A plebiscite over marriage equality is a “waste of time” and “risks turning very nasty,” said a prominent Australian Jesuit as he appealed for a legislative solution in his country.
In a Eureka Street essay, Fr. Frank Brennan,. S.J., decried the plebiscite called for by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, stating:
“A plebiscite on this issue is a waste of time and risks turning very nasty, especially now that both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition support same sex marriage. . .
“It’s only a parliament, not a plebiscite, which can legislate the complex details of equality and the protection of all rights, including the right to religious freedom. . .
“When the plebiscite vote is carried in favour of same sex marriage, as I am confident it will be, there will still be a need for our Parliament to legislate complex provisions protecting religious freedom and expanding the freedom to marry.”
Australia’s top political leaders, including current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a Catholic, all support equal marriage rights. Brennan said the plebiscite was suggested back when Abbott was in leadership to “give [equality opponents] more airplay.” But political realities in Australia and elsewhere have changed.
Now, Brennan said he “accepted the inevitability that civil marriage in Australia will ultimately be redefined to include committed same sex relationships.” He proposed a conscience vote in Parliament to amend the Commonwealth Marriage Act as an alternative to the popular vote, listing reasons why the State has an interest in extending equal marriage rights that include:
“Given the increasing number of children being brought up by same sex couples, it is desirable that the state take away any social stigma against same sex parents.
“Given the ageing population, the state has an interest in recognising and protecting long term relationships of same sex couples who care for each other.
“Given the harmful effects of homophobia, the state has an interest in encouraging broad community acceptance of those members who are homosexual. Laws and policies can help in this regard.”
Brennan was clear, too, that a legislative solution is most appropriate to ensure religious freedom is protected if marriage equality is approved. He weighed in on a controversy in which Catholic bishops face a discrimination complaint over their anti-marriage equality booklet, “Don’t Mess with Marriage.” In Brennan’s words:
“While the debate rages, it is only appropriate that religious groups like the Catholic bishops be able to evangelise their position. . .To date, the bishops have spoken cautiously and respectfully, with perhaps the occasional lapse into loose language. They know their views are not in fashion.”
The Jesuit even suggested that anti-religious statements by certain politicians actually “far exceed any traces of homophobic utterance by religious leaders.” Whether or not this is true, the controversy regarding the human rights complaint against Australia’s bishops has LGBT advocates on both sides. Setting aside legal questions, the bishops’ decision to publish the booklet and use children in Catholic school as messengers is pastorally concerning.
Fr. Brennan is right that any plebiscite wastes Australians’ time and resources while opening the door for homophobic attacks and nasty divisions.
I pray that church leaders will listen to Fr. Frank Brennan, and that they will temper, or even forgo entirely, an opposition campaign. There are far more pressing concerns for Catholics today.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry