By the time this appears in print, we will know the outcome of the postal survey on same-sex marriage. Prophecy is a risky business, but I am prepared to say that your vote (whichever way it went) is largely irrelevant, because same-sex marriage is coming to Australia anyway. The postal survey was probably your last chance to express a divergent opinion, because either Malcolm Turnbull’s present government or Bill Shorten’s incoming ALP government will amend the Marriage Act to allow two persons, instead of a man and a woman, to marry.
This comes at a bad time for the Catholic Church in Australia, but it’s been so bad for so long that it’s hard to remember what a good time looks like. Sunday Mass attendance figures have been dropping steadily (15.3 per cent of the identified Catholic population in 2001, 12.2 per cent in 2011; we’re still waiting on the figures from the 2016 count). A third of those attending are aged over sixty, and there are around three women for every two men. Around a third of Mass attenders were born in a non-English-speaking country. Meanwhile the Church’s most senior cleric, George Cardinal Pell, is awaiting trial for historical sexual abuses.
During the acrimonious public debate on same-sex marriage, it became apparent that not everyone in the Catholic Church was singing from the same song-sheet. The ABC gave a lot of air time to this, no doubt in the interests of strict impartiality. They dug up some “religious leaders” who were in favour of a Yes vote, among them Fr Kevin Burke at Our Lady Help of Christians church in Eltham, Victoria. Fr Kevin describes the Bible as “guidelines, little hints and little directions”. He says that there are plenty of grey areas when we talk about sexuality, and that the Church has moved on since the Old Testament, and that we always need to respect people’s consciences. He thinks that “a lot of priests getting ordained these days are very conservative and subservient men who have very traditional ideas”, which is apparently not a good thing.
This essay appears in the December edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
When Archbishop Fisher of Sydney preached on same-sex marriage in his own cathedral on Sunday October 15, the ABC—which has never previously expressed any interest in the Archbishop’s Sunday homilies—dutifully reported it, and then asked some people outside St Mary’s Cathedral what they thought. They spoke to one woman in favour of what Fisher had said, and three people against, including a nun, “Sister Helen”, who said that God is love, and that she personally knew a gay couple who were very committed to each other. The other two were teenage siblings who believed that we should accept everyone, and that Archbishop Fisher should really think more about what he says in public, because he was hurting people’s feelings.
I’d like to dismiss this as an ABC beat-up, except that this is pretty much what any priest or bishop faces in his congregation today: a small number of people who believe and accept what the Catholic Church teaches, and a much larger number of people who don’t, including religious (nuns, brothers and other priests), and poorly instructed young people who are indistinguishable from their non-Catholic peers. The latter are a product of the Catholic education system, where there have been some outstanding examples of Yes voter support; Melbourne’s Xavier College and Sydney’s St Ignatius College have led the way.
These ABC reports are just the tip of the iceberg of what really goes on in Catholic parishes and schools around the country. There is no doubt that a good proportion of Catholics in Australia will vote Yes in the postal survey. But a good proportion will also vote No, and this shows the major fault line that developed in the Catholic Church in Australia and in other Western countries in the wake of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth).
Humanae Vitae and all that
Next year (2018) marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, which was produced after a five-year theological review of new methods of artificial contraception, including the Pill. Humanae Vitae’s main point was that it was a bad idea to separate the unitive and procreative aspects of human sexuality. This doesn’t mean that every sperm is sacred, or that sex is only for making babies. It means that every time you have sex, you should be open to the possibility that it will start a new life. There is nothing new about this; it’s simply human biology—sex is how human beings reproduce, in case you’ve forgotten, which is why even the best contraception fails occasionally. Nature’s very powerful.
Paul VI described the consequences of separating the closeness of sex from the possibility of babies. It would be easier to be unfaithful in marriage. It would lower moral standards generally, because there were fewer adverse consequences. Men would find it much easier to treat women like sex objects. Governments would use contraception as a way of controlling people.
