Revitalising Lay Apostolate on Marriage and Family

National Civic Council Conference 2019

Cardinal Caffarra, former Archbishop of Bologne who died in 2017, was a tireless defender of Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family. In 1981 he was asked by St John Paul II to found a Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. From the beginning of his long pontificate St John Paul II had sought to promote Catholic teaching on marriage and family. From September 1989 the Pope had been delivering a systematic catechesis on this subject which was intended as a deeper explanation of the teaching of St Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. This teaching has become popularly known as ‘Theology of the Body’. The founding of the Institute met with some significant resistance within certain quarters of the Church.  Caffarra wrote to Sr Lucia of Fatima to request her prayers. In reply the Carmelite nun sent a message that the Cardinal had revealed only in recent times. He said:

“In [her letter] we find written: ‘The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid,’ she added, ‘because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue.’ And then she concluded: ‘However, Our Lady has already crushed its head.’”

“The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.” These are very significant words. We know that we are in the midst of a critical struggle for marriage and family.

The national debate in Australia

The national debate in Australia during 2017 on changing the legal definition of marriage was, I believe, a watershed moment in Australian social history. The outcome of the debate was determined in a plebiscite which, despite the enormous resources and funding of those pushing for change, did not receive a clear majority from eligible voters.  The government had made the vote voluntary.

The survey returned 7,817,247 or 61.6% “Yes” responses and 4,873,987 or 38.4% “No” responses. The total turnout was 12,727,920 which comprised 79.5% of those eligible to vote, roughly 16,000,000. If the plebiscite was conducted as a compulsory vote my sense is that it would have been much closer. In any case what this outcome does show is that we have reached a tipping point in Australian society.

For the first time in the relatively short history of Australia we have reached a point where at the very least around half the population have rejected the natural and biblical understanding of the nature of marriage.  At the heart of marriage is, of course, the complementarity of the sexes. Thus the outcome is a rejection of this basic biological reality.  This rejection is unprecedented in human history.  This rejection builds on the previous rejection in western societies of the relationship between marriage and the begetting of children which occurred with the advent of modern contraceptive technologies during the so-called sexual revolution.  

The importance of the complementarity of the sexes has been challenged vigorously since the sexual revolution in an attempt to normalise same-sex sexual relationships. The plebiscite campaign and its success simply shows that the battle to defend this essential reality of human sexuality had been lost for some time through the efforts of homosexual activists working over decades to influence popular culture, particularly movies, music (and, more recently, social media), government bureaucracy and large corporations. The actual ‘yes’ vote campaign for change did not really have to do much convincing; that work had already been done. It was simply a matter of reminding voters of how they already felt through emotional advertising, as opposed to rational argument.

The institutions of the society, including the churches and religious organisations, were largely ignored and considered irrelevant by the general public during this process.

The change in the legal definition of marriage touches on a foundational element upon which societies have been built. Societies throughout history have understood that human beings do best when raised by their biological parents in a relationship of life-long committed sexual fidelity. This is why marriage was given special social and political recognition and protections. Marriage has been seen to be about procreation, about the nurturing and raising of children, about ensuring the next generation.  

With the change in the legal definition of marriage this understanding has for the first time in the history of western civilisation been rejected and replaced with a new paradigm for human life and relationships based on feelings.

Marriage is now legally defined in terms a committed relationship between any two individuals, evidently premised simply on and constituted by emotional attraction alone. It is about having one’s desires satisfied. It is no longer about a union which has its focus beyond the spouses – on procreation and raising and building up of the family – but on the needs of the individual.

The clear biological facts of the human anatomy were laid aside in this decision. Societies have always understood that men and women are designed to enter into a covenanted relationship and within the stability of that relationship children are conceived and then raised. The idea of family, as the foundation of society, has thus been undermined.  

Accepting that a union of two people of the same sex can be legally defined as a marriage will have radical implications for how marriage is understood in our society. The focus is now upon marriage in terms of the desire of two persons of the same sex to have their relationship endorsed by society. The slogan “Love is love”  determines that all that is required for marriage is that two people love one another and the evidence of nature is ignored.

