Australian Bishops Divide Over Legalizing Gay Marriage

by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  September 20, 2017   

Some bishops say vote no, some say vote yes and some say it's not worth fighting over

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SYDNEY ( - The bishops of Australia are divided over whether their country should legalize so-called same-sex marriage.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has teamed up with Dan White, executive director of Sydney Catholic Schools, in urging parents of Catholic students to vote "no" on the national postal survey on same-sex marriage that's going on now in Australia. In a two-page letter sent to parents Friday, Abp. Fisher related, "We will be voting 'no' and encourage you to do the same." The archbishop affirmed Catholics weren't bigots for rejecting gay marriage. "Sadly, there has been a campaign to label those who support traditional marriage as 'bigots' and 'homophobes,' so as to silence all opposition," noted the archbishop.

Conversely, Bp. Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle is making arguments in favor of Australia legalizing same-sex marriage. In an article published September 6, Bp. Wright reasoned, "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."

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Australia's government is conducting the survey from September 12 to October 27 to determine if the government will seek to change the definition of marriage in Australia's 1961 Marriage Act in order to legalize same-sex marriage. If enough people respond favorably in the survey to the legalization of gay marriage then the government will proceed to bring a motion before parliament to replace "man and woman" with "any two persons" in the Marriage Act. Parliament would then vote on the motion.

In his letter sent to parents Friday, Abp. Fisher said voting "no" on the survey doesn't equate to hate. "Saying 'no' to same-sex marriage doesn't mean that you love anyone any less," wrote the archbishop. He added, "Most of us know someone who is same-sex attracted, and we want only the best for them. But we also love marriage as traditionally understood and want to maintain what is special about this relationship."

Bishop Wright, however, says the issue of same-sex marriage isn't about Church teaching. "The question about any proposed law," said Bp. Wright, "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." He then makes another argument in favor of legalizing gay marriage:

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. Those were my thoughts on state recognition of gay marriage as a matter of law, and I stand by them.

On September 8, Abp. Fisher stated that the debate on same-sex marriage should really begin by first defining marriage. "[Is] marriage really about sexual complementarity, procreation and family structure," wrote the archbishop or "is marriage really about romance, publicity and politics. Both sides should first put on the table what they think marriage is. That's how a debate begins."

The question about any proposed law is not whether it squares with Church teaching or a moral ideal.

Bishop Wright, however, thinks that defining marriage is irrelevant to legalizing gay marriage. He wrote that many marriages weren't valid but were legal, such as "re-marriages of divorced persons, marriages on a 'for better or for as long as we're happy' basis, de facto marriages and marriages of couples with no intention of having children."

Last week, Church Militant reported that the majority of bishops in Australian side with Abp. Fisher. Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta, however, is taking more of a middle road, saying it's something that Catholics can decide for themselves. In his pastoral letter, Bp. Long wrote to Catholics, telling them the issue was "an opportunity ... to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times." He also called on Catholics "to exercise their consciences" in the postal vote. "It should not be a matter of a simple answer — yes or no," he opined.

Recent polls are showing that more than half of all Australians are now in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Archbishop Fisher cautions that legalizing gay marriage could result in a persecution of Catholics. In an article September 8, the archbishop rhetorically asks, "Will there be other consequences of redefining marriage?" He then answers:

Overseas experience suggests there will be [consequences] for school curriculums, employment opportunities, freedoms of speech and religion, gender ideology in many contexts. Commentators have highlighted real cases of institutions like church schools, hospitals and welfare agencies or business operators and workers or parents and ordinary people being bullied and punished for supporting traditional marriage. Some of the same spirit is in the air here in Australia. Faithophobic slurs are now all too common.

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