Humanae Vitae was also the point at which the Catholic Church in Australia lost the same-sex marriage debate. Paul VI (perhaps foolishly) relied on his bishops and priests to get this rather unpopular word out: priests were expected to “spell out clearly and completely the Church’s teaching on marriage”. Paul pleaded with them to overcome dissensions on this topic and uphold what he’d taught. The bishops were asked to consider the safeguarding of married life as “one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time”.
Instead, bishops, episcopal conferences and individual priests decided to do the opposite. In 1968 the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops published their Winnipeg Statement, saying that an individual could use artificial contraception without sinning if it was a case of “honestly choos[ing] that course which seems right to him … in good conscience”. The Statement ended by saying that while the bishops would stand in union with the Bishop of Rome, they were also disobeying him because they wanted to make the Church “more intelligible and more beautiful”.
What is an episcopal conference? It’s a group of bishops in a territory who can act collectively with authority. The idea is that they can manage their own administrative issues locally as they see fit—an example of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. However, in practice it doesn’t always work out that way: they have too often been used to subvert papal authority, and as a hiding place when things go wrong. The Winnipeg Statement is an example of both. And because there were no consequences for the Canadian bishops, many clergy across the Western world adopted what became known as the “pastoral solution” on artificial contraception—don’t ask, don’t tell, and emphasise that the person’s conscience is always right.
Regardless of what you may think personally of this position, it completely reverses the previous nineteen centuries of Church teaching on human sexuality, and it also overturns the Catholic concept of conscience. Conscience isn’t the source of moral law; objective moral law already exists. Your conscience helps you to choose the objective right over the objective wrong. But now we have Catholics who believe that their conscience is the source of right and wrong for them—moral relativism.
Combine these two things—sex completely separated from reproduction, and individual conscience determining moral law—and you have a situation where almost any kind of sexual activity can be justified under the right circumstances. And in this schema, I can’t tell you what’s right for you—only your conscience can do that. So it’s wrong for me to impose my morality on you, even if we belong to the same Church, go to Mass together on Sundays, and recite the same Creed there like a pair of automatons.
Catholic moral theology in many dioceses, universities and seminaries now sprouted a number of “grey areas”. Things which used to be called masturbation, fornication, adultery and homosexuality, all with straightforward definitions and clear moral edges, now became four shades of grey, if not fifty. (Things like selfishness, cheating on your taxes, and not putting money in the Sunday collection all escaped the grey-area treatment.) Given that this doctrinal climate has prevailed in the West for around fifty years, it’s no wonder that many Catholics in Australia will give unqualified support to same-sex marriage.
Catholics from developing countries, however, tend to believe the same things that the Church taught for the previous nineteen hundred years. The Gospel according to Grey hasn’t permeated as well as it has the affluent West, which is why these people still go to Mass on Sunday and still have children. They will mostly vote No on same-sex marriage, but they will be in the minority. There is also a minority of Catholic bishops and priests—those awful “subservient” ones described by Fr Kevin Burke—who support these people, and share their beliefs.
What we have here is a de facto schism: a major split in a church over doctrinal differences. It’s been going on for decades, but it’s not out in the open. So what would it take for it to come out in the open?
Returning legal marriage registration to the state
When same-sex marriage was first bruited, then-Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth said that he would support de-registration of Catholic marriage celebrants, making future Catholic marriages legally invalid. More recently, the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Anglican Bishop of North West Australia, Gary Nelson, have said the same thing. The idea of de-registration is to protect churches from the type of test-case prosecutions that have been tried in other parts of the world where there are established state churches, such as in Sweden. Couples would have to go to a registry office as well as a church if they wanted their marriage to be legally valid. This is how marriages are normally solemnised in parts of Europe and Asia, and it’s not difficult.
The Catholic Church in Australia is not a state church, but it’s currently vulnerable and unpopular enough to make it look like an easy target for a determined lawyer and a same-sex couple with an axe to grind. Church weddings have been on the decline in Australia since the 1990s: around three-quarters of all marriages are now solemnised by civil celebrants. Of the remaining marriages solemnised by ministers of religion, only a third are Catholic. In 2015, that was around 9000 marriages nationwide—and based on national rates of Mass attendance, only around 900 of those couples attend Mass regularly on Sunday. My local cathedral can sit 1600 people, so we could probably fit the national total in, all at once.