In nature the complementary union of two of the species is the source of the continuation of the species. Marriage cannot be limited to the desire of two people to have their relationship legally endorsed. Marriage is ordained towards the begetting of children, and intended to provide a stable environment in which a child can be raised. 

A child is the product of the contribution of the male and the female, the husband and the wife. The identity of the child is linked to the biological contribution of two equal but opposite contributions. The genes of the father and the mother create the unique identity of the child. Indeed, each child has the security of knowing ‘the rock from which they are hewn’. Simply, they know who they are. They know their lineage and can forge their future based in the knowledge that they are the product of a unique heritage.  

The change in the definition of marriage will have deep and long-lasting effects on our society. It changes how we understand the meaning and purpose of marriage. Future generations, accepting that this is how society now understands marriage, will view the marriage union as an end in itself. There will be the tendency to see children as an optional extra. Marriage will easily become an expression of a desire to have one’s needs fulfilled. The focus of the meaning of marriage has been changed. Marriage has been turned in on itself. It is no longer outward looking and future oriented.

While human beings throughout history have fallen short of the ideals of marriage, the society has seen that its ideal needs to be upheld in the law. Thus, there have been rules around how a couple can be married, and to whom a person can marry. Law has sought to protect the purpose of marriage. Society has always held a keen interest in the way in which marriage and family should be lived because the health of marriage and family are in fact vital to the future of the society.

The legal redefinition of marriage has been a significant turning point in Australian social history. The full implications of this decision will slowly manifest itself in the years ahead. Future generations may look back on this decision and question its wisdom. However, for the foreseeable future, the path has been taken.

Christianity overridden

The vote and subsequent legislation rushed through parliament before Christmas 2017 has revealed another significant shift in Australian culture. Australia has been classed as a Christian nation. Its origins in the beginning of the nineteenth century was that the Christian faith underpinned the spiritual and moral vision for the nation. Being of English origins the Anglican expression of Christianity was seen as the established religious base for the society. Indeed, being a convict settlement, the clergy were seen as an important component for the guiding the religious element of society. They were seen as providing a necessary moral underpinning to the formation of a decent pattern of social life. Convicts were compelled to attend Sunday services as these were considered beneficial to their moral regeneration.

Australian government was founded on principles of the Westminster system which upheld the ultimate authority of God over the exercise of political power. The rule of law was seen as necessary for social cohesion, and the law was based on Christian principles, particularly derived from the Ten Commandments.

The vote of 2017 saw Australian turn its back on Christian teaching. Even though Christians are still a majority in our nation, many chose to embrace a new way of seeing things. Opposition to the change in the legal definition of marriage was largely led by Christian voices. However, it is clear that there were those who identify as Christians and yet chose to vote for change. The leadership of the Christian churches were not able to convince their members to hold to the traditional understanding of marriage.

What is evident from the vote is that the Christian churches no longer enjoy the role of guiding the conscience of the nation. The vote revealed that many consider the churches as out of date and “on the wrong side of history”.

The vote in the plebiscite revealed what has been happening for many years. Many adherents of Christianity have moved away from traditional Christian teaching. It is evident that Australia as a society is now taking a new path. It is allowing societal trends to shape its way of thinking.

The vote clearly shows that Christianity is no longer the spiritual and moral guide to Australian society. Indeed, Christianity is fast becoming a minority religion in Australia. It is not impossible to expect that in the years ahead Christianity will be further marginalized. The Christian teaching on many issues will be regarded by the Australian society as no longer relevant. Our society will shape its future not by embracing a new transcendent vision for life, but by being determined by popular opinion. Its moral and ethical positions will no longer be based on solid reasoned positions, but will increasingly be moulded by the vocal agents in the popular culture.

Christians will need to come to terms with a new reality. Christians no longer enjoy being the prevailing cultural influence. They are, in fact, now a rather plaintive voice; a “voice crying in the wilderness”.

Religious freedom

The vote on the nature of marriage has opened another arena. It showed the intolerance of those pushing for change. Anyone who dared to publicly express their opposition to changing the legal definition of marriage were threatened and vilified. The debate was far from reasoned and respectful. Those who sought to defend the traditional understanding of marriage were subject to harassment. They were characterised as homophobes, bigots and “haters”. They were labelled and dismissed. Often their views were not listened to but just vigorously attacked. There was no place for the presentation of reasoned argument and debates readily degenerated into emotional and angry rejection of any views other than those supporting a change in the law.

Venues for meetings of those supporting the retention of the traditional view of marriage were threatened. A number of meetings were forced to be cancelled. The practice of non-platforming sought to silence those who wished to express their views in a reasoned and respectful manner.

Many of those who supported a traditional view of marriage found that it was wiser to stay silent than to attract ridicule and derision. There was a successful “chilling effect”. Many of those who publicly expressed their belief that the change was not a good one found that they were socially ostracised.

There were many examples of intimidation during the campaign. This in itself was a sad testimony to what was happening to our culture. Australians had always believed in giving someone a ‘fair go’. There has been a culture of live and let live. Australians have prided themselves in their tolerance for differing opinions. This clearly is no longer the case.

The debate opened up a nasty side to the Australian character. It revealed that there were individuals and organizations determined to shut down debate and simply impose their views on the society. The very notion of debate on this question was referred to as ‘hurtful’ and ‘offensive’. To allow the public expression of views that opposed the change in the legal definition was claimed to attack and denigrate those in same-sex relationships and their families. We have entered a new period were our freedom of speech, particularly as Christians, is no longer guaranteed.

For some time it has been socially unacceptable to publicly express Christian teaching on human sexuality. Christian have largely already been silenced out of fear of offending others or being ridiculed for their beliefs. But there is now a concerted effort to actually withdraw legal protections for freedom of speech, particularly the expression of religious beliefs.

The attempt of the ‘Yes’ campaign to prevent the expression of opposing views gave rise to calls to protect freedom of speech and religious freedom. Up to this time religious freedom was considered a given in Australian society. The debate revealed that this was no longer the case.

Calls for protection of basic freedoms led to the decision of the Turnbull government to initiate a review of protections for freedom of religion in Australia. As you would know Phillip Ruddock was asked to head up an expert panel.

Ruddock Report

The long-awaited Ruddock Report was finally released in December 2018. It was less than reassuring for those hoping that freedom of speech and freedom of religion would be enshrined in some form of legislation. The Report in its opening chapter said that it did not consider religious freedom to be in imminent peril. This claim was made despite multiple examples of the persecution of individuals and businesses both during and after the marriage debate.

It further claimed that there were no hierarchy of rights. This claim is made despite the fact that international covenants like the ICCPR made freedom of religion a non–derogable right.

The Report said that the Panel remains unconvinced that there is urgent need for change to religious freedom laws, and that it did not receive sufficient advice that the existing framework was causing significant problems.

The Panel considered that it was not necessary to protect religious institutions from losing government funding for providing services such as aged care, health and education because of their religious beliefs, as on a practical level, the government would struggle to find alternate service providers.  However, the Panel was of the view that in areas where there is only one service provider, the government should be able to insist that there is no discrimination in providing the service, and that in circumstances of limited employment opportunities, the government could insist on no discrimination in employment.  This means that a Christian organisation that is filling a need in a rural or a remote community where the government does not provide any assistance might be forced to go against its Christian beliefs.

The Report referred to an Australian Law Reform Commission view that religious freedom should not extend to providers of goods and services for weddings.

In all, the Report is far from encouraging. There is little to be expected in terms of legislation to protect religious freedom in Australia. The panel said that it did not support a Religious Freedom Act, and that the statutory protection of positive rights “necessitates a framework which provides equal treatment for a wide range of human rights”.

We face a future, I believe, where religious freedom will be curtailed and freedom of speech denied.

A Christian Response

I have been asked to speak about revitalising the lay apostolate in relation to marriage and family. It seems to me that just as organisations like the NCC emerged out of struggles with the rise of Communism in earlier years, there is now a need for organisations to rise up to support and protect marriage and family life.

