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Australian bishop on same-sex marriage: Listen to ‘signs of the times’

Pope Francis appointed Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, a 54-year-old former refugee who had fled war-torn Vietnam by boat, to lead the Australian Diocese of Parramatta. Bishop Nguyen is pictured in an undated photo. (Credit: CNS photo/Catholic Weekly.)

Although most Australian bishops are urging a “no” vote on an upcoming national plebiscite regarding gay marriage, two prelates are singing outside the chorus. Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen of Parramatta says the vote “should be an opportunity for us to witness to our deep commitment to the ideal of Christian marriage … but it should also be an opportunity for us to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times.”

ROME – After statements from several Australian bishops reaffirming Church teaching to Catholics in the country ahead of an upcoming vote on same-sex marriage, a two bishops are singing outside the chorus, with one of them saying it’s a “decision each person is free to make.”

Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, appointed by Pope Francis to the diocese of Parramatta, also said that just like the legalization of divorce didn’t change the law of the Church, whatever the outcome of the same-sex plebiscite that will take place later this year, it won’t change the teaching of the Church.

“The Church will continue to hold that marriage is a natural institution established by God to be a permanent union between one man and one woman, directed both to mutual companionship and to the formation of a family in which children are born and nurtured,” he wrote.

Long also called Catholics to exercise their responsibility to engage in this “community discernment,” saying that it’s not a matter of a simple yes or no.

“It should be an opportunity for us to witness to our deep commitment to the ideal of Christian marriage,” he said. “But it should also be an opportunity for us to listen to what the Spirit is saying through the signs of the times.”

Over the next two weeks, Australian households will receive a postal ballot enabling the 16 million eligible voters to have their say. Opinion polls show a majority will vote in favor. If this is the case, the government has vowed to introduce legislation in parliament to legalize same-sex marriage before Christmas.

The ballots are supposed to be sent back in November. Unlike a referendum, where the citizens’ vote changes the law or at least cannot be easily dismissed, the plebiscite is only a sampling of public opinion and is not legally binding.

“It is important to remember from the very outset that the postal survey is about whether or not Australians want the legal definition of civil marriage changed to include same-sex couples,” Long wrote.

“It is not a referendum on sacramental marriage as understood by the Catholic Church,” he added, in a pastoral letter addressed to his diocese, signed Sept. 13.

Long is a Vietnamese-Australian who was appointed bishop by Pope Francis last year. His appointment made international headlines because he was the first Australian bishop of Vietnamese origin. He arrived in the country in a refugee boat, back in the early 1980s.

Back in February, he told the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that, even though he was an adult when he got to the country, he too had been sexually abused by clerics, and that this made him empathize with other victims.

For many Catholics, Long wrote in his letter, same-sex marriage is not “simply theoretical but deeply personal,” either because they themselves experience same-sex attraction, or because friends or relatives do.

“In such cases, they are torn between their love for the Church and their love for their same-sex attracted child, grandchild, sibling, cousin, friend or neighbor,” he wrote.

Reiterating the commitment he made at his installation to make the Church in Parramatta a house for all peoples, where one can experience less exclusion and more “an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity,” he said it includes everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, marital status and situation.

Long also wrote that throughout history, LGBTI people have often not been treated with respect.

“Regrettably, the Church has not always been a place where they have felt welcomed, accepted and loved,” he said. For this matter, and regardless of how the survey goes, Catholics must commit to reaching out to LGBTI people, “affirming their dignity and accompanying them on our common journey towards the fullness of life and love in God.”

Bishop Bill Wright, of Maitland-Newcastle, took a similar position, saying that a “common good” argument could be made that “in our pluralist society, it does more for community peace and harmony for gay couples to have a place in the recognized structures than for them to be excluded.”

Writing on the diocesan website, Wright said that some time ago he’d noted that the push for same-sex marriage “seemed to arise from the desire of gay couples to have an officially sanctioned ceremony to formalize their commitment to each other and then to have that relationship accorded legal and social recognition.”

According to Wright, it’s an anomaly that in a society where same-sex relationships are legal and gay couples can adopt and raise children, the relationship itself doesn’t have a clear legal status.

Long’s seemingly open attitude towards civil gay marriage is in contradiction to what the Church teaches.

Several news outlets in Australia have accused local bishops of going against Francis, whom they perceive to be in favor of gay marriage because of his “Who am I to judge?” comment, and his call for a more inclusive Church.

However, Francis actually has defended Catholic teaching on the matter. In his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, he wrote: “As for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney challenged media perceptions in a blog post dated August 31. He quotes both things Francis has said recently, but also things he said while he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires as well, when Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage.

“A marriage – made up of man and woman – is not the same as the union of two people of the same sex. To distinguish is not to discriminate but to respect differences,” then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio wrote at the time. “At a time when we place emphasis on the richness of pluralism and social and cultural diversity, it is a contradiction to minimize fundamental human differences.”

Fisher proceeds to quote several occasions in which Francis has reiterated the Church’s position, writing that sensitive pastoral care towards gays and lesbians, including same-sex couples, “is consistent with upholding the truth about marriage.

“Pope Francis has repeatedly argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage would be ‘a step backwards for humanity’ and gravely harm us all – homosexuals included – because the health of the ‘human ecology’ depends on a healthy marital culture,” Fisher writes, quoting speeches Francis gave in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Quoting Amoris Laetitia quoting a pastoral letter from the Australian bishops, the prelate also wrote that each spouse contributes in a distinct way to the upbringing of a child. For this reason, “Respecting a child’s dignity means affirming his or her need and natural right to have a mother and a father.”

There are five million Catholics in Australia, and recently Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne issued a warning that Catholic employees would be expected to live according to teaching, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

“Our teachers, our parish employees are expected totally to uphold the Catholic faith and what we believe about marriage. People have to see in words and in example that our teaching of marriage is underlined,” he said.

A pamphlet published by the Australian Bishops’ Conference earlier this month argues that saying that marriage is between a man and a woman is “not a criticism of other kinds of relationships,” nor an assertion “of bigotry, religious dogma or irrational tradition, but a recognition of human ecology.”

In late August, the bishops also launched a campaign, inviting Catholics to pray and fast during the month of October “because all families need our prayers and need God’s Grace.”

The website for the Catholic Marriage and Family Council invites parishes, schools and homes across the country to pray “for our nation’s understanding of the importance of marriage: that we will act to protect God’s plan for marriage and family life. We also pray for the well-being of marriages and families, and in a particular way for people who are same-sex attracted or gender questioning.”

This story has been updated.