Yesterday was the final day for Australians to submit ballots in the nation’s postal survey over marriage equality, a debate in which Catholics have been heavily involved. With the results to be announced in less than two weeks, it is time for Catholics to consider what comes next.
Frank Brennan, SJ, who has been an outspoken advocate for civil marriage equality, wrote a column in Eureka Street acknowledging the important fact that committed Catholics could legitimately vote either way. Brennan, who heads Catholic Social Services Australia, made the point that Australian Catholics have faced a difficult decision without “all that much help from official church declarations.” Citing Vatican documents on homosexuality from 1975 and 1992, Brennan wrote:
“Many Catholics nowadays find such declarations unhelpful and insensitive, perhaps even downright wrong. Even those Catholics who find such teaching helpful in determining their own moral stance might question the application of such teaching when deciding whether to tick the box ‘yes’ or ‘no’. . .
“Some voters are voting ‘yes’ boldly and assuredly, hoping that our politicians will just get on with it and legislate for same sex marriage as quickly as possible. Some are voting ‘no’ just as boldly and assuredly, hoping that the matter will then be put off the legislative agenda for another generation, much like the outcome of the republic referendum in 1999.”
Brennan reaffirmed his own support for marriage equality, which he said “would be in everyone’s interests if it could be done right.” Indeed, for Parliament to not approve such a law would “simply occasion ongoing hurt and angst” for Australians. But the Jesuit priest also expressed his concern for religious liberty, again admitting how little relevant guidance has been offered by church leaders on this point as well.
Beyond some people’s religious liberty concerns, there are also concerns about overcoming the sharp divisions which the postal survey has caused in Australian society. Despite an overwhelming majority of the nation’s citizens, including Catholics, being supportive of equal marriage rights, there have been Neo-Nazi-related hate speech acts and even incidents of violence during the campaign.
Writer and theology teacher Julie Perrin addressed the need for respecting difference in Eureka Street. She wrote about her relationship with a fundamentalist Christian when she was involved with school chaplaincy:
“I discovered that the fierce fundamentalist was a man gentle in prayer. Unlike the flaring moments in the lounge room, when I invited him to talk and pray with me in my chaplain’s office his voice was low and measured. The silences between the words allowed our prayers to resonate where words could not reach. . .
“In the postal vote about marriage equality my fundamentalist friend will vote no and I will vote yes. Our differences have not been erased. But I’m telling this story because there was a time when two people deeply divided by their beliefs had the grace to trust one another and to live side-by-side in their difference.”
Three Australian bishops vocally opposed marriage equality. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney “sent hundreds of flyers to city churches and published articles available on many church websites” encouraging Catholics to vote no, reported News.com.au. Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said church workers might be fired if marriage equality was legalized, though this report was later clarified that it would be up to each bishop to decide on their employment policies. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane recently said the love of same-gender couples is “like the love of friends.”
But Catholics, including some bishops, have also been prominently supportive of marriage equality, or at least the faithful’s right to vote according to their consciences. Bishop Vincent Long, OFM Conv., of Parramatta said Catholics are free to decide how they will vote, and will have their own reasons for doing so that may include having LGBT members of their family. Bishop Bill Wright said Catholics should discern their vote carefully, but ultimately, “people of good will might honestly disagree.” Earlier this year, two rectors at elite Australian Catholic schools came out publicly for marriage equality, as has the Rainbow Catholics InterAgency for Ministry which released a pro-LGBT voting guide this summer.
On November 15, the results of the postal survey will be released. Though it is expected that the “Yes” campaign will win, whether or not Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is Catholic, will introduce equal marriage legislation is unclear. Early in the survey process, I suggested the intense and harmful debate was a moment for Catholic reflection on how the debate was being addressed by the faithful. As the survey concludes, it is another moment for Catholic reflection on how there can be reconciliation and whether church leaders are willing to move on fully so as to focus on real priorities for the common good. For such a path forward, I vote yes.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 8, 2017