Leaders at two Jesuit-run Catholic schools in Australia have urged discernment over the issue of marriage equality ahead of a non-binding plebiscite set to begin September 12. SBS reported:
“The rectors of Melbourne’s Xavier College and Sydney’s Saint Ignatius’ College, whose alumni include Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and former prime minister Tony Abbott respectively, have written to parents and staff arguing the Catholic Church’s understanding of marriage stretches beyond procreation.”
Fr. Chris Middleton, SJ, of Xavier College said young people’s “strong commitment to equality” is “something to respect and admire.” His column in the school’s newsletter appealed for civility and respect as the issue is debated. Of experiences with students, Middleton wrote:
“As one who works in a school and who is charged with witnessing to our faith to the young, it is clear that the debate exposes a real disconnect between the Church’s public opposition to same-sex civil marriage and the attitudes of young people. In my experience, there is almost total unanimity amongst the young in favour of same-sex marriage, and arguments against it have almost no impact on them. . .
“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.”
Middleton said the church should reflect on why this support is so strong among young people, and offered a partial answer that 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.”
More generally, Middleton said the institutional church “needs to find a voice that is appropriate to the secular sphere” given the debate is over civil and not sacramental marriage. This is a “difficult path” for church leaders, made even harder by the Royal Commission’s damaging findings about the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
In his own column in the school’s newsletter, St. Ignatius’ Fr. Ross Jones also encouraged his school community to reflect on the plebiscite. He said that when discerning how to vote on a given issue, one must use reason:
“‘Were it not for the school of reason approach, we would still hold that slavery could be justified, or believe that wives were subject to their husbands, contra to what St Paul clearly dictated in the scriptures’. . .
“‘Presumably, same sex couples who make such a commitment to each other in good conscience, do so by reflecting on experience and on what it is to be human, using their God-given reason.'”
So far, church leaders, including Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne and the Australian Bishops’ Commission for Catholic Education, have refused to comment on the rectors’ remarks. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, an alum of St. Ignatius who opposes marriage equality, said of Jones’ remarks, “It sounds like they’re sitting firmly on the fence, which is a pretty painful place to be.”
Both of these elite schools have defended the rectors’ columns, and affirmed their schools’ missions to promote engaged citizens respectful of diversity. Fr. Middleton explained his reason for writing by saying he was motivated by “a concern that the Church needs to take seriously the views of our young people and to explore a way to articulate a response within the context of our Catholic tradition,” as well as his care for students’ well-being.
A statement from St. Ignatius also affirmed the school’s mission to “produce discerning Christians, who can embody the values of Christ in respectful debate and at the same time to be cognisant of the diversity of the community of which they, as thinking Catholics, are a part.”
Catholic schools in Australia have stepped up on LGBT inclusion. Last week, Bondings 2.0 reported on Trinity Catholic College’s decision to welcome and to accommodate two transgender students. These incidents are good news for a nation where the debate over marriage equality is increasingly harmful, including the posting of neo-Nazi literature targeting LGBT parents.
Australia’s bishops have had a mixed record engaging marriage equality, and there have been prominent Catholic figures speaking on both sides of the issue. Thankfully, Catholic schools are not letting church leaders’ hesitations stymie the schools’ educational missions to form engaged citizens who care about human rights and social justice, including for LGBT people and their families.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 8, 2017