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Questions arising from the marriage equality debate

Michael McVeigh  |  01 November 2016

Whether it’s via a plebiscite or a parliamentary vote, Australia’s politicians have been discussing this year whether and how the country might legalise same-sex marriage. 

It’s an issue that many Catholics may be conflicted about, with both sides appealing to arguments based on compassion and the common good. 

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is a Catholic lawyer with a background in human rights issues. We decided to pose to him some of the more tricky questions that Catholics might be asking on this issue. 


Can you respect and care for same-sex attracted people and still think marriage should only be between a man and a woman? 

Yes you can. It all depends on what you mean by marriage. 

For example, I am a Catholic. In the Catholic Church, we have seven sacraments. ‘Marriage’ is one of those sacraments. It is a sign of God’s grace, celebrated by the Church community. Five of the other sacraments are administered by an ordained person. Baptism, the first sacrament, can be performed by any member of the church community especially in time of emergency. The sacrament of marriage is performed by the couple. The priest is simply the official witness of the church community.

Why then is marriage a sacrament? It is the celebration of grace in the life of a couple who commit themselves exclusively to each other for life and who are open to the bearing and nurturing of children who will be the future members of the church community. Thus the sacrament of marriage can be performed only between a man and a woman.

The confusion in the present discussion arises, in part, because the same word ‘marriage’ is used for this sacramental bond and for the far more frequent arrangement in civil law which is available to people of all faiths and none. In Australia, you can contract a civil marriage even though you are divorced and your previous partner is still alive. You don’t need to prove your previous marriage was invalid. You can contract the marriage firmly resolved not to have children even if you’re able to. You can terminate the contract just by giving one year’s notice to the other party. 

So the Church’s idea of sacramental marriage is already very different from the state’s idea of marriage. I can understand those Catholics who would like to keep the state’s idea as close as possible to the Church’s idea. 

I readily admit that the two ideas are already very different. The extension of the definition of civil marriage to include a contract between two persons of the same sex would not change the Church’s definition of sacramental marriage. I would hope that we could all respect and care for same-sex attracted people, regardless of what we think should be the civil definition of marriage.

Marriage equality advocates say that a plebiscite risks endangering the mental health of already vulnerable same-sex attracted people. How can a plebiscite be conducted in that sort of environment? 

This is a question about politics, not about morality. Instead of asking, ‘Should a plebiscite be conducted?’, it’s probably better to ask if there is any alternative in Australia at the moment. 

When Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister, the Liberal and National Parties agreed in writing to hold a plebiscite before the matter was brought to Parliament. That’s the policy they took to the 2016 election. So I don’t think there is any alternative during the life of this parliament and while Turnbull remains as prime minister.

Most Australians favour a plebiscite. Personally, I was opposed to a plebiscite. But I don’t see any political option now, other than waiting until after the next election. I do think it’s time to get it over and done with. In the lead up to any vote or plebiscite, we should all be careful to be respectful of others, particularly of those who think differently from us and of those who live differently from us. 

What will the impact of a vote in favour of marriage equality be – both on society in general and on Catholic institutions? 

I have no doubt that the vote of the public and the vote of the parliament will be eventually in favour of what you call ‘marriage equality’. The real impact of the vote will be not just increased tolerance of same-sex relationships, but public endorsement of these relationships. 

This is the big challenge for Catholic institutions. We will now be operating in a social context where same-sex relationships are endorsed and espoused. So Catholic institutions like schools will have to open their doors graciously to same-sex married persons in the same way as they would to other teachers and staff who are civilly married but who are not living a sacramental marriage in the eyes of the Church. 

For society generally, I don’t think there will be any major impact in the long run. There will be the initial flurry of celebrations and political victory laps, and I say, ‘Good luck to the winners.’ But I have just been visiting the USA and Spain where same-sex marriage is now part of the furniture. No one is talking about it. It’s a good thing in an ageing and less caring society that couples, including same-sex couples can commit to looking after each other, particularly in old age. With the increasing number of children being brought up by same-sex couples, it’s good that those children can be given some added security. 

Presumably, adoption agencies will still act in the best interests of the child. Hopefully church adoption agencies will be able to show a preference for placement in families founded on a sacramental marriage should that be the wish of the natural parent(s). 

With same-sex couples wanting to raise their own children, there will be some problems working out non-exploitative surrogacy arrangements. On all these sorts of issues, we need to be patient as we work through laws and policies which are fair and respectful to all persons. The state has an interest in overseeing and limiting assisted reproductive technology which may open the way to the creation of a child without both a genetic father and a genetic mother. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Pope Francis recently said that Christians should apologise to gay people for the way they have been treated. How might relationships be reconciled if the Church isn’t going to change its teachings? 

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air, saying ‘Who am I to judge?’ But he has made it clear that he is not about to change teachings by his predecessors like John Paul II and Benedict. 

The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual acts and practices is very counter-cultural nowadays. It’s not only same-sex attracted persons who find that their sexual practices do not align perfectly with church teaching. Ever since the invention of the contraceptive pill, many people, including many Catholics, do not live and espouse the unitive and procreative aspects of all sexual acts. 

Some change may come, but it will not be during this papacy. Meanwhile all Catholics whatever their sexual orientation are called to live their lives and conduct their relationships committed to truth, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice.


Topic tags: familylife, thecatholictradition, prayer, liturgyandthesacraments, church-thepeopleofgod

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