, family and sexuality and to do so charitably and lovingly.
We call upon all those of good will, to redouble their support for the institution of marriage in our community and for the laws and culture that sustain it.
I think it's important to acknowledge that the current push for marriage equality in Australia, one that has been reignited by recent events in Ireland, is not seeking to "mess with" the Roman Catholic hierarchy's understanding of marriage. "Marriage equality" refers to civil marriage, not sacramental marriage. For centuries, members of the hierarchy didn't even recognize civil marriages, i.e., marriages outside the church, as valid marriages. Now they are conflating this type of marriage with their own understanding of marriage.
A battle already lost
The idea that same-sex civil marriages are somehow going to undermine what the bishops view as "real" marriages is nonsense. Economic hardship and the related pressures of our consumerist-driven society are the real threats to marriage. And let's not forget that it is divorce which ends marriages, not other people's relationships. Given this, why aren't the bishops campaigning to lower the divorce rate, even outlaw divorce? After all, divorce is contrary to Catholic teaching.
Also, if the bishops are truly concerned about children being raised by same-sex couples, why aren't they working to overturn adoption rather than marriage laws? Why aren't they calling for the removal of children from households headed by same-sex couples?
I think the answer to these questions is clear: the bishops' political activism around the issue of marriage equality stems from their realization that they no longer have any real power over "the faithful" when it comes to issues of sexuality. They perceive the issue of marriage equality as their last chance to try and salvage some semblance of control over people and their sex lives. All I can say is, Sorry, boys, it ain't happening. As Ireland so resoundingly showed, the Roman Catholic hierarchy's days of lording it over people's sexual and relational lives have pretty much past. And thank God for that.
And yet they persist with their statements and documents dominated by demeaning language and pseudo-science. For example, a spokesperson for the Canberra/Goulburn Diocese (where, incidentally, I lived and taught for six years before relocating to the U.S. in 1994) confirmed that "Don't Mess with Marriage" would be distributed to students of all ages across the region to take home to their parents. Apparently, the aim is to encourage engagement with the same-sex marriage debate and “explain the position of the Catholic faithful to the wider community.”
Actually, it's the position of the hierarchy that's being explained via "Don't Mess with Marriage." The "Catholic faithful" is bigger than the hierarchy; the Catholic faithful are actually increasingly supportive and accepting of LGBT people and their rights, including their civil marriage rights. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni succinctly puts it: "On same-sex marriage, Catholics are leading the way."
Despite this, a number of bishops have been vocal in their support for "Don't Mess with Marriage" and its role in denigrating same-sex relationships and derailing the current momentum in Australian civil society for legalizing same-sex marriage. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, for instance, is quoted as saying that:
It is unjust, gravely unjust, to legitimize the false assertion that there is nothing distinctive about a man and a woman, a father or a mother; to ignore the particular values that real marriage serves; to ignore the importance for children of having a mum and a dad, committed to them and to each other for the long haul.
If the civil law ceases to define marriage as traditionally understood, it will be a serious injustice and undermine that common good for which the civil law exists. Surely there are other ways of honoring the friendships of same-sex attracted and other people without further deconstructing marriage and the family.
Meanwhile, in his own pastoral letter, Bishop Gregory O’Kelly of Port Pirie offered the following:
A pear is not an apple. Same-sex marriage is not the same as a marriage between a man and a woman. The opinions of media personalities, or politicians, or a parliamentary vote can do what they wish, but no matter how much they say it, a pear remains a pear and does not change into an apple.
Tired old arguments
For the bishops, the "soul of marriage" is all about gender complimentarity and biological procreation. Body parts, in other words, trump human emotions such as love. Yet as Catholic scholars Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler compelling document, the standard for sexual ethics is human flourishing, not openness to procreation.
Salzman and Lawler also note that:
Not only do empirical studies challenge magisterial claims that homosexual acts, by definition, are detrimental to the human person and human relationships, such studies also challenge the doctrinal congregation's claim that, "as experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these [homosexual] unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children ... [and] would actually mean doing violence to these children." That unsupported claim is contradicted by experience and scientific analysis.
In short, the arguments being put forward by the Australian bishops against marriage equality (and, by extension, against a renewed and reformed theology of sexuality) are the same tired old arguments we've being hearing for years, arguments that have been roundly and compellingly rebuked time and again (see for instance, here, here, here, here, and here). Not surprising, they are arguments that have also been rejected by the Catholic people, most recently in Ireland (see here, here and here). In Catholicism, the voice of the faithful plays an important role in the ongoing development of church teaching, a fact that our bishops seem to have forgotten. Yet as Thomas C. Fox so eloquently writes in his recent National Catholic Reporter op-ed:
What a gift the Catholic hierarchy has been handed by the Irish with their overwhelming vote to legalize same sex marriages. Coming just months before the Synod on the Family set for next October in Rome, the vote by this Catholic nation is nothing less than a church plebiscite – a vote of the Catholic sensus fidelium for all to see that official Catholic teaching on human sexuality is wrong, hurtful, and even, at times, immoral.
