On the heels of Ireland’s passage of marriage equality, and while other bishops are thinking of ways to speak about marriage in less strident rhetoric, Australia’s Catholic bishops have launched a campaign for “the very soul of marriage,” employing educators and schoolchildren in Catholic schools as their messengers.
In an 18-page document disseminated through Catholic schools, the bishops call marriage equality a “serious injustice” according to the Goalburn Post.
Titled “Don’t Mess With Marriage,” the document warns against the perceived dangers of same-gender marriages and says it is “unjust, gravely unjust” to allow same-gender couples equal rights to marriage. They continue:
“If we are right in this assertion and 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.”
Speaking of family and friends with “same-sex attraction,” their preferred language for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, the document says:
“They need love and support like anyone else. But pretending that their relationships are ‘marriages’ is not fair or just to them. . .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.”
The bishops also claim religious liberty will be impaired and that children will be negatively affected:
” ‘Messing with marriage’, therefore, is also ‘messing with kids’. It is gravely unjust to them.”
This line is particularly curious, given that several bishops are using Catholic schools to distribute the document, with children as young as six or seven being given the document to bring home to their parents. It also messes with the conscience rights and religious liberty of educators and administrators at Catholic schools forced to promulgate such prejudice or risk their job.
In the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn, Archbishop Christopher Prowse confirmed that the document was sent to 56 primary and secondary schools which educate nearly 25,000 students. He hopes it will be shared in parishes and other Catholic agencies as well, reported ABC News.
In the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Archbishop Denis Hart had “Don’t Mess With Marriage” distributed in dozens of schools, with the added request that principals personally ask parents to oppose marriage equality and write to their members of Parliament, reported the Sydney Morning Herald. Some principals, however, are refusing both requests out of concern for the pastoral effects they may have on LGBT students or those coming from non-traditional families.
In the Diocese of Darwin, where students at St. Paul’s Catholic Primary School received the document, NT News and The Guardian asked church officials who made the decision to distribute the document in that fashion. Each official or office punted it to another office.
Daniel Alderman of the LGBT group Rainbow Territory, responded to the bishops’ campaign, saying:
“I don’t see what their argument is, this is about equality. . .Bigotry perpetuates hate and as a Catholic one would expect that they would be forgiving and loving.”
One would expected the Catholic Bishops of Australia Conference to imitate Christ’s witness of forgiveness, love, and reconciliation, but they have chosen otherwise. Michael Bayly of The Wild Reed , an Australian by birth, called their actions a “new low.” His analysis, worth reading in its entirety, stated:
“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. . .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…Not surprising, they are arguments that have also been rejected by the Catholic people, most recently in Ireland. . .
“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’…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.”
Australian legislators are just a few votes away from passing equal marriage rights, according to News.com.au, and a marriage equality bill has recently been introduced in the legislature. Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s government has not yet allowed a conscience vote that would allow supportive parliamentary members of the ruling Coalition’s parties to vote in favor of the bill. Still LGBT advocates hope for marriage equality by year’s end.
Until then, Australian bishops should know that using schoolchildren to promote their campaign is not ethical or prudential, especially given the local church’s recent problems with clergy sexual abuse and its cover ups.
The bishops down under should follow Irish prelates who have noted that their nation’s referendum instituting marriage equality was a “reality check” and increased “the sum of happiness” in Ireland. There is much wisdom in these remarks–wisdom learned the hard way that need not be constantly repeated as more and more nations advance LGBT rights.
Australia’s bishops should attempt to mitigate the damage they have already done to the church through this campaign by ending it.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry