What the marriage debate is really about

On Sunday night I had the great pleasure of taking part in a panel on ABC radio’s Sunday Nights, with Noel Debien in the moderator’s chair. I was invited on to explain my (admittedly perhaps a bit too complex) thoughts as presented in my last blog post (“I hope the marriage equality bill achieves its goals”)

My fellow panelists were Rodney Croome AM (sociologist and gay rights activist), Most Rev Peter Comensoli (Catholic Bishop of Broken Bay) and Dr Muriel Porter OAM. You can hear the discussion here. Many listeners commented on the positive tone of the discussion, and I was delighted that we were able to speak constructively and respectfully on this difficult and often heated topic.

As I reflect on the conversation, it seems that our disagreement boils down to these three questions:

1. Is marriage about legally recognising the quality of a love, or about promoting an institution for the good of children?

Moderator Noel Debien hinted at this at the outset when he introduced the issue as either “marriage equality” or “redefining marriage” (depending on what side you are on).

Mr Croome and Dr Porter described marriage as about recognising love between two people.

Bishop Comensoli and I described marriage as an institution where the good of families – and children in particular – is the law’s primary concern.

While not all marriages lead to children, the institution itself is set up to promote their wellbeing and security. Individual couples may choose to marry for all sorts of reasons (the law doesn’t check their fertility any more than it checks their romantic passion). But the cultural link between marriage and family is still there. I think we should be honouring that link, not severing it.

(I found Andrew Errington’s piece here very helpful in developing my thinking on this.)

2. Is the ideal of children being raised, where possible, by both biological parents worth promoting?

Bishop Peter touched on this as he described the Catholic understanding of the family. Dr Porter pointed out that the ideal is not the reality for many families and we need to ensure that in promoting an ideal we do not ignore the situation of, for instance, single mothers.

I am sympathetic to Dr Porter’s concern to acknowledge that life is messy. Yet I follow the guy who was able to hold on to the ideal, while still accepting that life is messy and loving people in all sorts of situations. Tolerance is vital. But tolerance is not the same thing as indifference (as my late grandfather used to tell us).

I’m concerned about the unintended consequences for the family of letting this ideal go – of no longer even having a word that sums it up. I don’t think anyone knows what those consequences will be in two or three generations time.

3. Is the ideal of children being raised, where possible, by a mother and a father worth promoting?

For me, this was the most interesting part of the discussion. Mr Croome has expressed the view in various places, including his co-authored book Why vs Why: Gay Marriage, that there is nothing intrinsically gendered in the role of mother or father. For example, he says:

Opponents of marriage equality never explain why a child needs a male and female parent because they know their argument is inherently sexist. It judges each of us, not on the basis of our individual character, morality, skills or experience, but simply on the basis of our gender. (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/01/31/3125769.htm)

I was interested in what Dr Porter had to say about this. She has in various contexts criticised my own diocese of Sydney for ignoring gender differences – for not recognising and making space for the wonderfully unique contribution that women bring to the institution of the church. Dr Porter has spoken eloquently about the need for the episcopate to represent the “fullness of Christ’s ministry”, by including women as well as men. She continues:

An incomplete House of Bishops cannot offer the Church true leadership. … Increasingly, the Church can no longer offer a complete ministry without bishops who are women… The episcopate needs the wholeness that women will bring. The Church needs the leadership of women.

The institution of the church is strengthened by having not just men but women as well. The same presumably goes for other institutions – parliament, schools, IT companies, etc. (Imagine if we had even fewer women in parliament!!)

So do families also benefit from embodying gender diversity at their core? Is there something about motherhood that only women can embody?

As a mother and grandmother herself, Dr Porter seems to say yes – and in doing so disagrees with Mr Croome. Though she went on to say that actual mothers sometimes fall short, for a moment I think she acknowledged that (contrary to Mr Croome’s position) there is something gendered about mothering and fathering. There is something wonderfully unique about mothers.

If this is the ideal, then we come back to the issue of whether this ideal is worth honouring

It’s interesting to ask couples who come to be married why they are getting married. (About half the weddings I have done have been for couples with no particular religious affiliation.) For many of them, the traditional order of things is different to their grandparents: first sex, then falling in love, then moving in, then getting a mortgage (the ultimate commitment!). But marriage is for when they’re ready to have kids. For many (not all) Australians, it seems the social link between marriage and children is still there. And that is a link that we should be honouring, not severing.

1 thought on “What the marriage debate is really about”

  1. I listened to the ABC discussion, and it was very interesting indeed.
    Just picking up on Andy’s points and his perspective as above, I make the following observations.

    1. We need to make a clear distinction between church marriage, which is sacred and legal marriage, which is secular. Not surprisingly, given Andy’s profession, his comments are heavily weighted towards and influenced by his feelings towards church marriage. Let’s assume that the debate about whether or not to legailise gay marriage refers to secular marriage – ie marriage via a civil celebrant rather than by a minister of religion. That would have to be achieved anyway before persuading churches to agree to gay marriage, since churches in the present era are very much followers of social change rather than leaders of social change. (The opposite was the case when churches, respectively, were in their infancy. Jesus, for example was a pretty cool radical in his day.)
    So for the remainder of my rant, I’m talking about secular, or legal marriage, not church marriage.

    2. Let’s consider Andy’s Point (1) – Is marriage about love or children’s welfare?
    We live in a free-market democracy where the government only needs to get involved in the actions of individuals if there is some harm or injustice involved. Otherwise, we’re all free individuals, which is wonderful. Hence if consenting adults A and B wish to get married for whatever reason, they can. It’s not for the state to say that this commitment ceremony has to be based on love, children, financial benefits, security, sex, status or anything else. That’s up to A and B and it’s no-one else’s business. Clearly there’s no justification for denying A or B the right to get married because of race, colour, religion, sexual preference, hair colour or any other characteristics. That’s not the state’s business and they can butt out!
    But the state does, presently deny gays from marriage, and that’s unfair and unnecessary.

    3. Andy’s Points (2) and (3) – Is it ideal for kids to be raised by their biological parents? By a mother and father?
    All things being equal, yes of course it is on both counts. However life can be pretty messy and given all the other factors involved in life – health, opportunities, love etc etc there are plenty of cases where these considerations are swamped by other factors.
    Nonetheless, we see a theme in all of Andy’s 3 points here – the link of (gay) marriage and the welfare of children. It’s clear that Andy’s primary concern in the gay marriage debate is the welfare of children, and I certainly respect that view.

    So, Andy, I ask this question of you. Isn’t your agenda on this really to prohibit, or at least not support gays being parents? That is, it’s not gay marriage at all that you’re opposed to. It’s gay parenting that you’re opposed to.
    If I’m right, then in truth, you wouldn’t really object to gays getting married if they didn’t raise kids.
    And you would presently object to unmarried gays who do raise kids.
    Now, I’m not putting my own view of gays raising kids here at all. I’m just suggesting that you be clearer on where you stand on gay secular marriage , because I think you’re muddling up gay marriage (secular or sacred?) and gay parenting.

    4. One last thing about gay marriage and child welfare. There are plenty of gay couples, and plenty of these are raising kids. Not being able to get married hasn’t and won’t stop gays in loving relationships and gay couples having kids. So now you’ve got gay couples raising kids, but the kids naturally have an extra challenge in life due to being different to the norm. Of course that can be managed, and there are a lot worse things that can happen to kids. But nonetheless, it’s a challenge. At worst the kids feel like they / their family are freaks. This is exacerbated by the fact that their parents are not allowed to get married, whilst other kids’ parents (the heterosexual ones) are allowed to get married. This is cruel to the children. Disallowing gay marriage is cruel to children. Andy, if you’re really interested in the welfare of children, and I know you are, don’t oppose gay marriage; rather embrace it. This will not increase gay parenting at all, but it will reduce some of the stress that kids of gay parents suffer.

    Best Regards

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