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Same-sex marriages and the Vatican

The Religion Report, ABC Radio National

On Wednesday 06/08/2003

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/relrpt/stories/s918317.htm


The Vatican's recent order that Catholic politicians must vote against the legalisation of same-sex marriages has added fuel to the flames of an already-white-hot debate.


David Busch: In the United States, a recent decision by the Supreme Court to overturn an earlier ruling and now prohibit states from criminalising homosexual acts, has been seen as opening the way to constitutional recognition of gay marriages. That led President Bush to speak of the need to codify marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. And the Vatican has gone on the front foot in its strenuous opposition to homosexuality. It released a strongly-worded statement opposing all civil law reform which would recognise the validity of homosexual unions, or which would afford them the same legal status and rights as marriages. That statement, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declares that Catholic politicians have a moral duty to oppose gay law reform, and that to vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral, a judgement which has clearly offended some Australian Catholic politicians.

The Vatican document comes as several countries take steps towards approving same-sex marriages as currently provided for in Belgium, The Netherlands and two Canadian provinces, or extending the same legal rights to homosexual couples as to unmarried heterosexual couples.

So what’s the Vatican trying to do with this latest statement, and what will its impact be? Father Frank Brennan is a Jesuit priest and lawyer who’s written extensively on constitutional freedoms, bills of rights, and civil liberties.

Frank Brennan: As I read it, it is an attempt by Vatican officials to basically shore up the church arguments that might be given against the recognition of homosexual unions. I think it comes at a very difficult time, particularly in the United States, where of course the Catholic Church is in bad odour for the failure to sufficiently rectify the abuses that have occurred of clergy committing sexual abuse upon children. The second thing is that in classic Vatican form, there is an attempt to direct Catholic politicians what they ought do. That sort of thing is never well received, particularly in the United States.

David Busch: Indeed, the Church has never been backward in seeking to engage political controversies in Australia and overseas through many cases that we know.

Frank Brennan: I think it’s perfectly proper for the Church to engage in political agitation about issues to do with morality and the public good, but I think in these sorts of discussions it’s always necessary to distinguish the Church’s teaching role, where it proclaims what it sees as the truth for the well-being of its faithful over against the proclamation as to what’s seen to be the common good or the public interest for society at large. Now, here I think the Vatican runs into a further problematic in the Western world: namely, when you have the only branch of Christendom which has a celibate clergy, which speaks strongest and loudest about sexual matters, then there is a natural hesitation on the part of other Christians in saying that we don’t know that this actually gives a complete statement as to what is the lived reality of human sexuality.

David Busch: The phrase directed to Catholic lawmakers and politicians to vote in favour of gay law reform effectively, is “gravely immoral”; it certainly has a teaching role but it does smack a bit of bullying as well, doesn’t it? Manipulation or coercion.

Frank Brennan: To me it’s an exercise of authority which I do not find helpful, in that I think there would be Catholic politicians of goodwill who would be still trying to seek out ways in which the law quite properly can uphold the sanctity of marriage in the sense the union of a man and woman, who are open to the bearing and the nurturing of each other’s children. Now, I think the nation-state has a proper role to play in upholding that relationship. But over against that, even the Vatican document says that of course it would be wrong to discriminate against homosexual people. Now, this is where you get into the difficult area – which I think is slightly fudged in the Vatican document – where basically if you are not discriminating against people who are gay, take for example a couple who say “we want to be able to split our incomes, we want the law of inheritance to apply to us as if we’re a permanently committed couple”, I don’t think there can be any objection to laws of that sort; whether or not they are engaged in sexual relations is something which is quite incidental, and I think that laws of that sort should be extended to couples, whether or not they are engaged in sexual relations, and whether or not they’re homosexual or heterosexual.

David Busch: And yet this Vatican document would seem to suggest that even those relatively innocent structural, legal recognitions of homosexual unions is a fundamental threat to marriage, and to public good?

Frank Brennan: Well, there I would part company from some of the reasoning of the document, in that I don’t think by saying that you will give the same recognition to a couple – for example – to split their incomes or to share their inheritance, that you are in any way taking away from the sanctity of marriage. The essential thing, though, must be to say: what is necessary in the contemporary nation-state to accord to marriage its rights and protections, so that as far as possible you can create a safe haven for the nurturing and bearing of children? Now, once you’ve addressed that, I don’t think the fact that you might then give some of the same privileges to other groups who have no intention of bearing their own children, takes away from the sanctity of marriage.

David Busch: So what kinds of things in civil law would you argue ought to be applied, and offered as concessions or recognitions to married couples, that would not be appropriately extended to partners in a homosexual union?

Frank Brennan: I’m hard pressed to think of them, David, but I think they would be things that focused particularly upon the way in which you give protection to the relationship for the wellbeing of the children of the union. Now, if they are not things that relate to that, then I think in a non-discriminatory way they can be applied to couples whether or not they’re heterosexual or homosexual, and whether or not they’re engaged in sexual relations at all.

David Busch: Do you personally hold any view that the Church needs to even reconsider its opposition to homosexuality – the whole theology of sexuality and of family structures ought to be broadened out beyond simply the legal and civil responsibilities?

