In the increasingly contentious debate over marriage equality in Australia, Frank Brennan, a prominent Catholic priest and scholar, speaks out for what the issue is fundamentally all about: justice and compassion – the "common good."
Back in 2011 I offered a critique of Australian Roman Catholic cleric Frank Brennan's endorsement of the "gay civil unions" approach in advocating for the civil rights of partnered same-sex couples.
Here's what I wrote at the time:
[The "gay civil unions" approach] actively avoids applying the word "marriage" to loving and committed same-sex relationships. Under no circumstances, it seems, can a gay relationship be considered on par with a straight one. I take issue with this, as the meaning of "marriage" in the civil arena should not be something that the Roman Catholic hierarchy gets to dictate and control. For instance, if an opposite-sex couple that cannot or choose not to have children are still able to call their union a marriage, why can't a same-sex couple – many of whom are raising children? The Roman Catholic hierarchy's fixation on biological procreation as the defining characteristic of "marriage" lacks both reason and compassion. People recognize this. Indeed, it's a major reason why the hierarchy's anti-marriage equality efforts are being met with such resistance and hostility.
It's important to note that increasing numbers of people in civil society (including Catholics) have no problem with viewing same-sex unions as marriages, hence the emphasis on marriage equality. All this "gay civil unions" talk by a few clerics within the church comes across as a type of concession. This makes it difficult for many to applaud these clerics. Yet they at least are offering something, as opposed to the majority of bishops who want absolutely nothing in terms of recognition of gay relationships. Yet, truth be told, most people perceive the civil unions approach as being too little, too late.
Well, it's six years on and I'm happy to report that Frank Brennan has had a change of heart. Yes, he is now very publicly saying that, for the sake of the "common good," same-sex marriage should be legalized in Australia. He's also insisting that civil marriage should not be understood as an instrument of the church.
News of Breenan's support for marriage equality comes on the heels of reports that a number of elite Catholic high schools in Australia are defying church hierarchy leaders on same-sex marriage.
Why is marriage equality such a hot topic in Australia at the moment? Well, as I've reported previously, Australians will soon be receiving a postal ballot to share their opinion on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized. If a majority of voters support marriage equality (by a "yes" vote), the government will facilitate a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage before December 7. Such a vote is expected to be in favour of marriage equality. If a majority of voters oppose marriage equality, there will be no parliamentary vote and same-sex couples in Australia will continue to be denied the rights and benefits of civil marriage. Both sides of the campaign have mobilized with advertising and media strategies to get their messages out. (Some of the strategies on the "no" side have been truly horrendous.)
Brennan's change of heart on same-sex civil marriage is the focus of an article by Michael Koziol in today's Sydney Morning Herald. Following is an excerpt.
In a marked departure from other Catholic leaders and many Coalition conservatives, Jesuit priest Frank Brennan said any concerns about religious freedom should be set aside until after a successful "yes" vote in the postal survey.
And he turned opponents' fears on their head, saying the increasing prevalence of same-sex couples with children was an argument in favour of marriage equality, not an argument against.
"We've got to factor that in to the common good argument about what's necessary," Father Brennan told Sky News on Friday, following his delivery of the Lionel Bowen Lecture this week in which he declared he would vote "yes".
The legalisation of same-sex marriage in like-minded countries such as Britain and New Zealand was also a reason to support change, he said, to provide consistency for couples who moved around the world.
He imagined the example of a married Canadian same-sex couple, where same-sex marriage is legal, who are in Australia. If one person were dying in hospital, their partner's spousal rights may not be recognised.
"That's a common good argument you've got to look at," said Father Brennan, who runs Catholic Social Services Australia and is a professor of law at the Australian Catholic University.
"They're the sort of arguments which have me saying 'yes'. We are now in a society very different from what it was a decade ago."
Father Brennan said he continued to espouse the Catholic Church's teaching on marriage - that it is between a man and a woman - but this had to be separated from civil marriage, which was the question before the Australian people.
"It's a very different institution from what is marriage in the Catholic Church," he told Sky News. He said concerns about religious freedom were valid, but should be dealt with by Parliament in the advent of a "yes" vote, and not "during the hubbub of a publicity campaign".
The comments underline a split among leading Australian Catholics, following an ardent defence of traditional marriage by the Sydney and Melbourne archbishops, Anthony Fisher and Denis Hart.
I appreciate and am heartened by the comments of Frank Brennan. I hope and pray that other members of the Roman Catholic clerical caste will seek and find within themselves the courage and humility to follow his example and be open to the reality of gay people's lives and relationships -- including the presence of the Sacred in their lives and relationships. It's been my experience that such openness and recognition leads people to seek justice and compassion wherever and whenever it is lacking. And that, ultimately, is what marriage equality is all about: justice and compassion, or in Frank Brennan's words, "the common good."
Lay Catholics have long been in the vanguard of the struggle for marriage equality, indeed the fundamental social justice and moral tenets of the Catholic faith mandate such participation. Whenever a member of the hierarchy joins us in this holy endeavor it is a cause of hope and celebration. Thank you, Frank!
9/2/17 UPDATE: On the question of civil unions, Pope Francis is now where Fr. Brennan was six years ago!
In a new book entitled Politics and Society, Pope Francis endorses civil unions for same-sex couples. Crux first broke this story in its sharing of excerpts from this forthcoming book, one which is actually a compilation of transcripts of a series of twelve conversations between the pope and the French sociologist Dominique Wolton. For the purposes of this update, however, it's Francis DeBernardo's analysis at Bondings 2.0 that I draw my readers' attention to. Writes DeBernardo:
Although many church leaders have suggested supporting such an arrangement in recent years, Pope Francis has never, as pontiff, stated his endorsement of civil unions so flatly. (He did support civil unions as a compromise to his opposition towards marriage equality when he was an archbishop in Argentina. As pontiff, he did make an ambiguous statement about civil unions, which inspired more questions than certainty about his position.) This new statement of support from him is a giant step forward. What is significant here is that he is agreeing to the importance of some sort of legal recognition of civil unions for lesbian and gay couples. I don’t think he will be campaigning for such legislation, but it sure sounds like he is comfortable with them and that he won’t be blocking them.
One can only hope that, like Frank Brennan, Pope Francis' thinking will continue to evolve so that in a few years he too will go beyond endorsing civil unions to calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the civil sphere.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• The "Gay Civil Unions" Approach of Some Within the Catholic Hierarchy: Too Little, Too Late
• Beyond Respectful Tolerance to Celebratory Acceptance
• Marriage: Part of What Is Best in Human
• The State of Marriage Equality in Australia (Part 1)
• The State of Marriage Equality in Australia (Part 2)
• A Catholic Statement of Support for Marriage Equality
Related Off-site Link:
Hate Speech in Australia Marriage Debate a Moment for Catholic Reflection – Robert Shine (Bondings 2.0, August 28, 2017).
Image: Australian Catholics for Marriage Equality.