“The True Meaning of Marriage”: Victorian Catholic Bishops

I am not completely sure why the “Pastoral Letter on the True Meaning of Marriage” released this morning comes “from the Catholic Bishops of Victoria” and not the entire Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, but three cheers for Archbishop Hart and the other bishops of the Province for taking the initiative. What is especially significant – because it says everything about how the Catholic Church understands Church/State relationships – is that the letter is addressed (in the style of the apostolic letters) “Dear Brothers and Sisters”. In other words, for the Catholic community, rather than (for eg.) to all Victorians or to the Federal Government. It is a teaching document, intended to teach the Catholic faithful.

Bishop Prowse has been the public spokesman for the bishops who signed the letter, and has apparently done dozens of interviews today in relation to the letter. One journalist asked him something along the lines of: “But surely there are many Catholics who support the change in the law to allow same-sex marriage?” His reply was that this is precisely why the letter was written – to begin a process of discussion and catechisation within the Catholic community about the “true meaning of marriage”. The letter says:

Catholics, as responsible citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia, have a duty to remind their political representatives that much is at stake for the common good in this debate. We urge you to exercise that right and make direct representation to your Members of Parliament.

So the letter is not a case of the Church heirarchy telling to the Australian Government or society what they should do. That isn’t the role of the Church. The role of the Church is to form their members in the Catholic faith, and the role of the members of the Church – who are simultaneously also citizens of our democratic state – is to participate directly in the processes which have been established to determine what the law of the land should be. That is exactly right.

Also exactly right is the position taken by the Pastoral Letter. It does not make this into an issue of opposition to homosexuality. The case could be argued like that, but probably not helpfully. Quite apart from the question of the morality of sexual acts between persons of the same sex, the fundamental issue here is the meaning of marriage. Note, not the “definition” of marriage. Marriage is not something which can be, strictly speaking, defined, as if the definition forms the reality. Rather, the reality exists – more than that, it “subsists”, which means that it exists in actuality, not just in potentiality. When we formulate a statement of what marriage is, we are not “defining” marriage, as if marriage derives from our definition of it. We are, rather, describing marriage, that is, speaking about the properties which pertain to the universal institution which IS “marriage”. Hence the letter is not titled “On the True Definition of Marriage” but rather “On the True Meaning of Marriage”.

Hence the letter is not about the morality of homosexual acts. Catholics need to inform themselves (and their consciences) about this, but this isn’t the focus of the Pastoral Letter. The letter itself states that “We are all blessed by God with the gift of sexuality” and that

God loves human beings very much. He especially loves those who are wounded and suffering. God loves each of us so much despite the fact that we are all sinners, make mistakes and often do not live up to our responsibilities… [The Church’s opposition to the proposal to redefine marriage] in no way implies that the Church accepts discrimination against other’s human rights. Nor does it mean we fail to understand the complex nature of human sexual identity and desire.

No, the issue here is about the proposal to legally redefine what marriage means in the Commonwealth of Australia. The bishops wish to inform Catholics why such a redefinition would be “a grave mistake” (that is using the word “grave” in the same sense in which we would use it to speak of “grave” sin) in other words, fundamentally wrong.

A grave mistake will be made if such legislation is enacted. The Government cannot redefine the natural institution of marriage, a union between a man and a woman. The Government can regulate marriage, but this natural institution existed long before there were any governments. It cannot be changed at will. The argument that same sex marriage supports marriage is wrong. The natural institution will not only be changed, it will be re-defined absolutely. It will become something different. Such a re-definition will undermine rather than support marriage.

In order to illustrate how a “redefinition of marriage” would undermine ALL marriages, let me propose a hypothetical change to the meaning of marriage which has nothing to do with the sex of the marriage partners.

The Marriage Act (1961, ammended 2004) says that:

Marriage means [Nb. “means” not “is defined as” – the Act currently recognises the “meaning” of marriage] the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. Certain unions are not marriages. A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.

Now imagine that a change to the law were proposed which would remove the two words “for life” from this statement of meaning. Suppose that under this change, it would be possible for couples at the time of their wedding chose either to enter into a union which was “for life” or, on the other hand, to choose to stipulate a “end-by date” for the union into which they are voluntarily entering. If marriage was thus to be redefined in such a way as to allow for temporary “marriages” alongside an option for a life-long relationship, would the institution called “marriage” still be “true marriage”? The answer of the Church would be “No.” An institution called “Marriage” which included even an option for a temporary union would no longer be “true marriage”, even if that option were not chosen by the couple getting married.

Were such a change to the Act be proposed – a change which has nothing to do with the sex of the two people entering this relationship (ie. nothing to do with the morality of same-sex sexual relations) – the Church would be just as vehement in her opposition as she is to the current proposal, because it would “redefine absolutely” the “natural institution” of marriage. If any element of the current meaning of marriage in Australian law were to become optional, then the entire meaning of all legal marriages performed in Australia would be changed.

I commend the Pastoral Letter to you all to read. You might like to visit this page on our Archdiocesan website, which has a video by Bishop Prowse explaining the reason for the letter, the link to download the letter, the link to the Australian Government’s online-survey on the matter, and the link to the Marriage, Life and Family Office’s “how to vote” card about the survey.

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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2 Responses to “The True Meaning of Marriage”: Victorian Catholic Bishops

  1. Shan says:

    When I heard that the bishops had finally written a letter on this, I rolled my eyes and sighed. Too late, pointy hatted ones, far too late.
    This has been an issue discussed in the public forum for the past few years, and now – after private members bills have already been introduced – the bishops decide to address the matter. The horse hasn’t simply bolted, its been out to stud many, many times; closing the gate now is an empty gesture.
    The massive disconnect between the timing of the issue and the timing of the bishops’ response to the issue is important, for it underlines the fact that in not addressing the issue sooner they have given tacit concession to the arguments made by those for gay marriage that the issue is one of equality.
    Unsurprisingly my Facebook feed is populated by people who disagree with the bishops, even though they are attendant Catholics. Having had bishops who have for years ignored their responsibilities in caring for and teaching their flock, they rightly ignore their long-absent fathers now.

    Too little, too late.

  2. Marcel says:

    I welcomed the Bishops’ pastoral.

    However, one thing that always irks me about the new Catechism is the reference to the Church opposing ‘unjust discrimination’ against homosexuals. What is the point of this statement? The Church opposes unjust discrimination against anyone. However, to mention injustice with particular reference to that disordered orientation, is to concede 90% of the argument. Even in the Bishops’ pastoral letter there is a pre-emptive defensiveness against the charge that the Church is discriminatory. It is perfectly acceptable to be ‘discriminating’ regarding crimes against nature and we should not adopt the rights and discrimination language of our opponents in didactic materials like the Catechism.

    Given the recent events in Vienna, I think we can see who was responsible for that little time bomb being inserted in the Catechism (i.e. its main editor)…

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