Frank Brennan: I do think there is a perfectly coherent case to be put within the Catholic tradition which insists on the ideal of singleness or fidelity in marriage. But that is an ideal which is not embraced by a lot of human beings who live in contemporary society, and what we’ve seen in the Uniting Church and in the Anglican Church – where there is the possibility of married clergy, and therefore the possibility of clergy who would be living in sexual relationships which are not of permanent matrimony – there has been a heightened controversy. Now, the Catholic Church has been spared that controversy, because the ideal is stipulated in terms of a celibate clergy, and where sexual relations are to be engaged in only in the context of marriage. Now, that can be coherently put in terms of an ideal to a believing community. I don’t think it’s something which can coherently be put into legislation in a society such as contemporary Australia.

I am firmly of the view that the Catholic Church is fully entitled to insist that sacramental marriage is available only to a man and woman who have a commitment to the bearing and nurturing of each other’s children, and if they do not have an openness to the bearing of children, then in terms of Catholic theology, it cannot be a marriage and it often will be invalidated. Now, that is clearly to be distinguished from a situation of civil law, where what you’re looking at is the basic means that are to be available within the society for people to live ordered lives together. Now there, I don’t think the uniquely Catholic position has any entitlement to win out unless you’re in a society where the majority of persons in that society are themselves Catholic, in which case you would then have to scrutinise whether the uniquely Catholic perspective did in any way interfere with the fundamental rights and liberties of others who were not Catholic, even though they were only a minority in that society. But when you look at a society such as Australia, where Catholics are not in the majority, then clearly there is a distinction to be drawn between the sacramental nature of marriage as recognised by the Catholic Church, and the laws of marriage and of other unions which are to be looked at in the social context where as far as possible there should not be discrimination, but also where as far as possible the state should go to very great lengths in order to support those relationships which are open to the bearing and nurturing of the children of those relationships.

David Busch: And of course in that kind of society, the Church will need to refer and seek the protection of civil law for its right to continue to discriminate – for example, not to have to employ (or be open to employing) homosexual couples in the schools.

Frank Brennan: Yes. But rather than putting that in terms of discrimination, I would see that more in terms of: what are the limits of tolerance and of personal choice for individuals and groups within a pluralistic society? And so although I would argue in defence of the proposition that there ought be laws that do not discriminate against a homosexual couple in terms of, for example, their tax arrangements, or their entitlement to have a partner, travel with them on state business or things of that sort – I think that is to be distinguished from the situation where a group in society, such as the Catholic Church, may say “we would like to be able to run our own schools, for example, where those whom we employ are those who are demonstrably single, or those who are committed to a married relationship, that is, as husband and wife, open to the bearing of each other’s children”. Now, in order to be able to do that, I think society is the better for permitting that freedom. That is not discriminating against homosexuals any more than it’s discriminating against heterosexuals who say “well, we’re not very keen on marriage, and we want to be able to live a sexual life where we could have a choice of partners from time to time, even though that’s inconsistent with the Catholic way”. I think society is the better if the Catholic Church is able to say in the school context “we would prefer to choose teachers who can provide a model to our students of the model of sacramental marriage within the Catholic tradition”. So I think it’s always a matter of finding the balance in terms of the tolerance and of the liberties of individuals and of particular groups.

David Busch: What influence do you think this document might have – for example, in Australia, among Catholic politicians or just in the public debate generally?

Frank Brennan: I don’t think it’ll have a very strong influence at all. In fact, it seems some of the Catholic politicians here already are at pains to point out that in a country like Australia, we’re not very used to having a German cardinal and a Polish Pope telling Australian politicians what they ought to be voting for or not voting for. I think in countries like Australia, there is a very healthy attitude about the separation between Church and State, and that I don’t think is fully appreciated by those who have written a document of this sort. So in terms of its likely outcome, I don’t think it’s likely to have a very significant effect – except in the privacy of the consciences of some politicians; they will look again at this question and say “what ought be the law?” – but they will see that it’s a matter far more complex. And in a sense, this document might be doing a disservice: because of its stridency, it allows very stereotypical things to be said of the Church, as if it’s simply anti-homosexual. Whereas I think the important thing in terms of Church teaching in this sort of area is to be emphasising what can be done to give the utmost support to those unions which are productive of children, because the nation-state has the highest priority in looking after the wellbeing of children – who, of course, are the future of the society. But I think that then gets lost when you have something which is as strident and as anti as this.

David Busch: And its impact on gay Catholics, or the Catholic parents of gays?

Frank Brennan: Well, obviously gay Catholics, there’ll be some of them who continue to be very hurt by this sort of statement, because they think that it is being unduly prescriptive. And even though it insists that it is Church teaching that there not be discrimination against gays, they see in the fine print what they regard as adverse discrimination. And so once again, I think for a lot of Catholic gays, this sort of documentation is seen to be something which is not sufficiently pastoral, and prescriptive to their disadvantage. Whereas I think there would be other Catholic gays who would have an attitude similar to myself, who would say “of course it is the role of the Church, in season and out of season, to speak of the need to maintain marriage as a primary institution for the wellbeing of children and of society. But that does not give an answer to all of the questions as to whether or not homosexuals should be given the same entitlements as heterosexuals when it comes to financial and other arrangements”.

David Busch: Jesuit lawyer, Father Frank Brennan.