Australian Catholics are celebrating a “Yes” victory in the nation’s postal survey on marriage equality, the results of which were released yesterday. But they are also focusing on healing after a very harmful, and in many people’s opinion, unnecessary process that did not actually legalize marriage equality.
A coalition of LGBT Catholic and church reform groups released a statement, “A Call for Healing from Australian Catholics” about the survey results, which saw 61% of voters who participated vote yes. Voter turnout approached 80%. The Catholic groups’ statement explained their position:
“We seek to support ways to move on from the survey to implement the changes to the Marriage Act that will include all Australians who choose to marry without added discrimination. There is no more important time to reach out in friendship and rebuild relationships that have been hurt in this process. Let us be in prayerful solidarity with those who grieve the outcome and commit ourselves to building a kinder, more just and compassionate Australia that ensure that all people are loved and cared for.”
The statement made several additional points. First, it recognized the debate over equal marriage caused harm to LGBTI individuals:
“Not only were they subjected to a great deal of painful language about them, but it was mostly non-LGBTI people speaking about them creating the pain of double silencing.”
The debate produced both positive and negative outcomes through the stories told, some of which showed “the wondrous gift of God’s love” while others “revealed a level of hate and prejudice toward LGBTI citizens like we have not seen in this country for a long time.” The groups admitted the damaging role the church has played in instigating and in justifying some of this hate and prejudice:
“It is also no secret that some of the loudest voices of diminishment of our LGBTI siblings came from parts of the institutional church. There is now a widely held perception in our society that the institutional churches in Australia remain insensitive, even hostile, towards LGBTI persons and their loved ones, and sometimes campaign against their civil and human rights. Such a perception is damaging to LGBTI Catholics, their loved ones, and to the body of the church in Australia as a whole.”
But, even amid division and hurt, Catholics were quite publicly supportive of marriage equality and there is much joy, too:
“We give thanks for the many pastorally astute Australian Catholic voices coming from various part of the Catholic community, including that of clergy, religious, lay leaders and the bishops who spoke lovingly and affirmingly of LGBTI people. . .We realise it’s time to bring Australians together to rebuild our community and we hope that there will be opportunities for all Australians to find times for healing and reconciliation.”
The statement announced plans for Christian churches to hold Services of Healing and Reconciliation after the postal survey, including one at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Newtown, NSW on November 17th.
The responses of Australia’s bishops were mostly mild, free of some of the heighteed rhetoric that has greeted other nations’ political initiatives for marriage equality. The Diocese of Parramata, led by Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, said in its statement that it “respects the will of the Australian people” and would “respect that outcome” should legislators vote to legalize marriage equality. Before the survey, Bishop Long said Catholics were free to decide how they will vote, and would have their own reasons for doing so that may include having LGBT members of their family.
Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, who is also president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said that should legislators approve marriage equality, he hoped they would be “putting in place strong conscience and religious freedom protections.” Hart also noted that the church does “respect the dignity of LGBTIQ Australians and our ministries will continue to care deeply about the dignity and value of all people we encounter,” reported Crux.
Bishop Michael McKenna of Bathurst said in a statement he encourages people “to work together in a spirit of cooperation for social harmony and the common good” going forward.
More negatively, Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher was “deeply disappointed” but appreciative of voters who “stuck to their guns and voted No or abstained. . .[in] a David and Goliath struggle with politicians, corporates, celebrities, journalists, professional and sporting organizations drowning out the voices of ordinary Australians and pressuring everyone to vote Yes.” During the survey, 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.
Moving forward on marriage equality will be largely decided by a Catholic, Malcolm Turnbull, the country’s prime minister. Though heavily criticized for holding the postal survey, which had been promised by his predecessor and fellow Catholic Tony Abbot, Turnbull was a “Yes” supporter. The New York Times reported on his response:
“‘The Australian people have spoken, and they have voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’ for marriage equality,’ said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who called the survey in a move described by advocates as a delay tactic devised to appease his party’s far-right faction. ‘They voted ‘yes’ for fairness, they voted ‘yes’ for commitment, they voted ‘yes’ for love.’ . . .
“‘My commitment was to give every Australian their say,’ Mr. Turnbull said after the results were announced. ‘That has been done, they have spoken.’
“He added: ‘Now it is up to us, here in the Parliament of Australia, to get on with it — to get on with the job the Australian people have tasked us to do, and get this done, this year, before Christmas.'”
Once again, Catholics have voted to expand LGBT rights not in spite of their faith, but because of it. As Bondings 2.0 has noted previously, Catholics have been central figures in the years-long debate over marriage rights in Australia. The postal survey debate included moments when Neo-Nazi hate speech cited a Catholic priest’s debunked research to target LGBT people. It also included a number of prominent Catholics, like Fr. Frank Brennan, coming out about their “Yes” vote. There were a handful of positive bishops who acknowledged people’s right to vote according to their consciences.
But, even with some high points, why a postal survey had to be undergone is still unclear, and the damage which is very real remains. With the survey over, it is time for Australia’s legislators to give their country a long-desired Christmas present and further advance the equality of all people under the law.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 16, 2017