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October 15th 2017 print

Philippa Martyr

Gay Marriage and Catholic Fault Lines

A body of opinion, admittedly small and premature in its pessimism, sees the SSM contretemps as having driven a wedge into the body of the church. While that appraisal goes too far, there is a definite rustle of disquiet in the pews as some seek to muffle dogma with social justice soft-headedness

catechismLast 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

Comments [4]

  1. Matt says:

    The article is valuable commentary and valid criticism which should be noted carefully by all denominational leaders.
    There’s a fine line between avoiding the dangers of groupthink on one hand and the dangers of poor organisational discipline on the other. But they are somewhat different animals. Groupthink leads to poor decision-making due to an inaccurate assessment of the reality which will have the final say — a failure to listen. In the management world it leads to outcomes like Nokia and Challenger. Groupthink is about strong direction but in the wrong direction. Poor organisational discipline on the other hand leads to internal disfunction and weak direction in any direction at all — a failure to lead.
    The problem that various denominations tend to fall into in our era when confronted with public issues that collide with basic doctrine is the latter: a failure to strongly lead rather than a failure to listen. That is why we are where we are.
    Schism, or splits, are sometimes inevitable and sometimes a good thing. Showing inclusive accommodation to teachers of heresy for the sake of love and unity is not a principle that can be drawn from passages such as Luke 11:37ff for example, quite the opposite. In some cases it is much better to just bring forward a split and get it over with as quickly as possible so that each different party can go their separate ways. The issue of legitimacy of various types of relationships and behaviour very clearly proscribed by the scriptures is one of those issues. It’s not obscure or difficult. Adultery for example is wrong because the God whom we worship says it is wrong. End of story. Anyone who has a problem with that can take it up with God. If a faction wants to declare black is white and white is black then they are free to found their new denomination of ‘black is white and white is black’ where all like-minded types can join together in harmony.

  2. Jody says:

    The church and SSM are not in a contiguous relationship. They never will be. Those promulgating the idea of SSM long ago discarded any notions of Christianity and they want everybody else to do the same. The irony is that the destruction may occur from inside the Catholic faith anyway; surely a desirable outcome for people who only believe in the deep state.

  3. Doubting Thomas says:

    I departed the Catholic Church with scant regret more than 50 years ago but not, I must confess, without the occasional backward glance. What amazes me is the apparent lack of clear moral leadership on the SSM issue from this Pope.

    • Jody says:

      I can live with the knowledge that this Pope is a useful idiot and that the former one was a man of great intellectual heft. No wonder he ‘retired’!! Those surrounding him were pygmies. But the older I get the more I appreciate the ritual and community associated with the Catholic Church and that was never more apparent to me than my time in Vienna and this: music by Michael Haydn and celebrated by Cardinal Kristoff Schönborn of Vienna, and a cast of thousands: it moved me to tears!! Be careful what you discard.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfSju3dPZ5c