Not only is the bishops latest strategy controversial, it's also one that is doomed to fail. As recent events in Ireland have clearly shown, the Catholic hierarchy has lost moral and political influence over their fellow Catholics when it comes to issues relating to sexuality. In its willfully ignorant and cruelly insensitive approach, the latest strategy of the Australian bishops' campaign against civil marriage rights for same-sex couples is a stunning indication that members of the hierarchy have yet to undertake the "reality check" that Irish Cardinal Diarmuid Martin called for in the aftermath of the Irish referendum that overwhelmingly supported marriage equality.
It should also be noted that many of the Australian bishops actively supporting this latest anti-gay and anti-marriage equality strategy are currently under fire for expressing their unfailing support for Cardinal George Pell. As Betty Clermont notes in her recent article at The Open Tabernacle, "Pell [has] been making headlines in Australia for decades regarding the sex abuse scandal. When asked what he thought was the root cause, Pell replied, 'it’s obviously connected with the problem of homosexuality.' As archbishop and creator of the 'Melbourne Response,' a system designed to control the victims and protect the Church, Pell intended to minimize the crimes, conceal the truth, [and] manipulate and intimidate the victims. Some relatives of abused children have called the cardinal a ‘sociopath.’” Pell has been in the news recently after Peter Saunders, a member of the commission that advises Pope Francis on the protection of children, made a number of allegations about the cardinal relating to whether he had knowledge of the actions of pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale. In their unquestioning support of Pell, the Australian bishops are being branded by many people – including, I'd wager, the majority of Catholics, as "out of touch."
A "direct attack"
I become aware of the bishops' latest strategy after a friend and former student of mine, now herself a teacher at a Catholic school, recently contacted me. Her local archdiocese is set to order administrators and teachers to hand-out "Don't Mess with Marriage" to students. My friend is adamant that she will not cooperate in the distribution of the bishops' document. She has a boy in her class who is being raised by two men and would rather resign than hurt and insult this family.
In other parts of Australia, the document has already been distributed. Helen Davidson, writing for The Guardian, reported June 5 on one Northern Territory Catholic school that "sent children home with an anti same-sex marriage brochure."
St Paul’s Catholic primary school, in the Darwin suburb of Nightcliff, was told to distribute the brochure on behalf of the Catholic Bishops of Australia conference, the NT News reported on Friday.
. . . Released last month, it supported marriage as a vehicle to “beget children” and wrote: “same-sex friendships are of a very different kind: to treat them as the same does a grave injustice to both kinds of friendship and ignores the particular values that real marriages serve.”
It also said that “messing with marriage” was “messing with kids”, citing “sociological research, as well as the long experience of Church and society.” [It should be noted that the "sociological research" being put forward by the bishops has been resoundingly debunked.]
Henrietta Cook, education reporter for The Age, noted on June 3 that Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had recently written "to about 200 principals at Catholic primary and secondary schools . . . urging them to lobby parents to support the current 'meaning of marriage.'"
The Archbishop's intervention came as politicians continued to lobby Prime Minister Tony Abbott to allow a free vote for Liberal MPs on same-sex marriage. On Monday Labor Leader Bill Shorten introduced a bill in federal parliament to legalise same-sex marriage.
Fairfax Media understands that some Catholic principals are offended by the material and have refused to pass it on to students and parents.
The Safe Schools Coalition, which works to create a safe environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students, urged principals not to distribute the material.
The coalition's co-ordinator, Roz Ward, said the material could damage the mental health and well-being of same-sex attracted young people, by suggesting their relationships were unnatural or not as important.
"At school it is particularly important that they can feel they can be themselves and valued for who they. In a situation where you feel that is not valued, everything else becomes more difficult."
She said same-sex families who sent their children to Catholic schools would see this as a "direct attack on their existence as gay Catholics."
This last quote by Roz Ward in Henrietta Cook's article reminds me of Kaitlin Campbell's recent Commonweal piece in which she speculates about how young people in Ireland might have felt when they heard bishops denouncing marriage equality in the lead-up to that country recent referendum on the issue:
I can’t imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost . . . along with thousands of believers.
Let's be clear: the Australian Catholic bishops' so-called "struggle for the very soul of marriage" is nothing more than a politically-motivated ploy in their "culture war" against those elements of civil society open and responsive to the arc of justice for LGBT individuals, couples and families. It is a reprehensible and insensitive ploy, one that has no place in Catholic schools as it is more concerned with promulgating a discriminatory ideology than it is with embodying God's spirit of inclusion and compassion present within the Catholic faithful.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• A Catholic Statement of Support for Marriage Equality
• Tips on Speaking as a Catholic in Support of Marriage Equality
• Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"
• Responding to Bishop Tobin's Remarks on Gay Marriage
• New Studies: Gay Couples as Committed as Straight Couples
• Competent Parenting Doesn't Require "Traditional Marriage"
• How the Pope's Recent Remarks on Evolution Highlight a Major Discrepancy in Church Teaching on Sexuality
• Love is Love
• Responding to Cardinal Pell
• Chris McGillion Responds to the “Exacerbating” Actions of Cardinal Pell
• The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
• The Australian Roots of My Progressive Catholicism
Recommended Off-site Links:
To Have a Truly Just Church, Pope Francis Must Move Beyond Complementarity – Jamie Manson (National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2015).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).