Under the Marriage Act 1961, to be eligible for registration as a legal marriage celebrant a Catholic priest must be nominated by his denomination, be ordinarily resident in Australia, and be aged twenty-one years or over (s29). He can be refused registration if there are already enough registered Catholic priests available in the area, or if he is not a fit and proper person to solemnise marriages (s31). But he can also be removed from the register of celebrants (s33). He can request this individually, or his local bishop (who would presumably be the official voice of the “denomination”) can withdraw him, or the Catholic Church could be no longer recognised as a denomination by proclamation of the Governor-General. The priest may also be de-registered if he has contravened the Marriage Act.
Section 47 currently relieves a minister of religion, such as a Catholic priest, of the obligation to solemnise any marriage, and he can also make solemnising a marriage conditional on “requirements additional to those provided by this Act”. But I suspect s47 may not be a good place to hide when the revolution comes. What happens if a priest makes the solemnisation conditional on there being a bride and a groom, rather than two brides or two grooms? Would this put him in breach of current anti-discrimination law?
Theoretically, individual Catholic priests could de-register themselves, and individual bishops could de-register all priests for their dioceses. The trouble is that not all of them would make that decision, for a variety of reasons. It would be unpopular, the bishops may see it as defeatist, they would be strongly advised against it by their secularised bureaucracies, and they would fear the media backlash. If a few strong individuals pushed ahead, it would produce a situation where Catholic marriages could be legally solemnised in some parts of Australia, but not in others.
This is when you need an effective episcopal conference to operate as a national and unified voice. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has already spoken out against same-sex marriage. Now it may have to put its money where its mouth is, and decide whether the Church should return the power of legal marriage to the state, and retain its own entirely separate sacramental form of marriage.
There would be other advantages for this to the Church, as well as legal protection. Every year, thousands of nominally Catholic couples get married, only to divorce at around the same rate as the non-Catholic population (practising Catholics tend to get divorced at a slightly lower rate). This distressing situation has been brought about because non-practising Catholics and their families—who are in the majority—want a Big Church Wedding, even though they never darken the church’s door at any other time.
But if the provision of Catholic marriage became more carefully managed—if it became harder to get the Big Church Wedding without clear evidence that you were an active churchgoer, and if it was no longer a convenient way of getting legally married—then the divorce rate for Catholics overall might show a downturn. The Catholic Church is slowly going out of the marriage business in Australia anyway, so it may well be time to cut its losses.
Why this will probably not happen
What will the ACBC do? They have a golden opportunity here to separate church and state, which will help to protect the Church from prosecution for refusing to marry same-sex couples, and will facilitate a clean-up of the marriage mess within the Church by reducing the numbers of dubious sacramental marriages that only end up burdening Catholic marriage tribunals later.
But my guess is that they won’t do it. I think the ACBC suffers from serious internal divisions of its own—I have discussed these recently in Quadrant Online—and is still smarting from the child sexual abuse crisis. At a recent forum on same-sex marriage at a local church in my archdiocese, the question of de-registration came up, but the official spokes-priest for the archdiocese was unenthusiastic and said it wasn’t being considered.
There’s another good reason for the ACBC not wanting to separate church and state: although it’s slowly going out of the marriage business, it’s not showing any signs of going out of the education business. The Australian government has been funding Catholic schools very generously since the 1960s, and the Church is a tax-exempt organisation. If the Church separates from the state over marriage, pretty soon someone in government will suggest cutting Commonwealth and/or state government funding to Catholic schools, and possibly imposing taxation. This would be popular with the electorate, sections of which already see the Catholic Church and school system as over-privileged, and certainly the Catholic education system would collapse without government funding.
