“Considerations” for Fr Frank Brennan

HT to Kate for alerting me to this one.

Fr Frank Brennan has a piece in the current issue of Eureka Street in defence of the legal recognition of same-sex unions. He introduces his piece thus:

I remain of the view that we should [a] not extend the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions; that we should [b] legislate to recognise same-sex unions; and that we should [c] leave questions about the legal availability of new technologies for the creation of children by same-sex couples for determination at a later date.

A tick on [a], but a big X on [b] and [c], Fr B. Your positions on [b] and [c] have some merit to it from the point of view of secular politics. It has no merit from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, and it is inappropriate for a Catholic priest to write in this way.

I know that the Jesuits are free of the oversight of local bishops – they are, in fact, directly answerable to their Superior General, a priest, who is directly answerable to the Pope – but Fr Brennan indicates in his article that he is aware of the June 3rd 2003 CDF document addressed to all the bishops of the world to

be used by Bishops in preparing more specific interventions, appropriate to the different situations throughout the world, aimed at protecting and promoting the dignity of marriage, the foundation of the family, and the stability of society, of which this institution is a constitutive element.

He attributes this document to Cardinal Ratzinger, who was indeed the head of the CDF at the time and a co-signatory of the document, but it was issued with the full authority of Pope John Paul II. It remains in force today.

In this document, it is stated (with my emphasis) that

5. Faced with the fact of homosexual unions, civil authorities adopt different positions. At times they [a] simply tolerate the phenomenon; at other times [b] they advocate legal recognition of such unions, under the pretext of avoiding, with regard to certain rights, discrimination against persons who live with someone of the same sex. In other cases, [c] they favour giving homosexual unions legal equivalence to marriage properly so-called, along with the legal possibility of adopting children.

Note at this point that Fr Brennan’s position is [b] in the above quotation. The documentation goes on to explain:

Where the government’s policy is de facto tolerance and there is no explicit legal recognition of homosexual unions, it is necessary to distinguish carefully the various aspects of the problem. Moral conscience requires that, in every occasion, Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. Therefore, discreet and prudent actions can be effective; these might involve: unmasking the way in which such tolerance might be exploited or used in the service of ideology; stating clearly the immoral nature of these unions; reminding the government of the need to contain the phenomenon within certain limits so as to safeguard public morality and, above all, to avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon. Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.

Fr Brennan should take note of this document, even if he is not under the authority of any bishop other the Bishop of Rome. Nevertheless, even under the authority of said Bishop, we should ask whether it is right and prudent for him to write as follows:

Though homosexual acts committed by a heterosexual person might be judged immoral, one cannot credibly cast judgment on all such acts committed by a homosexual person without first taking into account the personal and relational context of the sexual act.
There are homosexual persons who enter into loving, faithful and committed relationships. These persons should [a] be able to live in society free from discrimination, without state interference and with state support and approval. They should [b] enjoy the same state protection as de facto couples enjoy under existing state and territory laws.

I agree with him on [a]. That is in accord with the CDF document’s counsel of prudence in this matter. However, he is out of line on [b]. The CDF document argues from “the order of right reason” that

Laws in favour of homosexual unions are contrary to right reason because they confer legal guarantees, analogous to those granted to marriage, to unions between persons of the same sex. Given the values at stake in this question, the State could not grant legal standing to such unions without failing in its duty to promote and defend marriage as an institution essential to the common good.

Fr Brennan states that “Some Catholics agree completely with this teaching. Others find it problematic.” This is true. But that does not give him the right, as a priest of the Catholic Church sworn to obedience to the Holy Father, to promote this dissent.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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16 Responses to “Considerations” for Fr Frank Brennan

  1. catherine says:

    Hi David
    Now Frank Brennan wrote that “”They should [b] enjoy the same state protection as de facto couples enjoy under existing state and territory laws.”.

    Now the Catholic Church does not approve of couples living in defacto relationships so is it not inconsistent to object homosexuals enjoying the same state protection as defacto couples, when the Catholic Church is not worrying ( as far as I can gather about defacto relationships being given legal recognition).

    • Schütz says:

      Well, I am not quite sure of the analogy, Catherine. I think, on the one hand, the Catholic Church could be said to have concerns about the legal recognition of “de facto” relationships. On the other hand, the Church has, throughout its history, given some recognition to what were once called “common law marriages”, while still insisting that such marriages – at least between baptised Christians – should be properly solemnised by the blessing of the Church.

      I would need to look into this a bit more to be definite on the matter, but I think the Church accepts that “de facto” marriages – where the committment of the man and woman to one another is “for life” – are at least “marriages” of a sort, that is, they can be seen to fit into the definition of marriage as a “covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life” (Catechism 1601), even without an official public ceremony. Partly this recognition could be seen to be for the good of society if it establishes protection for the children of the partnership.

      Homosexual relationships are not of the same order in any way whatsoever, in part because there cannot be any offspring of such a relationship requiring protection, and so I don’t think your analogy follows.

  2. catherine says:

    ps I do agree with you on the point that Frank Brennan should not be promoting dissent when he has sworn to be obedient to the Pope, however as a lay person who unfortunately is a poor catholic I can’t see why gay and lesbians can’t have civil unions or be on some relationships register.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, as a lay person you answer to God for your own conscience, Catherine. As you say, my point is that Fr Brennan has certain sworn responsibilities in this regard.

      • jules says:

        David what can be done about this dilemma? Who is his direct superior? Rome rescinded Hans Kung’s authority to teach Catholic theology , not sure of his status now- but Fr Brennan should be stood down too.

