As National Plebiscite Begins, Australia’s Bishops Rally for Traditional Marriage

However, polls reveal an uphill struggle for the Church, even among Catholics.

(photo: Unsplash)

MELBOURNE, Australia — The Catholic Church in Australia has vigorously engaged in support of an uphill campaign to defeat an unusual postal survey that could lead to the introduction of same-sex civil marriage here before the year’s end.

The government, led by the center-right Liberal Party, has committed to holding a conscience vote in Parliament to legalize same-sex “marriage” if a majority of Australians support reform during an eight-week-long postal plebiscite. Survey forms, which will reach some 16 million Australians, began arriving in mailboxes across the country last week.

Confronting declining support among rank-and-file Catholics and unorthodox stances even among some clergy, local Church leaders have strongly reaffirmed the traditional understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

“God’s plan for marriage is clear enough in the Bible,” Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney wrote in a Sept. 7 commentary in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “But as the Pope points out, this is not some weird Catholic or Christian thing: For all the differences, every major civilization, religion and legal system has held to the truth that marriage is ‘the lifelong union of man and woman’ upon which families are founded.”

The Church in Australia’s largest city has put together arguably the most organized campaign for a “No” vote among the hierarchy, last month forming the Coalition for Marriage along with the Australian Christian Lobby, an umbrella group, and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart and Archbishop Tim Costelloe of Perth are also among the senior Church leaders that also issued firm statements defending the Church’s position on marriage, which the Catholic Church says is a sacramental sign of God’s grace between a man and a woman, not a legal contract between two persons.

“The view of the Church remains that it is between a man and a woman, and there is a right of a child to a mother and a father,” Shane Healy, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, told the Register. “That’s one of the foundations on which our society is built. We would maintain that, for the common good and for the rights of children, that should be retained.”


‘Don’t Mess With Marriage’

The Australian bishops also have collectively published a pastoral letter, “Don’t Mess With Marriage,” intended to serve as a resource for Australians as they engage with the national debate. “We now face a struggle for the very soul of marriage,” the bishops state in the document’s introduction.

Australia’s bishops also marked the start of the mail-in plebiscite with a call for a month of prayer and fasting to strengthen marriage and the family. “We pray and fast in a special way for our nation’s leaders; we pray that they will uphold God’s plan for marriage in our nation,” Bishop Michael Kennedy of Armidale said in a video message for the Catholic Marriage and Family Council.

Some senior Church figures, however, have taken a much more ambivalent stance on the vote, which is not legally binding and stems from a political compromise intended to bridge internal divisions within the ruling party over what constitutes marriage.

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta and Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland-Newcastle have both made comments that appeared to communicate that support for civil same-sex unions might not be an unacceptable position for Catholics, reported Sept. 17.

Rectors of two of Australia’s most famous elite Jesuit schools also generated headlines last month by making comments that were widely interpreted as cautiously supportive of change; one the rectors, Jesuit Father Chris Middleton of Melbourne’s Xavier College, said it was up to Catholics to reflect on whether “denial of the right to civil marriage is an ‘unjust discrimination.’”

However, the bishops’ pastoral letter addressed this “unjust discrimination” argument in detail. According to the letter, retaining the traditional definition of marriage is not unjust discrimination, because, by its nature, the marital union of a man and a woman is a unique entity.

The letter further asserts it would be “gravely unjust,” by redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, “to legitimize the false assertion that there is nothing distinctive about a man and a woman, a father or a mother; to ignore the particular values that real marriage serves; to ignore the importance for children of having, as far as possible, a mum and a dad, committed to them and to each other for the long haul; to destabilize marriage further at a time when it is already under considerable pressure; and to change retrospectively the basis upon which all existing married couples got married.”


Uphill Battle

Polling indicates that Australian Catholics will strongly back a “Yes” vote in the poll, the result of which is due in November. In one survey carried out last month, two-thirds of Catholics said they would support extending marriage to same-sex couples, an identical proportion to the general population.

“I think most Catholics have moved on, and they have a far more open view about human sexuality and so on,” said Brian Coyne, editor of the online discussion forum Catholica, pointing out that weekly church attendance among Australian Catholics now stands at only around 10%.

Outside the Church, both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten have endorsed a “Yes” vote, while former prime ministers Tony Abbott, a Catholic, who first proposed a public vote, and John Howard have come out against redefinition, linking the issue to broader concerns such as religious freedom and political correctness. If the “Yes” vote prevails, as polls suggest is probable, the Parliament is likely to legislate for same-sex unions before Christmas.

Healy acknowledged the difficulty of the Church stating its case compared to previous eras, when it commanded more respect, but said it is obligated to assert marriage as being “fundamentally between a man and a woman.”

“And any change to that is not something that we would agree with, because, in the end, humans were created to procreate and keep the whole species going — and that works between a man and a woman, and it is a perfectly understandable scenario that that should continue to be the case,” he said. “That’s not to decry or demean or disrespect any other union.”

John Power writes from Melbourne, Australia.

Register staff contributed to this report.