Australian Catholics for Equality
Benjamin Oh calls for a change in the way LGBTIQ Catholics are valued and spoken of by the official church documents because the church is emptying of gay Catholics as they experience the church they love as homophobic. Marriage Equality being accepted by most Catholics in recent polls becomes the backdrop for this analysis. Ben is an educator on human rights, sexuality and cross-cultural development. He is on the advisory board of Australian Catholics for Equality:australiancatholicsforequality.org
It is no secret that Australian Catholics have been leaving the pews in droves. This exit has been going on for some years, and among those leaving there have been countless people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and intersex (LGBTI). Many of their families and friends have left the pews with them. Did they leave because they lost their faith, or because they could no longer tolerate religiously sanctioned homophobia, misogyny, and the abuse of power?
Most Australian Catholics share a deep commitment to the Jesus of the Gospel, who was radically inclusive and who constantly stood on the side of the marginalised and excluded. This faith often sustains them, even when the leaders of their church act and speak in ways that condemn and judge instead of welcoming and healing. Some Catholics fight for reform from within and many have found new hope in the ministry of Pope Francis. However, for many Australian Catholics, and especially those who are LGBTI, staying in the church is a constant struggle, and at times we ask “Is it really worth it?”
As the movement for Marriage Equality gathers momentum, Catholic bishops around Australia risk driving away even more of Christ’s flock. Some of the arguments these men put forward against marriage equality range from the bizarre and illogical to the outright ignorant and bigoted. Recent official documents put out by Australia’s Conference of Catholic Bishops rely on repeating old and defective arguments, flawed research, poor theology, a seemingly deliberate ignorance of history, and a blatant disregard for social research and modern psychology. Plenty of politicians are equally guilty of offensive and ignorant arguments in this sphere, of course, but the pronouncements from religious leaders pack a particular punch. Words can, and do, wound and kill.
Last night a friend rang me, in tears. Hurting and alone, he hadn’t slept for two nights. He told me that at a family dinner, a couple of days earlier, he had given a quick peck on the cheek to his long-term same-sex partner. A family member berated him afterwards, asserting that it was ungodly and offensive to show such affection to his partner in the presence of that person’s children. Their love should be kept silent and invisible. On those terms, and those alone, would they be welcomed.
Scenes like this are all too familiar to LGBTI Catholics. The silence and invisibility demanded at that family dinner table mirror quite precisely the silence demanded of us in the schools, churches, welfare agencies, hospitals and parishes that the Catholic Bishops control. Speak up too loudly, show your love too proudly, and you are not welcome.
Fortunately, and by the Grace of God, many ordinary Catholics, including the families of LGBTI people, seem to have read a different gospel form the one proclaimed in homophobic church documents. They have learnt that LGBTI people are not “issues” or “moral problems”, but people, ordinary people who seek to give and receive love, just like everyone else. They recognise the old religious scripts when they surface in the endless debates about whether LGBTI people are truly equal or not, and they choose their loved ones every time. There are advocates for us among Australian Catholics, and it is time their voices were heard!
It remains tragically true that many officially “Catholic” spaces, institutions and leaders in our Australian Catholic community remain infected by homophobia. Young LGBTI people find it agonisingly hard to find support, understanding and welcome in the faith community that they love – the very community that preaches to them about their inherent dignity, about the primacy of conscience and about the need for justice, compassion and respect. Instead of the bread of welcome, they find the hard cold stones of rejection when they seek to discuss their variant sexual orientation or gender identity.
We have recently heard a lot from various Catholic bishops and Catholic public figures who insist that they cannot be branded as homophobic simply because they do not support marriage equality. They insist that they love and respect ‘same-sex attracted’ people. They tell us that it pains them to be called homophobic, and that we should not be “bullies” and treat them so “cruelly”. All this protesting would be easier to stomach if these same leaders were working tirelessly to actively combat homophobic abuse and violence in schools, parishes and other church-run institutions, or if they did not insist on the right to fire any employee who comes out as gay.
