Churches ‘need to clarify current definition of marriage’

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US theologian William Cavanaugh responds to a question at Notre Dame’s QndA event on 20 July, pictured with fellow panellists Melinda Tankard Reist (right), Maha Abdo, Anglican Bishop Michael Stead and Scott Stephens. Photo: Patrick J Lee
US theologian William Cavanaugh responds to a question at Notre Dame’s QndA event on 20 July, pictured with fellow panellists Melinda Tankard Reist (right), Maha Abdo, Anglican Bishop Michael Stead and Scott Stephens. Photo: Patrick J Lee

The Church needs to get to grips with what it means by ‘marriage’ in the lead-up to any parliamentary vote or plebiscite on gay marriage, one of the world’s leading Catholic theologians told the audience at Notre Dame’s QndA event on 20 July.

US theologian William Cavanaugh and fellow panellists ABC religion and ethics editor Scott Stephens and Sydney Anglican Bishop Michael Stead gave thoughtful and, in one instance, pained answers to the question of what religions could contribute to the marriage debate.

Mr Cavanaugh said that there ought to “be more soul searching” among the churches about the meaning of marriage, saying that the real devastation set in decades ago when a traditional understanding was exchanged for one based purely on romantic love.

“I think part of the problem is that incumbent on changing the particular definition of marriage is that we are solid on what the current definition of marriage is,” Mr Cavanaugh said.

“There’s an assumption that we all know what we are talking about when we are talking about marriage, and I don’t really think that that’s the case. I think the bishops in the United States are very clear that they are against gay marriage but I don’t think that they are as a clear as they should be that they are in fact against heterosexual marriage as it’s currently practised as well.

“The whole institution of marriage, it’s become a tax break for two people because they’re having sex with each other, and it’s really not clear what it’s for and what’s it’s about.

“We sort of give the impression that we’ve got it all sorted out and now there’s something new that has happened, but, in fact, what’s new is something that happened decades ago, and we hardly noticed it.

“What’s new is that a more traditional view of marriage has been traded for a more romantic view of marriage – where marriage is ‘I really feel like I love you a lot and would you like to spend some significant time with me; then we’ll call it quits’.”

The event moderator and Notre Dame chaplaincy convenor Patrick Langrell challenged Mr Cavanaugh in a follow-up question:

“You’re optimistically thinking that that conversation can be had before same-sex marriage is realised here, or something that can happen after it is?”

To which he responded: “It’s got to happen now … It seems to me that is an urgent conversation that needs to happen”.

Bishop Michael Stead said he firmly believed a dignified conversation needed to take place in the lead-up to a hoped-for plebiscite.

He said that for some people gay marriage was simply a matter of legal equality – extending the legal right of marriage to same-sex couples – but that for others it had become “the defining civil rights issue” of our century; a view which had extreme implications for dissenters.

Australia needed to decide whether the question was of that order of magnitude, a matter he hoped would be answered in the negative.

“I think what has really slipped is the position of the relationship between marriage and children and the traditional understanding that marriage has generally led to children and that children were the product of a family, and that marriage was the basis of a family,” Bishop Stead said.

“And the shift of marriage … as the proper context in which children were to be born and grow up in secure and loving care, to a state register of sexual friendships – that’s pretty much what marriage has become in modern western thought; that children are largely irrelevant to the modern context of marriage.”

Scott Stephens said he had been very uneasy about how gay marriage had been “prosecuted, on both sides”, describing them both as “actually rather bankrupt”.

He said that the mooted fear among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community of what a plebiscite might provoke was real.

He said divorce was “doing more to damage and destroy” the current generation of children “than anything same-sex marriage might do”.

“I’ve reached the opinion over about the last six months, I suppose, that we have lost the capacity to disagree meaningfully,” Mr Stephens said.

“(There are two principles), two factors that make disagreement possible and worthwhile. One of those is that there needs to be a bond there between you before disagreement takes place … And secondly … disagreement has to be oriented towards some final conciliation.

“If your opponent in this disagreement cannot be part of your future, then it’s not about disagreement; it’s just a fight. And the point isn’t persuasion; the point is winning …

“Folks, I reckon some god-awful things have been said on both sides of the debate in order to win the day. And I think this has corrupted the process. There is real pain on all sides of this … And that’s what happens when your opponents are ‘homophobes and bigots and barbarians and unenlightened religious’ or whatever, and when the other side are a slippery slope that’s going to (lead to) polyamory and whatever else”.

Mr Stephens said he supported re-defining marriage to extend it to same-sex couples.

“I’ve reached the conclusion that the pain that’s caused to people by having the institution of marriage denied them, that pain outweighs whatever theological principle can be salvaged by retaining a historically recognisable view of marriage. In other words I think charity ought to come first here.”

There were no follow-up questions on what redefining a normative institution such as marriage would mean for the rearing and educating of children.