        • Tony says:

          There’s the rub, isn’t it Jules?

          When the like of you and David insist you actually know a person like Fr Brennan is going against his ‘sworn possibilities’ you are left with a dilemma.

          When his superiors don’t pull him into line or the Bishops don’t publically rebuke him, there are really only two possible reasons.

          1. The Bishops and Religious superiors are all weak; not just some, but all.

          2. You are wrong. In other words, Fr Brennan is able to make the statements he makes because it’s part of his job (or for whatever reason).

          A possible third way, is that the you and David have a relationship with church law that is much more legalistic and narrow than the Bishops or Superiors.

          Either way, it’s a dilemma.

          • Schütz says:

            I am not in a “dilemma”, Tony. It’s none of my business whether anyone actually thinks it worth summoning the Church Police for this one (I refer, of course, to the very witty Monty Python sketch on this theme). I was simply pointing out that there was a disconnect between the CDF “Considerations” and Fr Brennan’s published position, lest anyone assume that the position held by Fr Brennan is one that is in any sense congrous with that great Jesuit motto “Sentire Cum Ecclesia”. Having pointed out this discrepancy, I lay down my pen. Er… metaphorically speaking.

            • Tony says:

              The notion of a ‘dilemma’ is Jules’, David, and I think it follows from what you are saying.

              I think public statements about a prominent priest in terms of ‘promoting dissent’ and ‘broken promises’ are a little more serious than pointing out ‘disconnects’.

              I know that responsibility and balance in the media is one of your most consistent themes. In that spirit, did you contact Fr Brennan and seek his side of the story?

            • Schütz says:

              Nope. His article is unambiguous, and he states his awareness of the CDF statement. He just as clearly states that he disagrees with it. What’s to discuss? My main concern is that the Catholic faithful may be misled into thinking that this express opinion of a well respected priest is in line with Catholic teaching. It isn’t. Just thought that needed to be said.

            • Gareth says:

              did you contact Fr Brennan and seek his side of the story?

              That is a pretty pithy response – imagine if someone responded to some of your frustrations and said ‘well, why don’t you just ring the Pope or Caridnal and get their side of the story’.

  3. Terra says:

    Thanks for picking up this one and running with it David, I just couldn’t bring myself to do so!

    I would note that while Fr Brennan may not be directly subject to a bishop, his role as a professor of a University claiming the title of catholic certainly is. Canons 809 and 810 give bishops’ conferences and dioceean bishops a supervisory role in ensuring that what is taught and researched is done so in the light of Catholic doctrine, and there is a power to remove teachers.

    As you say David, what he has to say goes clearly against the teaching of the Church. Given that the original item has been widely circulated, and even retweeted via the ABC Ethics and Religion site (hmm, what a surprise!) it would be nice to see someone officially speaking out.

    I do agree however on the point of consistency – while same sex unions are clearly objectively worse than de facto relationships (since at least in the latter there is a prospect of being open to life), both are clearly seriously sinful. I do wonder if we lost the battle to protect marriage way back when the Church didn’t fight the battle over recognition of de facto relationships…

    Meanwhile I plan to start a new movement demanding legal recognition of my single state since it is clearly discriminatory that the state won’t give me a nice ceremony and certificate….

  4. Alexander says:

    Regarding Fr Brennan’s (1 b), I am not aware of a case where permitting a registered relationship stops the perception of discrimination against gay people, and so demand for gay marriage. Take a look at England for instance. So advocacy for gay civil unions does nothing to quell demand for gay marriage, but it does everything to concede the idea that gay and straight couples deserve the same rights to marriage. It makes it look like an apartheit “separate but equal” joke.

    But also David, I don’t think a defacto relationship is like a common law marriage. In a defacto relationship, the relationship is de jure terminated simply by separating; there’s no part of it that pretends to be permanent. In a common law marriage, if you meet the conditions and become married without formal process, you remain married even if you separate (i.e. you need a divorce).

    Also, our culture strongly distinguishes between married and unmarried defacto partners. For instance, the words “spouse, husband, wife” are only used of married couples, but “partner, boyfriend, girlfriend” of defacto couples. Use of this different sort of language seems to be an explicit denial of intent to marry.

    So although it’s possible that some defacto partners are in a “common law marriage” socially and ecclesiastically, the vast majority can’t possibly be.

  5. John Nolan says:

    In English law there is no such thing as a common law spouse, nor has there been for a very long time. The term is only used by insurance companies, for reasons I have never been able to fathom.

  6. John Nolan says:

    The Jesuits always had a reputation for casuistry, but they were admired for their intellectual rigour. The animadversions of Brennan and his ilk go a long way to explain why the Society is now regarded in many quarters as a joke.

  7. Tony says:

    Again, the tone of you post concerns me, David.

    First, and by way of a disclaimer, I’m not defending Fr Brennan or his views.

    BUT, Fr Brennan has been a prominent priest in Australia for many decades. In short he has a big profile.

    There’s really no danger of his opinions sneaking under the radar of the Bishops or his superiors.

    Secondly, he’s a distinguished lawyer and, now, a Professor of Law in the Public Policy Institute, at the Australian Catholic University.

    On that basis, I’d say the chances of him knowing what he can say and can’t say are, not to put too finer point on it, much better than yours.

    With this background in mind, would it not have been more reasonable (let’s not even mention charitable!) to pose your concerns as questions rather than statements of facts?

    • Gareth says:

      Who cares what his worldy credentials are?

      He is a Catholic priests first and foremost who should be treated as such.

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