While Australian politicians often cite religious views as a reason not to support marriage equality, new research from the Public Religion Research Institute in the United States has shown that most American Catholics support some form of legal same-sex relationship recognition.
Forty-three percent are in favour of marriage equality and a further 28 percent are in favour of civil unions, more than for any other Christian denomination.
However, the Catholic Church in Australia and the US firmly opposes allowing same-sex couples to marry, and uses this view to justify attempts to openly influence Australian politics.
For example, in the lead-up to the NSW state election, thousands of staff and students at the Australian Catholic University received “The Greens Agenda: A Message from Catholic Bishops in NSW”, information citing the Greens’ pro-marriage equality position as one of several reasons not to vote for them.
Speaking to the Star Observer, the spokesman for the Melbourne branch of gay Catholic group Acceptance, Bernie Huckle, said same-sex marriage was a focal point for an increasing gap between the attitudes of the Catholic Church and ‘ordinary’ Catholics.
“They are already in dissent with what the church hierarchy’s teachings are,” he said.
“They are very much disengaged from the church and they’ve got much more relevant views. I think that might be the reason why they would accept same-sex marriage.”
Huckle argued that hypocrisy within the church around issues of sexual abuse makes it easier for many Catholics to ignore some directives from the Vatican.
“[Catholics] think the church is one step behind what today’s society is about and, for that reason, they take an opposite view to the church,” he said.
ACU academic and Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan is not in favour of marriage equality but supports civil union legislation for same-sex relationships.
He told the Star Observer that Catholic teachings on marriage and homosexuality come from the Vatican’s official doctrine that sexual activity is to be procreative and take place within a marriage between a man and a woman, but that a difference between teachings from the Vatican and Catholic churchgoers is understandable.
“Obviously people in the pews are dealing with a variety of social situations, presumably including that they have gay and lesbian friends, they have gay and lesbian family members,” Brennan said.
He believes that the debate around same-sex marriage would force the Catholic community to think afresh about issues to do with sexuality, human relationships, law and marriage.
However, Brennan cautioned against characterising Catholics as a whole community in simplistic moral terms, and said Catholics hold a wide range of views on matters of same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
“Let’s be careful with the language, slipping into ‘the church’. The common people in the pews formulate views and have certain practices in their lives,” he said, adding that while the formal church hierarchy has had a consistent line on gay issues, it is not the only Catholic perspective.
“I think that there’s room for a variety of viewpoints within the Catholic tradition on that,” Brennan argued.
Huckle agrees that these different viewpoints within the Catholic community shouldn’t be interpreted simply as a split between the views of the church hierarchy and those of churchgoers.
“It’s not black and white, it’s far from it,” he said. “There are conservative and there are also progressive parts of the church which are for change.”
Huckle pointed to a recent Vatican move to reject the ‘user-friendly’ English translation of the Mass and move to a more literal translation of the original Latin as an example of divisions within the Catholic community.
“Some of the more progressive priests will choose to ignore these changes because they find they’re going back to the old Latin translation which is dead and gone,” he said.
Even Acceptance as an organisation has generally been met with support, or at least tolerance, from Australian Catholic institutions, and all branches of the group have been allowed to hold services in church.
“Here in Melbourne, providing we don’t advertise within the church for new members, the hierarchy leaves us alone,” Huckle said.
While more liberal priests and progressive groups such as Acceptance may be seen as forces for change within the Catholic Church, the debate around same-sex marriage may also be seen as a divisive issue.
“It will widen the gap between what the ordinary Joe Blow Catholic thinks and the hierarchy,” Huckle argued.
“It’s already wide enough as it is at the moment but this is going to make it even more so.”
Out of step?
By BENJAMIN RILEY