Pope Francis at World Youth Day in Krakow, in 2016
If legal challenges are surmounted, Australia will soon hold a postal plebiscite on the question, “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” As the time approaches, at least three prominent Australian Catholic institutions have broken ranks with the country’s bishops over same-sex marriage.
Back in 2015 the Catholic bishops issued a booklet defending marriage between one man and one woman called “Don’t Mess with Marriage”. It was a thoughtful, respectful summary of the Church’s traditional teaching. Distilling its arguments into a single sentence, it was that “Same-sex friendships are of a very different kind: to treat them as the same does a grave injustice to both kinds of friendship and ignores the particular values that real marriages serve.”
So there was not much ambiguity about where the leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia stood.
However, a leading social services provider, the Edmund Rice Centre, and the heads of the two best Catholic boys’ high schools in Sydney and Melbourne have dissented. They have all issued statements to support their stand.
The Edmund Rice Centre (named after Blessed Edmund Rice, a 19th Irishman who founded two religious orders) bluntly states that the only issue in the debate is “human rights and anti-discrimination”. It references United Nations documents but not a single Catholic document of any kind.
The statements from the schools were more Catholic in their reasoning.
Two open letters (here and here) from the Rector of St Ignatius College Riverview, Fr Ross Jones SJ, were bound to make headlines. It is one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the country. Its Old Boys include former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the current deputy Prime Minister, who both oppose same-sex marriage, and the Archbishop of Sydney, a Dominican, Anthony Fisher – plus a host of other luminaries.
Fr Jones’s reasoning was muddled and meandering. However, he made it clear that he was particularly unhappy with hurtful language in a 1986 document written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger which had described homosexual activity as a “moral disorder”. In the end he left the decision about whether to support SSM or not up to his readers. “It is a matter of conscience for the nation, as well as for its Catholics in particular.,” he wrote.
Xavier College in Melbourne is an equally prestigious school – the current leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, is an Old Boy. The Rector, Fr Chris Middleton SJ, was frank about his reluctance to support the No case: the horse has already bolted. “In my experience,” he said,” there is almost total unanimity amongst the young in favour of same-sex marriage, and arguments against it have almost no impact on them.”
For many Catholics, there must be a deep sadness in this admission of failure of schools to pass on Catholic values to the next generation. And although all three of these statements raise sticky theological issues, the bitter taste of failure suffices to explain the dissent.
What would Pope Francis tell them? Fr Jones became the 153 millionth person to rake up the Pope’s off-the-cuff response in a press conference: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
But that by no means reflects the Pope’s view on same-sex marriage. On the contrary, both in Buenos Aires and in Rome, he has strongly condemned it. Back in 2015, he told Filipinos that the redefinition of marriage was a form of “ideological colonisation” resulting from confusing presentations of sexuality and marriage which threaten to “disfigure God’s plan for Creation”. His latest big document, Amoris Laetitia, states unequivocally that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (no. 251).
But rather than scold them over heterodox opinions, the Pope would probably remind them of words from his exhilarating 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’. Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand.”
One of the most attractive themes of the Pope’s teaching is optimism. Christians have the secret of happiness and the key to truth – Jesus Christ. It is undeniable that the many young people have succumbed to a tidal wave of secularisation. But – so Catholics believe – the attractiveness of the Gospel message cannot fade. There should be no room for pessimism in advertising the beauty of the Christian vision of marriage. In fact, Francis becomes quite scathing at the thought of throwing in the towel:
Some people do not commit themselves to mission because they think that nothing will change and that it is useless to make the effort. They think: “Why should I deny myself my comforts and pleasures if I won’t see any significant result?” This attitude makes it impossible to be a missionary. It is only a malicious excuse for remaining caught up in comfort, laziness, vague dissatisfaction and empty selfishness.
Participation in a World Youth Day ought to be enough evidence to prove that young people can become enthusiastic about even the most demanding features of the Christian message – even its stand on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. They grasp that the Christian approach makes married life meaningful and loving, notwithstanding all the hardships that life dishes out — so much so that same-sex “marriage” looks like a cheap and anaemic imitation.
A few days ago in New South Wales, furious government officials discovered that students in a rural high school had been taught the wrong maths syllabus for the whole year. They have barely two months to cram for their HSC exam in November. If they fail, who will be blamed? Not the students. Is it too much of a stretch to read this as a parable? If vast swathes of students in Catholic schools fail to understand why same-sex marriage is going to hurt society and harm children, don’t blame them. Perhaps they have been studying the wrong syllabus.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.