THE same-sex marriage debate in Australia has brought to light some interesting insights.
It is an emotionally charged issue that can easily lack rational process and clear thinking. It is a debate that can certainly threaten the concept of the way we do things.
We should be aware at the start that all change can be threatening. When we feel threatened, it will always be essentially an emotional response rather than a rational one. I would like to attempt to explore the issue from a rational point of view.
Some people come from a 'nothing must change' point of view.
The Ottoman Sultan issued such a decree, the Status Quo decree in the 18th century, to the various religious bodies occupying the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem where the occupants were continually fighting.
The usual conflict between various religious bodies came to a head in this historic place, and to try to stop the conflict, the Sultan issued a 'status quo' edict. The result was the conflict intensified.
The ladder on the window above the door of the entrance to the church is a testimony to such a shallow minded response. The reality is that everything is in a state of change, nothing is set irrevocably in cement.
One argument goes that such an issue as same-sex marriage is contrary to the traditional concept of marriage.
The understanding here is that marriage as we know it has been so from the beginning, and for Christians was endorsed and sanctified by Jesus, and therefore it shouldn't change.
In fact, marriage has changed significantly over the years.
The traditional concept of marriage and family before the Industrial Revolution was extended family, with uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins, parents and children living in the same family unit.
This family unit worked at the family business, be it a farm or a windmill or even a family manufacturing business.
This extended family model also successfully absorbed education, childcare, aged care and health services within the family unit. It was genuinely a microcosm of society.
Its record of harmony was quite successful. When tensions developed between husband and wife, they were easily cushioned by other close family members offering support and understanding.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution this changed and people had to go and live where the energy source was, the factory or the mill.
This meant a sudden shift from extended family to the nuclear family, simply mother and father and the kids. This model of family unit was more mobile than extended family, having to move to where the work was, depending on the energy source availability. In this model, the inevitable tensions between husband and wife, in the absence of extended family, were always polarised, with the subsequent stress and damage to the relationship.
It is worth noting that in Australia, communities that are far away from relatives or extended family at a much higher divorce rate than those with close relatives and family nearby.
In our own country, marriage law initially was based on British marriage law which in turn was based on property law.
The property of course was the woman! Such customs and traditions fired Emmeline Pankhurst to initiate the suffragette movement in England that in its own time change the fabric of society!
It is not so long ago that women were regarded as the property of men, hence the potential groom would talk to the potential father-in-law, arrange a dowry, and that at the wedding the bride's father would bring the bride to the church to 'give her away' to the new owner.
The custom of the best man bringing both the bride and groom's wedding rings to the ceremony came from an era where women could not be trusted to be responsible for a task like that. I don't think there is a personal insurance policy large enough for someone to sustain this point of view!
In the 1970s, the Whitlam Government passed the family Law act which allowed divorce after 12 months of separation. In the debate before the legislation, it was claimed that this would be the end of marriage as we knew it and the wanton destruction of the basis of society.
The famous great lover Casanova once called marriage 'the tomb of love'. It was now possible to escape a loveless marriage, and yet marriage survived and continued to enrich society.
It is true that the divorce rate in this country, and in most countries in the Western world, is in excess of 35%. If you put on top of that the legal and actual separations, you come very close to the majority.
The argument that every child needs a mother and father doesn't seem to apply to the some of the children of divorced parents when those children often don't have a good experience of parents in a harmonious relationship.
Would it be healthier to force such people to stay in a marriage for the sake of the children? The evidence would suggest not, but that rather than needs and habits of society are changing.
In multicultural Australia there are people who come from a society where the normal tradition of marriage is polygamy! I personally know people whose grandfathers had four or five wives, and that was the strong tradition in their culture.
One of the reasons here was for the protection of women, that in a society that could be harsh, the life of a single woman would be difficult.
Before marriage is even contemplated, it is normal now for a significant number of people to live together.
This was inconceivable even 50 years ago, and was referred to as people 'living in sin!'
Many young people live together for economic reasons yet a society with a significant guilt/sin complex with regard to sexuality would immediately think these people were having a sexual relationship.
Maybe so, but in some cases maybe not. Presumptions are not always right. In the parable of the prodigal son, when the younger son returns to his father, the older brother refuses to celebrate and accuses the younger son of wasting his father's money on 'he and his women'.
There is no mention of women until the older brother reveals his obsession.
I have often asked fathers what was the response when their daughters asked their permission to live with their boyfriend.
The 100% answer is that they were not even asked.
This should not be seen as an act of total disobedience, or even an act of totally disregarding the previous family values, but rather making an informed decision that in this time this would be the best course of action with regard to the relationship.
It should not be seen as a young couple just wanting sex, because after all that can happen anywhere without living together. Young girls are no longer chaperoned.
Debate is about civil marriage, not church marriage
It is worth noting the debate is about civil marriage, not church marriage. The church has every right to safeguard church marriages as they see fit.
The civil government has every right to administer the Family Law Act as they see fit. In many countries, including strong Catholic countries, the two marriages are separated in time and place.
The civil marriage often happens some time before the church marriage. In Australia, our long tradition is that a church wedding also contains within it the civil wedding. A civil wedding never contains a church wedding, but is a civil legality in its own right.
When the church takes on the role of being the moral guardian of the whole of society, and striving to do this through civil legislation, the end result serves neither the civil society, nor the church well.
The concept of the church being the moral policeman of society, regardless of the individual's faith situation is often counter-productive for the individual with regard to faith values. Faith is never developed by legislation.
One of the great tools for the protection of people in general, and religious bodies in particular is that we live in a secular state, and not a religious state where religious law applies to everyone regardless of their individual situation.
The secular state acknowledges and protects legitimate differences in lifestyle that are productive and harmonious for the overall community.
It is only in a secular state that we have the freedom to take up a religious lifestyle or not to take it up. Secular legislation and religious legislation do not always and should not always have to be the same.
Sometimes in our history so-called traditional values and thinking have discriminated wrongly against groups of people.
When the American slave trade was flourishing, a significant number of Christian people in the United States were of the opinion that African-American people were not people at all and had a human soul, but rather were somewhat higher form of animal life! In our own country indigenous aboriginal people were treated the same.
On the Sunshine Coast there is a creek called 'murdering creek' where the good white Christian people would shoot aboriginal people for sport. Surely no thinking person, would regard such traditions, as being inviolate and unchangeable.
I have no desire to argue for or against same-sex marriage, but I think we should understand that society is not static, it changes and culturally evolves because we people change and culturally evolve.
The argument for same-sex civil marriage is certainly a serious one that requires serious reflection. The debate is essentially a civil debate, not a religious debate.
Some people would suggest that given the impetus amongst civil governments in the world, including Ireland with its reputation for being a strong Catholic country, the result is virtually inevitable. I don't think we should embark on this proposition just because other people do it, but we should weigh up the rational reasons for and against in order to make a decision.
We humans show an extraordinary ability to adapt to the changing situations around us. If this does become civil law, and religious law maintains the traditional values of the individual religion, it would seem likely that people will adapt and society will continue to progress.
Father John Dobson has been a long-time priest on the Sunshine Coast as well as Chancellor of the University of the Sunshine Coast. You can find more of his articles here