Playing second fiddle to Magda on marriage




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.

Karina Okotel and Frank Brennan on QandABefore 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.

Karina Okotel and Frank Brennan on QandAI 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 BrennanFrank 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

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, marriage equality, qanda, Magda Szubanski, Glenn Davies, Karina Okotel


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Existing comments

Heartening to hear sanity and civility like this. Thanks.
Andrew Lynch | 25 October 2017

"We now need to ensure that the law accords that respect to all couples and all religions". I doubt that the law, regardless of what it decrees on this matter, will make one iota of difference to the passion of the naysayers or that of the ayes. The homosexual community will correspondingly continue to be both condemned and accepted. The law seems to be a double edged sword in this modern world, the great promoter and protector of Western society on one hand and the great destroyer on the other.
john frawley | 25 October 2017

Good on you, Father Brennan! You are following the Ignatian way, I am so sorry for the tangles the Australian politicians keep getting into, quite unnecessarily. My mother was from Queensland, had the sense to come to Aotearoa NZ.
Patricia Kane | 26 October 2017

Well said and well done, Frank
Kevin O’Connor | 26 October 2017

Thanks Frank. I thought what you said and the way you said it was great. As someone, like you, who comes from a large Catholic family, in my case with one sibling living in a same sex relationship with a young child it was lovely to see someone like you expressing an educated Catholic position in such a thoughtful, compassionate and considered way. Good on you Frank.
Nick Dunstan | 26 October 2017

Well said, thankyou Frank. Next step- that missing legal architecture to enshrine human rights in Australia once and for all.
Pamela | 26 October 2017

Firstly, do watch Kath & Kim sometime Frank! Like you, I don't watch Q&A on a regular basis but did see the guest lineup when watching Four Corners so I stayed around. Magda was magnificent and this was one of the very few occasions when I would have liked to have had a Twitter account.
Pam | 26 October 2017

Frank Brennan was an inspiration on Q&A. His well thought through, inclusive and consultant comments made the No folks look a little petty.
Dave | 26 October 2017

Dear Father Frank once again you make me proud to be a Catholic. Your presence on the Q and A panel was indeed a blessing. My heart bled for Magda and LBQTI people for some of the things that were said particularly in the name of Christianity. To think that a million dollars could be given to the no campaign by a Christian Church is horrendous when there is so much poverty and injustice being perpetrated to human beings. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Anne McNamara | 26 October 2017

Thank you Rev Brennan for expressing the respect that is central to this debate.
Doris Testa | 26 October 2017

I am not sure you played second fiddle to Magda, or anyone else, on last Monday's Q&A, Frank. In my opinion you were the standout. You explained your position, which is shared by Mark Coleridge and which would, I think, be approved by the Pope, brilliantly. I am sorry you have been subjected to bitter vilification on the stance you took. There are many sad, bitter and twisted people in our society who really need to have a good look at themselves and not dump on you. They're sickos. Just sickos. Jesus would probably tell them to take the planks out of their own eyes before 'critiquing' you. Twitter and other 'instant media' have really debased debate in our society.
Edward Fido | 26 October 2017

Well said Frank. Some of the haters on social media could learn much from your reasoned and respectful position on this divisive topic.Some of the most vitriolic comments come from those who have the gall and temerity to call themselves Christian. Go figure!
David Ahern | 26 October 2017

I have the same feelings re Q and A and watch it less frequently these days. Love your words and those of Archbishop Coleridge. Have occasionally witnessed the vitriol of the hard right- I just can't reconcile that with being Christian.
Andrew Chinn | 26 October 2017

Well done, nicely handled, Frank Brennan! This debate needs more calm voices, not ideologues ramming their views down our throats.
Frank Golding | 26 October 2017

Frank Brennan as usual was a breath of fresh air on Q&A. Magda was awesome both were magnanimous. As a recovering Anglican I was ashamed by the narrow mindedness of the Anglican cleric on the debate. The rank hypocrisy to state that he did not wish to influence opinion despite tithing a million bucks to the "No" camp. The lack of grace to not only deny Magda and others a church marriage but worse,impede legal civil Marriage. Frank champions human rights: isn't that what clerics are meant to do for God"s sake! I concur with the post during the programme from a viewer:" if there were more Father Brennans there would be less lapsed catholics" Go Frank!! promoted to lead violin
Denis Bartrum | 26 October 2017