Have we seen the Australian Catholic Bishops standing up for the rights of LGBTI citizens? Have they expressed their outrage at the persecution and execution of LGBTI people in other countries? Have they called on the Pope to discipline bishops who make ignorant and inflammatory statements about LGBTI people, and so inflame homophobia – often tacitly encouraging violence and social rejection? Have they set in place programs and policies to support young LGBTI people in Catholic schools, and do they offer enthusiastic and public support to Catholic educators who stand up for these students? Have they expressed public concern for the high rates of depression and suicide among young LGBTI people, and if so, are they doing anything practical to help? Numerous studies show that these rates are significantly higher among youth from religious homes. Such youth are also vastly overly represented among the young homeless population. Where is the bishops’ duty of care?
‘Don’t Mess with Marriage’ is the first official document from the Australian Catholic bishops’ conference that relates to LGBTI people. It speaks about the lives of LGBTI Catholics. It does not speak to them or with them, nor does it invite an honest conversation or an openhearted dialogue. In assessing this document, noted Catholic historian, author and community elder, Dr Paul Collins, said: “the document contains misinformation, lacks a sophisticated theological base and fails to demonstrate genuine understanding, respect, compassion and sensitivity to the lives and the lived experiences of LGBTI Catholics and their families”.
This document borrows the ‘I am not a racist, but…’ approach. It is as un-pastoral as it gets.
As some of us LGBT Catholics read ‘Don’t Mess with Marriage’, we hear Father Ted Kennedy’s critique: “How else can we explain the topsy-turvy nature of a church which claims to cherish the Gospel, but allows sentiments spectacularly absent in the Gospel to delineate its public legal attitude to gay people in the Church?” (Who Is Worthy, 2000)
Catholics need to hear words and see actions from the Australian Catholic Bishops that celebrate the lives, the gifts and the dignity of LGBTI peoples, their families and friends. It is no secret that LGBTI people have suffered much cruelty, injustice and unkindness perpetrated by the same Christians who proclaim that God is love. Instead of entering into a dialogue of understanding, the Catholic hierarchy in Australia seems ready to continue this shameful history, aligning itself with the ideas, arguments, rhetoric and pseudo-theology of right-wing, fundamentalist groups who promote discrimination and homophobia in the name of God.
Thankfully, it seems most lay Catholics in Australia are independently minded. Most Catholics here share views similar to their counterparts in countries such as Catholic Ireland. Like Irish Catholics, most Australian Catholics would vote according to the just, loving, inclusive spirit of the gospel, rather than follow the harsh guidance offered by their official religious leaders. Recent polls in Australia, as in many other countries, have seen Catholics taking a stand against homophobia and for love and inclusion. The clear majority of Australian Catholics support civil marriage equality, and nothing the bishops say will change that. These Catholics have heard the gospel, learned the message of love, and accepted the call to support their LGBTI sisters and brothers. The momentum is unstoppable. The booklet on ‘Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach’ (2011) by Francis DeBenardo offers some hope and guidance for Australian Catholics who wish to stand alongside their fellow LGBTI citizens.
Most Australian Catholics are listening to their LGBTI family members and friends. Many have spoken up publicly in support of Marriage Equality precisely because of their commitment to their Catholic faith. A year ago, 67% of Australian Catholics strongly supported marriage equality according to Crosby/Textor (July 2014). Catholic Christians are now publicly saying to their elected members that the time for full marriage equality has come. The authentic hallmark of our Catholic Christian community is open-hearted welcome, inclusion, care, love, generosity, and an irrepressible passion for justice. Narrow-mindedness, exclusion, discrimination and indifference are not Christian, not Catholic and not Australian. Achieving civil Marriage Equality won’t change every bigoted heart, convince every narrow mind, or convert every homophobic person - but it is one good starting point. Indeed, it is an essential starting point, and it is plain, simple, justice.
In supporting Marriage Equality one of Australia’s most prominent Catholics, Dr Paul Collins, puts it succinctly: “I support Marriage Equality. The Catholic social justice tradition is rooted in a sense of equity, in the right to share in all of the goods of the world, not just material goods. And what is more ‘good’ than love? Everyone has a right to share in love, God’s love and human love, which mirrors that of God. This includes everyone and transcends sexual orientation and gender identity. The vast majority of mature, adult Catholics understand this and that is why we support marriage equality”.
As our country and our church move forward into the 21st century, most of us are heeding that precious Catholic teaching on the dignity of every person and the ‘primacy of conscience’. As that wonderfully Catholic LGBTI affirming former NSW premier Kristina Keneally puts it: “I act in good conscience — as a Catholic, I can do nothing else.”