In his delightfully sensitive, "view from the pews" way George Ripon offers us today a thought-provoking commentary exploring the difficult issue of gay relationships and the call for gay unions to be legalised under the Marriage Act in Australia. The issues have been causing much discussion in the media and in Australia's parliaments. George seeks to explore these divisive issues within a contemporary catholic spiritual context. Have you reached a view on these issues yet? Hopefully George's commentary, and the discussions he cites we've already been having on the Catholica Forum may assist you in navigating through this challenging moral territory.
The Move to Gay Marriage
The movement to legalise the relationship of same-sex couples and describe it as "Marriage" is well underway.
I say at the outset that I do not have a problem with gay couples formalising their commitment to each other in a process defined and supported by the law of the land, establishing rights and obligations to each other comparable with those enjoyed by married women and men.
My problem with the gay marriage movement is the use and meaning of the word "marriage". Some years ago The Marriage Act was amended by the Howard Government, supported by the Opposition to specifically relate to the union between a man and a woman. This followed the understanding of several thousand years that the term "marriage" applies to the heterosexual relationship. This also applies, in my view, to the term "wedding" where the commitment is made before witnesses and friends and often celebrated in a religious service in a church.
Before going further a word about relationships today, at this point, between men and women. Some do not marry at all, simply moving in together, many bringing up a family and remaining together for life. Others marry at a Registry Office where having stated their intentions and made their commitment their marriage is registered at law. Similar conditions apply where couples use a civil celebrant, appointed by law, to marry at a place of their choice often a park or a garden. Many still get married in a church where, subject to completion of the paperwork, the marriage is also valid at law: All church marriages and in the absence of agreed different wordings, civil services envisage a lifetime commitment "till death do us part", or "as long as you both shall live". Sadly at this time many commitments fail with a 40% plus separation rate where couples part. In view of this with so many marriages failing through lack of stability or permanence some may say, why make a fuss about keeping the traditional meaning? Why not just amend the Marriage Act to include same sex couples?
Should gay people be allowed to marry?
In proposing Gay Marriage, supporters point out that polls and surveys indicate that the majority of Australians are in favour. I suspect that if I armed myself with a clipboard, a name-tag and pencil and asked passers-by in the local shopping centre, "Should gay people be allowed to marry?" I would get a majority "Yes" response. This confirms the view that if you ask the right question you get the answer you want. Here the inference in the question is that gay people are not allowed to enter into a relationship comparable with heterosexual marriage. As I indicated above many heterosexual couples simply live together, bring up children and remain together for life. Likewise I suspect that many gay couples have lived together over the years enjoying their sexuality with no desire for parenthood. So now to get to my two concerns about the question posed above "Should gay people be allowed to marry?" My first question is, what do gay supporters mean by the term "marriage" and how should it be celebrated? My next question, who says gays are not allowed to marry?
Over the last thousands of years marriage has clearly referred to the relationship between men and women. Out of that union children are born and nurtured to form the next generation. Without being too physiological, having children follows the joy of the sexual encounter which in turn leads to the great responsibility over many years of bringing up the children. However expressed this cannot occur in a gay union where the downside of that union is, that of itself it cannot produce children. While there are "ways and means" of same sex couples getting children — which I will comment on shortly — I am sure that many gay couples are happy with their lives without children. It would be interesting to see statistically the percentage of gay couples desiring children as against an estimate of the total number of permanent gay partnerships. Maybe an item for the National Census sometime in the future.
In the matter of gay couples having children I see problems with all the available options. The simplest for a male couple would, by the consent of all the parties, involve one of the males having sex with a woman friend or a willing participant. Here, as married couples will confirm, not every encounter even for fertile couples will result in pregnancy, so perseverance may be required. However the child once born would be given to the male partners for adoption. Problems could arise if the child is born with serious defects or the natural mother having nurtured the child in the womb had difficulty giving it up to the gay couple. As we are dealing here with a male couple I must comment on the relationship between adults and children. Motherhood is the natural relationship between a woman and her baby. Having borne the child the maternal instinct is to breast (or bottle) feed it and attend to the other intimate needs. Here I must say that men can be very good fathers but not mothers in the accepted sense.
For female couples the above option would be easier. Subject to conception as above one of the partners would be the mother and with "two" mothers the baby would not be short of motherly love. The biological father might want to maintain an interest or contact with the child. A matter to be resolved between the parties. A second option for female couples would be invitro fertilization using sperm from a known or unidentified donor. The process can be complex with no guarantee of success on the first occasion. So for couples accepted for IVF. the process can be long and expensive. The next option is adoption. This can depend on the availability of children in the programme. Today with modern means of contraception and sadly, abortion, the numbers available for adoption are insufficient to meet the demands.
For adoption, as with IVF, gay couples will have to compete with married couples who despite all efforts have failed to conceive. This failure can be a cause of great distress especially to a woman desperate for a baby. So its understandable that preference will go to married couples. There is also reluctance with some church agencies to allow adoption by same-sex couples.
What is meant by "Gay Marriage"?
In view of the above, I make the point that same-sex unions are so different from heterosexual unions that the use of the term "Marriage" is inappropriate. Further to this I raise the question as to the meaning of "Gay Marriage". Do gay couples expect to approach a church minister and get consent for a wedding in church? A complete "No-no" in our Catholic Church. Some Anglican (Episcopalian) American and Canadian bishops have allowed gay marriage but they are the exception in a church divided on this and other sexual issues. So the inference that gay couples are not allowed to marry must relate to the civil law. Here as indicated above I would have no objection to a Civil Partnership Act being passed by the Federal Parliament. Meanwhile, gay couples are free to set up a home together, make wills favouring each other and enter into legally binding agreements regarding the ownership, control and disposal of property and other assets.
