Two Australian bishops have released moderated statements about marriage equality, a contrast to the sometimes heated rhetoric which others opposed to this development have adopted. These two bishops are advocating respect for the consciences of Catholics who may vote “yes” in the non-binding postal survey now underway through November 7th.
Bishop Vincent Long, OFM Conv., of Parramatta published a pastoral letter on participation in the postal survey. He appealed to Catholics to “conduct this dialogue with a deep sense of respect for all concerned, and for the opinion and decision that each person is free to make.” He made clear the non-binding survey is solely about civil marriages. Long continued:
“For many Catholics, the issue of same-sex marriage is not simply theoretical but deeply personal. These may be same-sex attracted people themselves or that may be the case with their relatives and friends. In such cases, they are torn between their love for the Church and their love for their same-sex attracted child, grandchild, sibling, cousin, friend or neighbour. . .As a community of disciples, we seek to accommodate, accompany and care for one another irrespective of sexual orientation, marital status and situation.”
Long said the survey was not simply about voting, though Catholics had a responsibility to be engaged citizens, but was a two-fold opportunity to affirm the ideal of Christian marriage and “to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times.” One of those signs, Long acknowledged, was the rightful claims of LGBT people for more respect. He wrote:
“Throughout much of history, our gay and lesbian (or LGBTI) brothers and sisters have often not been treated with respect, sensitivity and compassion. Regrettably, the Church has not always been a place where they have felt welcomed, accepted and loved. Thus, regardless of the outcome of the survey, we must commit ourselves to the task of reaching out to our LGBTI brothers and sisters, affirming their dignity and accompanying them on our common journey towards the fullness of life and love in God.”
Long concluded with an appeal for Catholics to form their consciences properly and vote accordingly. During his episcopal installation, Long cited Pope Francis in his commitment to make space for everyone in the church because “the church will be less than what Christ intends it to be when issues of inclusion and equality are not fully addressed. The church in Parramatta would be a “house for all peoples.”
Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle wrote an article in the diocesan magazine Aurora about the postal survey, and he placed it in the context of social change. He urged Catholics to “give careful consideration to all information that comes your way, think hard, talk a lot, pray about it, and vote,” admitting that “people of good will might honestly disagree.”
Wright looked at civil marriage equality from two angles: one which affirmed the issue; the other expressed religious liberty concerns heard elsewhere. He wrote:
“It seemed to me then, and now, that in a society where same-sex relationships are legal and gay couples can adopt and raise children, it’s a bit of a legal anomaly that their relationship itself doesn’t have a clear legal status. The church couldn’t recognise a same-sex union as a marriage, except in the limited sense of ‘a marriage according to Australian law’. But this is true of many marriages. . .The question about any proposed law is not whether it squares with church teaching or a moral ideal, but whether it is a good practical rule for people living in this society at this time. Such a ‘common good’ argument can be made that, in our pluralist society, it does more for community peace and harmony for gay couples to have a place in the recognised structures than for them to be excluded.”
Wright continued less positively with concern about the “social consequences” of civil marriage equality, specifically religious liberty issues on whether business owners should be required to provide services to same-gender couples. Non-discrimination protections would be a “failure to respect the conscientious or religious convictions of some citizens,” and he cited legal battles in other nations that have arisen over such issues. Wright was also concerned about church-affiliated schools being able to teach according to doctrine.
Earlier this year, Bishop Michael McKenna of Bathurst said Catholics will vote according to their faith, and this means some of the faithful will, “for various reasons,” vote yes. Two rectors at elite Australian Catholic schools have come out publicly for marriage equality, as has the Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry which released a pro-LGBT voting guide this summer. Fr. Frank Brennan, SJ, the head of Catholic Social Services Australia, also wrote that he would be voting “yes” in the postal survey.
Not all Australian bishops have had such respect for the faithful’s consciences. Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher “sent hundreds of flyers to city churches and published articles available on many church websites” encouraging Catholics to vote no, reported News.com.au. Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart, who is also head of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, raised the issue of church worker firings over marriage equality, though this report was later clarified that it would be up to each bishop to decide on their employment policies.
On both sides of the debate, Catholics have played a central role including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former Prime Minister Tony Abbot, a staunch opponent of equal marriage. The postal survey over marriage equality, one most Australians believe is unnecessary and even quite harmful, has gotten ugly at moments. For instance, a Neo-Nazi sign that contained a message linked to a Catholic priest was found in Melbourne at one point, and Archbishop Hart did not comment on it.
It is a hopeful “sign of the times” that not only Catholics and even clergy are willing to speak about consciences being respected when it comes to civil LGBT issues, but now bishops are doing so, too.
There may be a dynamic at work for Bishops Long, Wright, and McKenna that is worth identifying, as this dynamic was certainly the case in Ireland’s referendum on marriage equality. Though many Australians are critical of the church’s teachings on LGBT equality, the sexual abuse of children by clergy has shaken the Australian church to its roots. One Sydney priest, Fr. Kevin Burke, has said of church leaders, “With our credibility being what it is, perhaps we should just shut up.”
For some leaders, this option may be best. But far more valuable are bishops who can speak pastorally about people’s lived realities, and do so humbly in the context of the abuse crisis and the church’s history of LGBT-negative statements. Silence is not better than bishops who teach messages of inclusion and respect for consciences, and acknowledge the good intentions and very personal reasons why so many Catholics support LGBT equality. These merciful and even just acts will be what rebuilds the institutional church’s greatly diminished credibility after the abuse crisis, and what will allow churches to really be “houses for all people.”
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 25, 2017