Australian Bishop’s “Case for Gay Marriage”

Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Bill Wright says he believes there’s a valid “common good” argument for the government to legalize same-sex “marriage”. In a September article for Aurora, the diocesan magazine, he drew a clear distinction between whether it “squares with Catholic teaching”, or “is a good practical rule for people living in this society at this time”.

Bishop Wright makes clear that the Catholic church cannot recognise same-sex unions as marriage “except  in the limited sense of a marriage according to Australian law”. But, he continues, that is a distinction that the Australian church already accepts, in other situations.

But this is true of many marriages, notably the re-marriages of divorced persons, marriages on a ‘for better or for as long as we’re happy’ basis, de facto marriages and marriages of couples with no intention of having children. The church doesn’t regard these as valid marriages, but we make no bones about the state giving them civil legal status. The question about any proposed law is not whether it squares with church teaching or a moral ideal, but whether it is a good practical rule for people living in this society at this time. Such a ‘common good’ argument can be made that, in our pluralist society, it does more for community peace and harmony for gay couples to have a place in the recognised structures than for them to be excluded.

This distinction between the ideal promoted in church teaching, and adapting for the common good, to the reality of a de facto situation is an important one. It is similar to, but more subtle than, the distinction drawn by Bishop Long between the church sacrament of matrimony and secular marriage in civil law.

Bishop Wright’s note that the church is already able to adapt to other forms of secular marriage that do not conform with church teaching, is also welcome. Too often, those critical of LGBT Catholics for allegedly contravening church teaching, apply a double standard in which other Catholics not in conformity with sexual or other doctrines are simply ignored, or excused on the ground of conscience.

His reference to anchoring Catholic responses to the marriage equality plebiscite in the reality of people people “living in this society at this time” also fits in well with Pope Francis’ insistence on squaring pastoral practice with the needs of the people. The newly announced upgrade of the Pope John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family to the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Science specifically broadens its academic scope to include insights from the practical study of  the social sciences. Bishop Wright’s article is precisely in line with this spirit.

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