So the alternative is that the ACBC does very little—condemns the legislative change when it comes, and pushes for legal protections for its ministers. It would take brave dissenting bishops to de-register their priests as marriage celebrants, and even braver priests to de-register themselves without their bishop’s permission. This would probably produce open schism, or rather would show—down to the exact parish boundaries—which parts of the Catholic Church were still universally Catholic, and which parts had decided to become the “Australian Catholic Church”, complete with grey areas.
What will probably happen instead
There’s also the very good question of how much demand there would be for Catholic priests to marry same-sex couples—these priests already exist, and they will make themselves known discreetly to those who want their services. But what will happen when this goes public? I have already acknowledged that prophecy is a risky business, so I’ll up the stakes: here is my prediction of how same-sex marriages will begin to be performed in the Catholic Church in Australia.
Alsatian College (motto Vadus Ad Caneus) is the second-best Catholic boys’ high school in the Diocese of Bedlam, a modestly-sized urban Australian Catholic diocese. The college has a chapel that’s very popular with ex-students as a wedding venue. Dominic, an Old Boy, applies to the college for permission to use the chapel for his same-sex wedding to Mark. The ceremony will be performed by an Anglican minister, but because Dominic is a Catholic, he wants to have the ceremony also witnessed by local priest Fr Jim Kindness. (Fr Jim has a positive media profile, and his busy parish is made up of middle-class people who enjoy hymns about self-acceptance and homilies about refugees.)
The principal of Alsatian College is a bit stumped. Boys at the college have said they support same-sex marriage. Almost all the teachers voted Yes, including Gerry the science teacher, who’s gay himself. Although Gerry has never said anything to anyone, most of the other staff know he’s gay and living with his partner Stephen.
The principal decides to run this request to use the chapel by the bishop. Bishop Paul Steady is a great guy. Everyone loves him; he’s been bishop for seventeen years now. He’s kind, he’s available, he never says or does anything to upset anyone, and it’s a mystery why his diocese has produced no priestly vocations for two decades. Bishop Paul’s response to the phone call from the principal is, “Look, John, Alsatian can run its affairs better than I can; I really think this is the school’s decision, not mine. Just be careful about how you handle it. I’ll have a word to Jim about it, too; he really should have asked me first.”
Bishop Paul then phones Fr Jim.
“Jim, what’s this about Alsatian College?”
“What do you mean, Paul?”
“You know what I mean, Jim.”
“No, sorry, Bishop, you’ve lost me,” (matey chuckle).
Bishop Paul has many such conversations with Fr Jim over the years. This one ends with Bishop Paul telling Fr Jim to be careful about how he handles it, and above all, not to issue the couple with a Catholic marriage certificate. Fr Jim agrees to everything, and then issues Dominic and Mark with a Catholic marriage certificate to match their Anglican one, as a lovely memento of their special day. He explains to them that this isn’t of course official in any way, but he thought they might like to have it.
When the news gets out—and it gets out the following Monday—there is a media circus. Bishop Paul backs down publicly, he receives a terse phone call from his archbishop, and traditionalist Catholic blogs go berserk. Bishop Paul then becomes defensive and says that he will manage his own diocese as he sees fit. Fr Jim is sent on a leave of absence for a month, and when he comes back, he is refused permission to lead a weekend retreat at the Emmanuel Milingo Centre for Spirituality and Justice. But then something else happens in the diocese to distract Bishop Paul, and life quickly returns to normal for everyone involved. Because there are no adverse consequences for anyone, the precedent is established. Next time, it will be much easier.
It may seem like low comedy, and in many ways, it is. But it’s also tragedy, in that the Catholic Church in Australia seems so unaware of how much its stock has fallen, and not just in the media. This is a Church whose rank-and-file membership has been decimated, and which should be preparing itself for old-fashioned persecution by an increasingly hostile state. There are those who would say that this persecution is richly deserved and long overdue.
I would love to be wrong about all this, and if I am, I will not be angry about the castor oil plant. Persecution does the Church good in the long run, but it’s not much fun for those who go through it. It’s especially galling when—as with the sexual abuse crisis—some of it could have been avoided or mitigated by prompt action decades earlier. The coming years will be a sharp test of just how much the Catholic Church in Australia has learned from its episcopal unwillingness to preach the Gospel in and out of season.