In recent times efforts by gay couples to adopt children have generated media attention. Comments like, "Denial of human rights" and "Discrimination against Gays" have featured in the discussions. Before dealing further with this aspect I would like to deal with a matter which in my view often receives little attention. This relates to the possible effects on the children brought up by gay couples. This can only be determined as the child matures and grows to adulthood and makes his or her own personal assessment on their upbringing.
The world we live in is not perfect but I must start with the ideal. That is that children should be brought up by caring parents, a father and a mother. A boy needs a Dad to kick a footy or play cricket in the back yard or do things in the "Shed". A girl needs a Mum for the girl things like dressing, grooming and maturing as a female. Also, of course a girl needs a father and a boy needs a mother. This is the ideal but not always possible due to death, serious health problems of a parent or other unavoidable circumstances, the saddest thing of all being separation, now a major problem, leaving many single parents bringing up children.
Getting back to the effect on children of same-sex parents, the school-yard can be a challenging and at times a cruel plac . How does the seven year old respond to a peer question, what's it like having two fathers or mothers? Or in the classroom when family matters come up for discussion? Through life individuals brought up by gay parents may face difficulties when questions of origin arise. As with all parents the assertion may come from off-spring, "I didn't ask to be born", often very hurtful.
With many individuals today, other than those born from heterosexual relationships, there is a growing demand to identify biological parents. On IVF this was featured in two recent items in The Age, one by Leslie Cannold, on 31st Jan: "Why trust outweighs knowledge" [LINK]. The other by Selma Milovanovic, (3 Feb.) "Dad, I never knew you" [LINK]. Both dealt with the growing demand from donor-conceived adults to identify the donor. Changes in the law in Victoria in 1997 give the recipients at age 18 the right to identify the donor and donors must agree accordingly prior to donation. I have not researched the position with those adopted or conceived under other arrangements but I suspect there are no laws preventing extensive enquiries.
While I started this article before Christmas our hectic holiday season allowed little time to work on it or indeed to keep up with the Forum. I did however read the post by Aussie_oi [28 Dec. "Anti Gay marriage message upsets Queenslanders" LINK] on the insensitive way it was handled at the Christmas Mass at Gympe. While I accept our Church's right to raise this matter I was surprised to see that the decision was made by the Parish Council. To his credit our parish priest dealt with the issue on Dec 12th. From carefully prepared notes he went through the aspects I have already raised here with care and sensitivity, there was no haranguing but he did ask people to sign the petition and to consider writing to our local Member. I must confess I have yet to do this.
In preparing this article I had the benefit of CathyT's post of 18 Jan ["I can explain, sort of" LINK]. She highlights the concern that many of us feel about the use of the term "Gay Marriage". While supporting the entitlement of gay couples to enjoy their sexuality its simply not the same. The responsibility of supporting children for up to 15-25 years does not apply to gay partners unless they make a separate decision to have children involving some of the complex procedures mentioned above. So to use the "One size fits all" concept to amend the Marriage Act to include same sex couples won't do. Different considerations apply and in view of these I would like to see a "Civil Partnership Act" passed by Parliament. This would identify the intentions of the parties and establish the process to legalise the union. The commitment would be for life with the Act clearly defining the rights and obligations as between the parties. Special provisions would protect the rights of any children involved in the relationship. Bearing in mind the frailties of human relations the Act would need to foresee that eventually some civil partnerships would end up in the divorce courts.
If proponents of "Gay Marriage" dropped their reference to marriage and supported the term civil partnerships I suspect there would be great support in the community and even for a conscience vote in the Parliament. At the moment both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader support the status quo. Here we must await a introduction of a new Bill or, more likely an Amendment to the Marriage Act. I stress that because two similar matters, heterosexual marriage and gay partnership are different it does not follow that one is wrong. However in my view the distinction should be clearly defined by law.
Can something be achieved in a non-discriminatory way?
In any discussion involving two opposing points of view there must be listening and respect on both sides. Terms like "the denial of human rights" and "discrimination" levelled at the supporters of traditional marriage are in my view untrue, unfair and incorrect. At law there has never been a right for gays to marry so a non-existent right cannot be denied. This could well change in the future. Likewise I believe that many supporters of the traditional concept of marriage would not object to legislation legalising the right to civil partnerships. So, where is the discrimination? Here, perhaps a more positive note. I agree with CathyT's hope for a form of a "covenant ceremony". I would see it as a "Blessing". Gay couples united by a lifetime civil and legal partnership should be entitled to seek a church blessing on their union if one of the partners is a Catholic with some involvement in church affairs. It could take place in the home or privately in church. It would be unwise to have it as a stand-alone public ceremony in church which could end up as a de facto wedding. On the other hand the couple could get their blessing after Sunday Mass. On the previous Sunday the proposed Blessing would be announced leaving parishioners free on the day to remain or leave as they chose. Sensitivity would be required by all involved. At this time I am flying a kite in the wind but I would hope that once gay partnerships are legalised our church would accord them the respect and dignity now given to married couples.
Having started this article before Christmas its time to conclude. The subject is not as easy as it might seem but it needs reviewing as it is due to be raised in Parliament in the not far distant future.
What are your thoughts on this commentary?