Last week an anonymous Catholic priest in Australia published an article in LifeSiteNews.com, a vigorously traditionalist US-based website, claiming that the same-sex marriage campaign was pushing Australia’s Catholic Church to the point of open schism. Schism simply means ‘split’: it’s what happens when a church with strong central authority experiences internal division along doctrinal and/or organisational lines.
I’m in the middle of writing a much longer piece about this very issue for Quadrant magazine’s December issue, because it’s complex, longstanding, and needs a lot of explanation. But as we’re being overtaken by events, I’ll comment on this now.
The trouble has arisen because two Australian Catholic bishops, Bishop Bill Wright of Maitland- Newcastle and Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta, have made ambiguous public statements. No Catholic bishop is going to say outright that they think same-sex marriage is a good idea, but sometimes either they or their staff decide to try to please everyone, and end up alienating them instead.
Bishop Wright hasn’t said anything wrong; he’s been quoted out of context, but that’s because he spent too much of his statement talking about legal recognition, rather than just sticking with the Church angle. Bishop Long is slightly more culpable because he spent most of his statement talking about the wrongs done to gay people by the Church, rather than defending what his Church teaches about marriage.
Where is this ambivalence coming from? The Catechism of the Catholic Church has just three paragraphs on homosexuality (§2357-2359), but they present a whole pastoral approach in a nutshell – basically, 1) hate the sin, 2) love the sinner, 3) everyone’s called to be a saint, including gay people. However, Catholics who support the Yes vote cherry-pick just one sentence out of §2358: ‘Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.’ So: gay people can’t get married; this is unjust discrimination, so we should fix it by redefining marriage.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and individual Catholic bishops in Australia have instead pushed strongly and clearly for the No case. They’ve pointed out the grave dangers posed to freedom of speech, religion, and association in Australia. They know what they’re talking about: one of them, Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, has already been before the state’s Equal Opportunity commission on this very subject.
And then there are the bishops in the middle, who are keeping rather quiet because it’s easier to let the archbishops do the heavy lifting and cop the media flak. We won’t know what they really think until the dust has settled. There’s a splendid old song called ‘The Vicar of Bray’ which will help you understand their primary pastoral concerns.
This isn’t just a Catholic problem. It’s harder to talk about schism in the Anglican Communion, given its habit of accommodating wildly contradictory doctrinal and disciplinary views, but two Australian Anglican bishops, Gary Nelson of North West Australia and Glenn Davies of Sydney, have also swum against the tide by stating publicly they support the No case. Bishop Nelson has followed the trend of Catholic Emeritus Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth and the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and offered to cease registering legal marriages if the Marriage Act is changed.
I think the author of the LifeSiteNews.com article is a bit wide of the mark – but only a bit.
Same-sex marriage is not causing a schism in the Catholic Church in Australia, but it is exposing some ugly fault-lines which are already there. Everyone has been pretending for around fifty years that we can live with these fault-lines. Some have gone so far as to claim that these fault-lines make our Church stronger, much in the way that cheating in a marriage makes it stronger, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But how much longer the Catholic Church in Australia can continue to do this remains to be seen.
Philippa Martyr is a Perth-based historian, writer, and ecclesiastical nuisance. This year she has written in Quadrant on the Catholic Church and sexual abuse, in First Things on the George Pell case, and in the Spectator Australia’s blog on same sex marriage