Philippa Martyr is a Perth-based historian and writer. She wrote on the Catholic Church and sexual abuse in the April issue.
 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Pastoral Research Office, Mass Attendance in Australia—a critical moment, December 2013, http://pro.catholic.org.au/pdf/Pastoral%20Research%20Office%20-%20Mass%20attendance%20in%20Australia%20-%20a%20critical%20moment%20-%20December%202013.pdf—accessed 16 October 2017.
 Paige Cockburn, “SSM: These religious leaders are putting dogma aside to support same-sex marriage’, ABC News, 7 September 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-07/religious-leaders-thinking-differently-about-same-sex-marriage/8878680 – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Lily Mayers, “Same-sex marriage: Governments should keep out of the bedroom, Catholic Archbishop says’, ABC News, 15 October 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-15/governments-should-keep-out-of-the-bedroom-says-archbishop/9051642 – accessed 16 October 2017.
 “Elite Catholic schools defend gay marriage’, news.com.au, 30 August 2017, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/gay-marriage/elite-catholic-schools-defend-gay-marriage/news-story/75b0a63387c0f72e4f30f566e9a1dd37 – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, s28, http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Humanae Vitae, s30.
 Canadian Catholic Bishops Conference, Winnipeg Statement, s26, http://www.u.arizona.edu/~aversa/modernism/winnipeg.html – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Winnipeg Statement, s34.
 Vanessa Manivannen, “Archbishop threatens to stop performing marriages’, OUT in Perth, 3 October 2011, http://www.outinperth.com/archbishop-threatens-to-stop-performing-marriages/ – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Rev John P Wilson, Moderator, Presbyterian Church of Australia, “PCA re-affirms the biblical view of marriage’, 17 September 2016, https://www.presbyterian.org.au/index.php/resources/moderator-s-comments/125-pca-re-affirms-the-biblical-view-of-marriage – accessed 16 October 2017; Phoebe Wearne, “Anglican Bishop of North West Australia threatens to ditch registering marriages if Yes prevails in SSM survey’, West Australian, 12 October 2017, https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/anglican-bishop-of-north-west-australia-threatens-to-ditch-registering-marriages-if-yes-prevails-in-ssm-survey-ng-b88626223z – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Dale Hurd, “Swedish Prime Minister: Priests should be forced to perform same-sex weddings’, CBN News, 23 June 2017, http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2017/june/swedish-prime-minister-priests-should-be-forced-to-perform-same-sex-weddings – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Marriages and Divorces in Australia, 2015, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Latestproducts/3310.0Main%20Features112015?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3310.0&issue=2015&num=&view= – accessed 16 October 2017.
 I cannot find any Australian statistics which compare divorce rates of practising and non-practising (nominal) Catholics, but this data is available in the US, and is collected by the Gospel Coalition – https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-divorce-rate-among-christians/ – accessed 16 October 2017.
 Philippa Martyr, “Gay marriage and Catholic fault lines’, Quadrant Online, 15 October 2017, https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2017/10/gay-marriage-catholicisms-fault-lines/ – accessed 16 October 2017.
 For example, in 2014 the Western Australian Catholic education system received just over half a billion dollars of Commonwealth funding, and around a quarter of a billion dollars in State government funding—in combination, around $10,000 per student. Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia, Annual Report, 2014, http://internet.ceo.wa.edu.au/Publications/Documents/Annual%20Report/AnnualReport_2014.pdf – accessed 16 October 2017. It’s not clear how this was disbursed except by program, but the much earlier Annual Report 2011, Tables 14 and 16, shows a detailed breakdown of expenditure. The amount of Commonwealth government funding received in 2011 covered the full bill for teachers” salaries, with a little to spare, http://internet.ceo.wa.edu.au/Publications/Documents/Annual%20Report/Annual%20Report_2011.pdf—accessed 16 October 2017.