I have always appreciated your profound and clear contribution to social issues including your recent contribution to the Q&A discussion on marriage. Like many Catholics, I have already voted 'yes' in support and repect for the many gay and lesbian people in committed relationships. I can see that society can and should accept such relationships and churches can and probably will reserve the right to define sacramental relationships as betwwen a man and a woman. However, Magna Szubanski's description of her mother's funeral, her sadness at being deprived of the sacrament of marriage, whatever the law, left me feeling very sad. Recognising that many people are not heterosexual, is there not a way that the church could re-define marriage to include homosexual people - or develop a liturgy which would respect, include and support all people?
Judith Houston | 26 October 2017

A nicely weighted piece from Frank Brennan. But the unprecedented vitriol his appearance on Q&A appears to have attracted must surely be of concern. Of course it does not represent all of those on the 'No" side. I suspect (or at least hope) it represents only a small group within this cohort. But this level of hatred is worrying nonetheless. I can't help but think that part of the explanation lies in the dismal failure of the Catholic Church (or at least the Irish version of my childhood) to deal with sexuality at any level. A consistent message emanating from a Catholic secondary education and five years in a Catholic seminary was the less said about sexuality the better. When it was spoken about, sexuality was wrapped up in totally detached theological language or associated with serious sin. Even masturbation was enough to send you to Hell. While not an excuse, I suspect that many of those who pushed back at Frank Brennan and his staff in such a vitriolic manner are plagued by feelings of confusion and guilt about their own sexuality. (And yes - there is so much more to the wonderful Magda than her portrayal of Sharon).
Lawrence Moloney | 26 October 2017

Fr Brennan - if there were more clergy like your good self, then perhaps I would have never left the faith. You sir, are the true embodiment of the Christian ideal of love for your fellow man. Respect, Sir, Respect. That is the one word that sums up my thoughts about your deliberations.
Greg Iverson | 26 October 2017

I felt sadness when I recorded my no vote. I am sad that we feel that the only way to bring equality is to change the definition of marriage: by doing that make it into something quite different. My sadness is that we as a civilisation are not creative enough to acknowledge the difference and name homosexual relationships differently. What we know and understand about homosexuality is quite different from what it was when a cousin of mine was arrested and thought by the family so disgraced he was sent to England and has never returned. The Church moves slowly and may in the future develop a suitable ritual to acknowledge such a relationship. Meanwhile the secular law should support them.
Margaret McDonald | 26 October 2017

I thought the Q&A discussion on marriage equality was a good one. Father Frank's input was very valuable as he put a point of view that was logical, compassionate and respectful. I am not a Catholic, but for many decades I have worked with people from a variety of backgrounds on human rights, social justice, peace and care for the environment including progressive Catholics. As Frank stated, in a multicultural society like Australia, we need to be able to respect the viewpoint of others whether we agree with them or not. For me, marriage equality is a matter of human rights. If heterosexual people can have their partnerships recognised under the law, then so should those, who no fault of their own, are born LGBQ&T. I am now 74 yo and have seen some big changes in our society. As a young person, I remember some totally intolerant and unthinking people go out of their way to harass and even commit violence against LGBQ&T people. Hopefully, when there is agreement to recognise the partnerships of these people, there will be a greater chance of stopping such intolerant attitudes. I agree that there is so much support for change on this issue that we did not need to have a very expensive survey/referendum.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 26 October 2017

The discussion on Q&A was amazing- it is at times like this that we feel proud to be Catholic. It is not about the 'yes' or the 'no' as so much as having an opportunity to think issues through in an informed , compassionate and inclusive way. Thank you Fr. Frank Brennan for facilitating a process of 'thinking about thinking'
Susan Vasnaik | 26 October 2017

Thank you for your previous articles and for this piece. The sadness of this debate comes from the negative vibes that surround it. Your end point is important, I think. Respect certainly can only be given to those who show respect. Hopefully the law will accord that respect, as you suggest. Best Wishes.
Jina Mulligan | 26 October 2017