Indeed, there are many such organisations that already exist and there are new organisations beginning to emerge. There is a growing Christian response to this serious cultural crisis.

There are two elements to the response. One is to contest the forces that are undermining marriage. And the other to seek to rebuild a culture of Christian marriage and family.

Firstly let us look briefly at some of the signs of the growing resistance to the rapid progress of social change in the area of sexuality, marriage and family.

There was a most extraordinary spontaneous movement in France, entitled “La Manif pour tous” (Demonstration for all), where in October 2016 one million people massed in Paris to show their support for marriage being between a man and a woman. It clearly revealed that there were many, many people in France unhappy with the government’s approval of same-sex unions as marriages, and the general flow of cultural and legislative change.

This was a sign that there were many disturbed about being forced down paths which they did not want to go. It could well be that there will be more occasions when the people rise up and say “enough is enough”.

Christians are becoming more organised in resisting social changes which denies a Christian vision of life. The marriage campaign in Australia in 2017 saw Christian groups across the country coming together under one banner so that a single voice could be heard. One result of the campaign is that we now have a data base of thousands of Christians who are prepared to stand up for Christian truth.

Another development is that there are now some Christian lawyers ready to defend those who come under legal threat.

The other area to consider is that we need to seriously look at how we can rebuild a culture of marriage and family. It is clear that the understanding of marriage in our society has been seriously debased. Many young people now come from broken family situations. Many do not know how to form relationships which are life-giving and enduring. Few understand the sublime vocation to marriage and family.

Certainly the noble Christian vision for marriage and family is largely unknown. Now is the time to go back to basics. We cannot presume that young people today really know what marriage is. 

In my own archdiocese, I have been working on what I am calling the ‘Matrimonium Project’. This is a multi-faceted pastoral strategy aimed at rebuilding a Christian culture of marriage and family. It is a long-term strategy. There are no quick fixes. We have to repair the damage which began in the 1960s, both with the sexual revolution and the rejection of Humanae Vitae by Catholics. 

One element to this program is to help families develop strategies for living what I call “intentional Catholic family Life”. I think of the words of Joshua in the Old Testament: “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

One aspect of this that we are considering is the production of a monthly newsletter offering ideas and inspiration in ways in which intentional Catholic family life can be realised. Subjects on parenting, family prayer, ways to form children will be offered to them. The target group will be parents who have primary school children.

We are inviting couples to become ‘Matrimonium couples’ so that they can be formed and become a support for marriage and family in their local parish.

We are also going to investigate how we can more actively promote Natural Fertility options. Developments in natural fertility programs is little known. We need to be more proactive in offering natural options to artificial means of contraception.

One particular project will be the development of a Marriage Catechumenate, as proposed by Pope Francis. We are exploring ways in which this catechumenate can be developed. This will include school children as well as young adults.

Just last week we held our first ‘Matrimonium Summer School’ in Hobart, offering a week-long presentation of talks on sexuality, marriage and family. It drew upon the approach established by the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family which has operated in Melbourne up to this year.

We are exploring a range of other initiatives which we hope will offer a comprehensive nourishment for Catholic family life.

The Church has a rich body of teaching on sexuality, marriage and family. Our challenge at this moment is to radiate this truth and promote the beauty of Catholic family life. St John Paul II described the family as the “sanctuary of love and the cradle of life” – a beautiful way of seeing the vocation to marriage and family.

At this moment we need to be purposeful and determined in preserving and promoting the full Catholic vision.

Family as foundation of human society

The family is the basic unit of society. It is true to say that the health of society depends on the health of family life. Promoting family life is not only for the benefit of the Church but will also benefit society as a whole.

There is no doubt that marriage and family are under particular stress in our society. A whole raft of forces inimical to marriage and family is severely weakening the quality of family life.

The revitalisation of the culture of marriage and family needs to be a priority for the Church. While we look for leadership from bishops and the Pope, this is an area which is the domain of the lay person. There is no reason why lay people cannot spearhead this cultural revival.

Archbishop Julian Porteous

Monday, January 28, 2019

Tags: Burnie-Wynyard, Northern Deanery, Speeches