Daniel Hurst Political correspondent @danielhurstbne
Monday 15 June 2015 09.10 BST Last modified on Tuesday 16 June 2015 02.39 BST
Advocates slam ‘desperate’ letter from Catholic bishops warning children ‘same-sex friendships’ are very different from ‘real marriages’
A booklet warning that “same-sex friendships” are very different from “real marriages” has been distributed directly to school students around Australia as part of the Catholic church’s lobbying against changes to the Marriage Act.
The wide distribution of the pastoral letter from the Catholic bishops of Australia has angered supporters of same-sex marriage, who say they are shocked at the discriminatory message it sends to vulnerable young people who are coming to terms with their sexuality.
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The letter is part of a conservative pushback against what appears to be growing momentum for same-sex marriage to be legislated in Australia.
The latest Fairfax Ipsos poll, published on Monday, showed public support for changing the Marriage Act stood at 68%. The poll results coincided with the resumption of debate in the lower house on the marriage equality bill proposed by the Labor leader, Bill Shorten.
The Catholic pastoral letter, titled Don’t Mess With Marriage, was published online by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in late May, but since that time has been distributed directly to students in numerous schools.
It is understood Catholic schools in New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and South Australia are among those to have distributed the letter. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said it was left up to bishops in individual dioceses to decide how to distribute the letter.
The document urges people “of goodwill to redouble their support for the institution of marriage” and to make their views known to their parliamentary representatives.
The letter says the Catholic church “opposes all forms of unjust discrimination” but supporters of changing the Marriage Act “get things the wrong way around” by appealing to equality and non-discrimination.
“We must treat like cases alike and different cases differently,” it says. “Only women are admitted to women’s hospitals and only children to primary schools.”
The letter says it is “gravely unjust” to “legitimate the false assertion that there is nothing distinctive about a man and a woman, a father or a mother” and to “ignore the particular values that real marriage serves”.
The letter says the church’s traditional view of marriage is that it goes further than an emotional union and “involves a substantial bodily and spiritual union of a man and a woman” that is ordered “towards the generation and wellbeing of children”.
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“This is true even where one or both spouses are infertile: they still engage in exactly the same sort of marital acts as fertile couples, ie that naturally result in a child,” it says.
“On this traditional view what allows for this special kind of union between a man and a woman in marriage is precisely their difference and complementarity. Their physical, spiritual, psychological and sexual differences show they are meant for each other, their union makes them whole, and through their union ‘in one flesh’ they together beget children who are ‘flesh of their flesh’. They share the sameness of humanity but enjoy the difference of their masculinity and femininity, being husband and wife, paternity and maternity.
“Same-sex friendships are of a very different kind: to treat them as the same does a grave injustice to both kinds of friendship and ignores the particular values that real marriages serve.”
The letter argues messing with marriage “is also messing with kids” and “gravely unjust to them” – but adds that the church’s stance on marriage “is not to demean those other friendships or the individuals concerned”.
“We all know and love people with same-sex attraction. They are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours. They need love and support like anyone else. But pretending that their relationships are ‘marriages’ is not fair or just to them. As Christians we must be willing to present the truth about marriage, family and sexuality and to do so charitably and lovingly.”
Australian Marriage Equality, the group that is spearheading lobbying efforts in favour of changing the Marriage Act, described the booklet as a “desperate” measure that would alienate bishops further from the next generation of Catholics.
The group’s national director, Rodney Croome, said bishops’ decision to “preach to a captive audience of children says that they know they’ve lost the debate”.
“The fact that the bishops have asked for this material to be distributed to students shows how completely out of touch they are with the strong support for marriage equality amongst young people and also the vulnerability of young gay people and the children of same-sex couples in their schools to the prejudice and discriminatory attitudes in the material,” Croome said on Monday.
“This material devalues and degrades and discriminates against the relationships that young gay people in Catholic schools aspire to enter.
“A 15-year-old at a Catholic high school in Australia today wants to believe that they can find love, they can find an enduring relationship in their life. There are many people in society that tell them that that won’t happen. The law tells them that won’t happen and now they have their own school telling them that shouldn’t happen.”
While an increasing number of Coalition MPs and senators have been prepared to add their voices to the ‘yes’ column, conservative members of the government have sought to head off the change by warning Tony Abbott against allowing a free vote.
Rightwingers in the Liberal party have told the prime minister that abandoning the long-held party position that marriage is between a man and a woman would anger the party’s base, and that frontbenchers should quit their positions if they felt strongly enough about supporting a change.
The deputy Labor leader, Tanya Plibersek, who co-sponsored Shorten’s bill, told parliament on Monday it was time to “remove this last great inequality from same-sex couples”.
“In a few years’ time, the notion that two men who love each other, or two women who love each other, could be barred from the social and legal status that marriage confers, will seem as anachronistic as marriage laws which prevented Aboriginal Australians marrying whom they chose,” Plibersek said.
But the Liberal MP Philip Ruddock, a former attorney general, told parliament it was “extremely disappointing” that Shorten had pursued his bill in a political manner. He pointed to separate efforts, supported by several Liberal MPs, to work together on a cross-party bill co-signed by all sides of politics.
Ruddock also pointed out that at the same time as the Coalition was being urged to allow a free vote, senior Labor MPs including Plibersek were pushing for their own party to be bound to vote for same-sex marriage.
Plibersek told Sky News she still stood by her position of a binding “yes” vote for Labor, but would not say whether she would actively pursue the policy at the party’s national conference late in July.