Encouraging Reactions to the Pastoral Letter: Don't Mess With Marriage

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
26 Jun 2015

Across all cultures and all centuries traditional marriage has been bedrock of society

Don't Mess with Marriage
the 16-page pastoral booklet issued by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and distributed in the Archdiocese of Sydney to parishes, staff and parents of children at Catholic schools has received significant attention within the media.

"Unfortunately much of this attention has given the impression that the Pastoral Letter has been highly-criticised by parents and students, a point contested by Anthony Cleary, Director of Religious Education and Evangelisation at the Archdiocese of Sydney's Catholic Education Office (CEO). 

Of the 100,000 booklets distributed across the Archdiocese of Sydney in June Mr Cleary has received fewer than a dozen direct complaints, and a number of them were not related to the issue of marriage itself he reported.

"Some of the complaints were about side issues, rather than the Church's teachings on marriage or the same sex marriage debate," he says.

Don't Mess with Marriage explains the Church's formal teachings on the Sacrament of Marriage, and it reaffirms and supports the definitions contained within the Marriage Act 1961 and the Marriage Act Amendment of 2004 which defines marriage as "a union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others". It also details the implications of changing this law to permit same sex couples to marry.

Anthony Cleary, Director of Religious Education and Evangelisation

Australia's bishops decided to issue the booklet as the debate on same sex "marriage" gained momentum earlier this year. At the end of April, Acting Labor Leader, Tanya Plibersek led a push to secure a binding vote in favour of same sex marriage at the Party's conference in July.

This was followed less than three weeks later by Ireland becoming the first nation worldwide to hold a referendum on the issue. This resulted in favour of legalising marriage between same sex couples, and is expected to become law across Ireland from April 2016.

Then in early June, Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten who had refused to back his Deputy's call to make a binding vote on same sex marriage part of the Labor Party's platform, introduced a Bill to change Australia's Marriage Act so that the words "a union between a man and a woman" be replaced by "a union between two people."

The Government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to debate the Bill but conceded that a conscience vote on marriage between same sex couples could be argued in the Party Room by Liberal MPs later in the year.

The Bishops' booklet, Don't Mess with Marriage, had been carefully planned, written and designed over a period of weeks and months, but its release coincided with Bill Shorten's tabling of the "Marriage Equality Act", which gave significant attention to the Pastoral Letter.

"It was in this climate of robust debate that the Pastoral Letter received significant scrutiny," Anthony Cleary says, adding that many people seem to prefer the Catholic Church remain silent on the issue and be sidelined.

ACT laws grant same sex civil unions to begin life together with legally binding ceremony similar to those celebrated by married couples

"The Church's contribution to informing the public debate is crucial, however, because at the moment this side of the argument is not being adequately covered either by social or the mainstream media," he says.

Critics of Don't Mess with Marriage have simply taken a paragraph or line from the booklet out of context to make a provocative headline or chosen to run interviews with advocates of same sex marriage who accused the booklet of being "discriminatory" and full of "anti gay propaganda."

"Although only small, the negative response by the media to "Don't Mess with Marriage' nevertheless needs to be addressed. They have exaggerated negative responses to the Pastoral Letter and failed to report the positive responses," Anthony Cleary says. "Some critics have even questioned the right of the Catholic Church to distribute the Letter in Catholic schools. Such reactions are astonishing. While we are respectful of the opinion and views of others, the Catholic context of our schools means that all social, moral and ethical issues are presented from a Catholic perspective, and in accord with Catholic teachings."

He points out that this should come as no surprise to anyone as most organisations, institutions and businesses across a variety of sectors and corporations are underpinned by a particular ethos or set of values and the material disseminated and promoted would reflect this.

As for charges of discrimination, particularly those from the well-funded and media savvy organisation, Marriage Equality which is led by Rodney Croome, controversial Tasmanian academic and gay rights activist, Anthony Cleary makes it clear that there can be no "discrimination" when what is being supported is the current Australian law on marriage.

"To claim Don't Mess with Marriage is discriminatory is incorrect," he says firmly. "To disagree with another person's view does not mean that you are discriminating against them. In this instance, particular lobby groups label people as prejudiced simply because they agree with the current definition of marriage in Australia's Marriage Act, and oppose the proposition of legalising marriage between same sex couples. The Pastoral Letter reflects the Church's teachings, which are in accord with Australia's Marriage Act."

The campaign in Ireland to legalise same sex marriage

Anthony Cleary also makes the point that the Pastoral Letter speaks out strongly against people who discriminate against others.

"We all know and love people with same-sex attraction. They are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours. They need love and support like anyone else," Australia's Catholic Bishops write in Don't Mess With Marriage.

Anthony Cleary says that for people of faith, marriage is not simply a label that can be attached and transferred to different types of relationships as the fashion of the day dictates.

He points out that marriage for Catholics is not only an emotional union, but a total commitment of body and spirit. The Church also believes that God is the author of marriage and that the matrimonial covenant between baptised persons is holy and has the status of a sacrament.

Taking issue with advocates of same sex marriage such as Rodney Croome who accuse the Church of only telling one side of the story, Anthony Cleary argues that if these advocates were serious about presenting both sides of this issue, they would be disseminating the Bishops' Pastoral Letter.

Marriage is a vocation and needs prayer and God's help when making this important decision

Although the most well-known group advocating same sex marriage, the Marriage Equality organisation does not represent all same sex attraction, bi sexual or transgender men and women across Australia.

"I am concerned that some organizations who are active proponents of the same sex marriage debate may be creating the impression that they speak for all of those attracted to the same sex, and that Australia's entire gay and lesbian community are championing the cause of same sex marriage," Anthony Cleary says. "Such an impression is inaccurate as well as surprising, especially when some of the gay and lesbian community have spoken out against same sex marriage."

Above all, he is concerned that despite the plethora of private members Bills over the past 15 years in state, territory and Federal Parliaments, all of which have been voted down, that the general public have become so worn down by the constant headlines and debates over the issue that some are now beginning to regard changes to the Australian Marriage Act as "inevitable."

"Among all the world's nations, only 19 of these have legalised same sex marriage. Many have in fact rejected these moves in recent months, including most recently - Austria. We now await the imminent decision of the US Supreme Court," he says.

But even if the US Supreme Court hands down a judgment next week to legalise same sex marriage in every one of America's 50 states, this does not mean Australia will inevitably follow suit.

"While we share great historical ties and the US is a close ally, we have very different laws and different Constitutions. This is borne out in our different approaches to gun control and the death penalty," he says.

Don't Mess With Marriage the Catholic Bishops 16 page pastoral letter on marriage can be downloaded free in a PDF format

The best advice, however, is for people wanting to engage in the debate over changes to the Marriage Act, and to better engage in discussions in and outside the Church, he urges us all to read: Don't Mess with Marriage.

"The Pastoral Letter not only explores and explains Catholic teaching on the meaning of marriage, but also details the implications of redefining marriage. Furthermore, this well-crafted letter will help people in their critical thinking and moral reasoning, especially on this issue."

"Freedom of religion is a fundamental right but in many cases this freedom is increasingly at risk from states and nations where it is lawful for same sex couples to marry," he warns and commends the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for exercising their "freedom of speech" and contributing to and presenting the other side of this ongoing debate.

The Don't Mess with Marriage document is available at: