ROME – Responding to the results of Australia’s non-binding referendum by postal vote on same-sex marriage – with the “yes” earning 61 percent of the votes – the president of the country’s bishops’ conference said that a change in civil law doesn’t change the Catholic understanding of marriage.
“The Catholic Church, and many others who sought to retain the traditional definition of marriage as it has been understood for centuries, continues to view marriage as a special union between a woman and a man, which allows for the creation and nurture of children,” said Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne.
In a statement made on Wednesday in the wake of the result of the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, Hart also said that the Church “continues to respect the dignity of LGBTIQ Australians and our ministries will continue to care deeply about the dignity and value of all people we encounter.”
Noting that 4.8 million Australians are opposed to a “change to the definition of marriage,” he also urged parliamentarians to recognize their concerns by “putting in place strong conscience and religious freedom protections.
“These protections must ensure that Australians can continue to express their views on marriage, that faith-based schools can continue to teach the traditional understanding of marriage and that organizations can continue to operate in a manner that is consistent with those values,” Hart said.
Bishop Michael McKenna of the Diocese of Bathurst also released a statement following the result, sharing some of the concerns expressed by Hart: “I trust that the assurances given, by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, that any legislation would not impinge on religious liberty, will be respected.
“I would encourage everyone to work together in a spirit of cooperation for social harmony and the common good,” McKenna wrote in his statement.
Heading into the vote, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, of the Diocese of Parramata, unlike most of the bishops, did not call on Catholics to vote “no,” instead saying it was a “decision each person is free to make.”
“It should be an opportunity for us to witness to our deep commitment to the ideal of Christian marriage,” he had said. “But it should also be an opportunity for us to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times.”
Hours after the results of the postal service vote were announced, his diocese issued a statement saying it “respects the will of the Australian people.
“It now seems likely that civil marriage will be open to people of the same-sex and we respect that outcome,” the diocese said, adding that the Catholic Church will continue to “promote and practice the tenet of our faith,” that marriage is a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, and open to life.
The Diocese of Parramata also echoed the calls for the Australian parliament to ensure that “proper freedoms” are legislated, guaranteeing that those who remain in favor of the traditional definition of marriage are “free to speak, teach and act on this belief.”
“They voted Yes for fairness. They voted Yes for commitment. They voted Yes for love,” said Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister in an address broadcast this morning. “Now it is up to us, here in the parliament of Australia, to get on with it.”
The majority of parliamentarians supported the Yes campaign, though several have vowed to vote down gay marriage regardless of the result. However, a draft bill to legalize it is now expected to pass before Christmas.
A total of 133 out of 150 electorates recorded a majority “Yes” result while only 17 voted “No.” The national survey returned 7.8 million responses in support of same sex marriage and 4.9 million voted against.
Government Senator Dean Smith on Wednesday introduced a bill to the Senate permitting only churches and ministers of religion to refuse to celebrate same-sex weddings.
“If there are amendments, let’s see them, but let’s be clear about this: Australians did not participate in a survey to have one discrimination plank removed, to have other planks of discrimination piled upon them,” Smith told reporters, according to The Associated Press.
Though some prominent Catholics openly acknowledged to voting “Yes,” they, too, voiced concerns regarding religious freedom.
For instance, Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, head of Catholic Social Services Australia, wrote for the Jesuit publication Eureka Street that he had voted yes, but acknowledged the validity of the concerns.
“I am one of those Australians who will be pleased when same-sex marriages are recognized by Australian law but with adequate protection for religious freedoms,” he wrote back in late August.
The Coalition for Marriage, which campaigned for a “No” vote, declared it was committed to defending the freedom of those who voted no.
Lyle Shelton, spokesman for the coalition, said: “I don’t think anyone who voted in this postal survey wants to see their fellow Australians put up on hate speech charges.
“We need to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and also freedom of religion,” she added.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney said he’s “deeply disappointed” with the results, adding that the potential legislation would “further deconstruct marriage and family in Australia.”
He also praised the voters who “stuck to their guns and voted No or abstained,” despite the fact that from the start it often seemed “a David and Goliath struggle with politicians, corporates, celebrities, journalists, professional and sporting organizations drowning out the voices of ordinary Australians and pressuring everyone to vote Yes.”