I have voted NO because my belief system and who I am informs me so; who I am and what I believe also teaches me to respect the YES of difference and the necessity of recognition and accommodation. Thank you Frank Brennan SJ for your enlightened calm and instructive wisdom. A great sorrow that our Pilate Politicians continue to wash their hands of responsibility.........another abject failure of those to whom we entrust government.
Charles Murray | 26 October 2017

As a practising Catholic of many years, I want to say that I thought you were the ideal person to represent the views of thinking Catholics who no doubt have a divergence of views. I am sorry that you have had to sustain such criticism from some quarters
James Biggs | 26 October 2017

Thanks Fr Frank for letting myself, and the many other readers of Eureka Street who have long since discontinued watching Q&A, know your perspective on same sex marriage. One can only wish your attitude was more common in the many political arguments we have in this country on 'matters of conscience'. I do hope that most Australians recognise that Tony Abbott and other card-carrying Catholics of the conservative wing of the Coalition do not represent the majority of Australian Catholics.
Ian Fraser | 26 October 2017

This episode, with Frank and Magda's comments, helped me understand a bit better Fr Brennan's previous ES article, where I demanded there can only be one moral response - yes or no, but not both. The fact that people should not be prevented from civil marriage just because the church has a different definition of sacramental marriage which is based on procreation and the complementarity of the male/female union which constitutes a family. But the discussion by the Anglican Archbishop led me to believe what he's really saying that it's better not to be gay - with all his floral and heavenly comments about God's plan and what Jesus wants, it's hard to conclude what he really meant. And although I'm partially satisfied with this yes/no advice for Catholics, I can relate to Magda's angst about her marriage not regarded as sacramentally valid. There's a mystery in the sacraments, and in my holistic view of spirituality and morality, would love one day for what's good for Caesar is also good for God. Frank mentioned the church's view on sexuality has evolved - but there is still a long way to go.
Aurelius | 26 October 2017

Such a wonderful article by Father Brennan. History will judge you kindly. This is probably the most sensible and well reasoned article i've read during this whole SSM debate. God bless you.
Renato Marasco | 26 October 2017

At the other end of the panel from Frank Brennan was the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney who more explicitly, I think, identified himself with the teaching of Jesus on marriage. I thought of a particular gospel scene when Magda in effect asked Glenn Davies, which is the greater commandment, that of marriage as between a man and a woman, or that which commands we love one another? No knock-out blow there; I thought of the wisdom of Jesus who invited twos and threes to get together and keep working out what it means to be human, what it means to have a good anthropology that addresses marriage in human history; to entertain the thought that the law on marriage that Jesus subscribed to is subsumed in, not subtracted from, that of loving one another. Then Frank from his position reminded me of Jesus challenged to answer whether it was lawful to pay tax to Caesar. Of course it is, we live in a world where there are both religious and secular values. Again, the wisdom of Jesus, to get into twos and threes and in his name keep working on the business of being properly human, calling up worthwhile exemplars, Christian and otherwise. And from there wagering responsibly on what is worthwhile for you, on what you think will prove to have been the 'ought to be of life' when all is said and done.
Noel McMaster | 26 October 2017

Dear Frank, I don't think you played 2nd fiddle to Magda the other night. Like you, while I mainly watch ABC, I was reluctant to watch Q & A because it is usually conflictual, no meaningful debate and no solutions. I have in the past criticized you for your continued support of George Peel. I am a lapsed Catholic (and still a lawyer) because I consider that the Church is not fulfilling it's pastoral duty to take care of those whom are now 'broken' due to systemic abuse by the Catholic Church (I haven't been abused nor do I know anyone who has). However, the other night you identified the critical issue in the same sex marriage debate - tolerance. I was hopeful that the 'No' campaign might be tolerant of your position (as we should be respectful of theirs), but obviously not. But I know that Christ will share your pain and comfort you at this time. I am just VERY proud of you.
Liz O'Connor | 26 October 2017

You give me hope Fr Brennan that the Church will find its heart once more and be true representatives of Christ who spoke up for the outsiders, the rejected
Vineta O'Malley | 26 October 2017

I agree with you Frank
Garry Mann | 26 October 2017

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