Though I watch very little television, I've appeared on the ABC's Q&A from time to time. Last time it was to discuss refugee policy with Jim Molan who prides himself on being one of the chief architects of the policy which has stopped the boats but with the collateral damage of hundreds of proven refugees, including children, having their lives placed on a perilous hold on Manus Island and Nauru.
Before that, I was on with a somewhat inebriated Christopher Hitchens who with great flourish expressed disapproval of various teachings of the Catholic Church. Q&A is not a program I watch with great regularity. I find it too conflictual, with too little prospect of the conflict contributing to resolution of issues. I knew same sex marriage was a favourite and much overdone topic on the program. Then came the invitation to appear on a panel to discuss nothing but same sex marriage. I accepted with little hesitation. Why?
I have long been an opponent of a plebiscite on this issue. I thought the Liberal Party failed to do its job in the party room. Once the Liberal Party decided that a plebiscite was a precondition for consideration of the matter during the life of this parliament, I expressed my concern with the Labor Party and the Marriage Equality campaign rejecting the possibility of a plebiscite over the last Christmas holidays.
I thought the campaign could be done and dusted while the country was at the beach over the summer and while the politicians and the Canberra press gallery took their overseas holidays. Everyone could have returned to Canberra after Australia Day and the whole thing could have been concluded in February this year. But it was not to be. So now, we've all endured a protracted campaign, exacerbated by Tony Abbott's continued side swipes at Malcolm Turnbull and by the Turnbull team's trailing in the Newspoll 21 times in a row.
I had decided to vote 'yes'. When asked, I was happy to say I was voting yes, and I was happy to say why I was voting yes and why it is important for our parliament to do some further hard work on the issue of religious freedom once the yes vote is in. Even the most convinced 'no' voters need to admit that the issue is not going away, and that the Commonwealth Parliament will legislate for same sex marriage either before or after the next election.
I thought it important to indicate why a Catholic could vote yes. I also thought it important to indicate that the Church has a pastoral care and concern for everyone, including those who are gay or lesbian. I could see the hurt and the harm being suffered by some gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances. I thought this hurt and harm was unnecessary. The whole thing needed to be resolved, with both sides of the debate being more respectful of each other, and with the parliament being given the clear air to do its job.
I was told that the Q&A panel would include two speakers who were voting no, and two who were voting yes. The organisers wanted to avoid speakers who were likely to be so trenchant in their positions as to be hurtful and insulting to those who disagreed with them.
"I have a quite orthodox Catholic position about the sacramentality of marriage in the Church, but I don't see that my theology of marriage determines what ought to be the law about marriage in a plural diverse society like Australia."
I have long been an advocate for respectful dialogue and civil disagreement in the public square. I have been well schooled in it with a lifetime of experience, including some of the testing public conflicts in Queensland during the years of Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen, the divisive 1993 Mabo debate, the vicious 1997-8 Wik debate, and the strident 2009 campaign against a Human Rights Act when I chaired the National Human Rights Consultation for the Rudd government. I have a quite orthodox Catholic position about the sacramentality of marriage in the Catholic Church, but I don't see that my theology of marriage determines what ought to be the law about marriage in a plural diverse society like Australia with people of all religions and increasingly people of none.
Having chaired the National Human Rights Consultation in 2009, I have long been convinced that the legal architecture in Australia at a national level is inadequate to protect all those human rights which our governments and parliaments have espoused over the years when ratifying the various international treaties on human rights. The same sex marriage debate, like any debate of a contemporary contested social issue, would be more harmoniously resolved were that architecture to be in place.
The more I have listened to the arguments about civil recognition of same sex marriage, I have become convinced that the passionate debate is not just about the meaning of the word 'marriage'. Nor is it primarily about differing concerns about the consequences of recognition. I think it is about moving from tolerance and acceptance of committed, faithful, exclusive, and generous relationships of same sex couples to respect for and endorsement of those relationships. We all know that many such relationships, whether same sex or opposite sex, break down or lose their noblest attributes. The issue is whether the ideal should be publicly affirmed by the state for all couples. I think it should and I thought it was time to say so.
I was asked whether I would join the panel with Magda Szubanski. I am such a nerd when it comes to popular Australian culture that I did not know who she was. I've never seen Kath & Kim. I wouldn't have recognised Kath or Kim — let alone Sharon — if I ran into them at a supermarket or an airport. Sight unseen, I agreed to join Magda on the panel.
In conversation a few days later, Tanya Plibersek urged me to read Magda's autobiography Reckoning. I picked it up at an airport and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was moved by the sections relating to Magda's father who lived a troubled life, having been a youth in Poland during World War II, who took justice into his own hands, killing a number of Nazis and presumed Nazi sympathisers. Magda had called the Polish Jesuit priest Tony Slowik to assist her father to be reconciled in his later years. Tony is a mate of mine.
On the day the show was to go to air, the producers asked that we keep our answers to one minute in length. I replied, 'I will be very happy to play second fiddle to Magda.' I wanted my presence to assist a respectful dialogue on the panel and in the audience. I wanted to make it clear that a thinking and compassionate Catholic could have good reasons for voting yes. I wanted to insist that respect and endorsement of loving same sex relationships did not preclude consideration of issues such as freedom of religion.
I enjoyed the program and have been hugely flattered and affirmed by a lot of the feedback I have received. The downside has been the vile vitriol posted on my Facebook page and the nasty messages left with my staff and religious superiors. They make the Wik debate look like a walk in the park. The more vitriolic critics seem most upset that a Catholic priest would have the temerity to claim that a Catholic could vote yes. Archbishop Mark Coleridge, an eminent scripture scholar and vice president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, made the position clear when pressed by David Speers on Sky News a month ago. The archbishop said:
'Catholics, we're a big mob. Anyone who thinks we're monolithic does not know the Catholic Church. It's like herding cats. Catholics are going to vote yes, some are going to vote no, some are not going to vote at all. Some are going to vote yes for one reason, some for another; ditto with no. To think of a Catholic vote all going one way is just naïve. Of course, it's possible to vote yes. It depends why you vote yes. It's possible to vote no but equally it depends why you vote no. And we've seen some awful stuff on both sides of the debate, or all sides of the debate, because there aren't just two sides As a Catholic you can vote yes or you can vote no. I personally will vote no but for quite particular reasons. But I'm not going to stand here and say you vote no; and you vote yes and you're a Catholic, you'll go to hell. It's not like that.'
He's right that it's not like that. That's why I was happy to play second fiddle to Szubanski indicating why I am voting yes, and what I expect of my politicians when it comes to voting on a law to extend civil recognition to all committed relationships of couples in the name of equality and with the name 'marriage'. This has to be about extending respect to all. Ultimately respect can be given only to those who show respect. We now need to ensure that the law accords that respect to all couples and to all religions. Let's get it done.
Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia.
Main image: Karina Okotel and Frank Brennan on Q&A
Second image: Frank Brennan and Magda Szubanski following their appearance on Q&A