Even in a free country it is very unusual for a government to ask, plainly and directly, its people for their opinion on a specific proposed policy; but it is nigh-on unheard of that any question concerning a proposed policy would have one, and only one, correct answer. Yet that is exactly what is happening Down Under for the next few weeks as the Australian government, considering legislation to recognize “same-sex marriage”, is asking its people a single, straight-forward question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
Although I and others argue that “same-sex marriage” can be considered, though rejected, on purely philosophical, specifically natural law, grounds (meaning that one need not be a Christian or even a believer to follow these arguments or to understand why “same-sex marriage” cannot exist), here I specifically address the responsibility of Australian Catholics qua Catholics to answer their government’s simple question with a simple “No”—remarks that seem necessary given the shallowness of some recent comments offered by some Australian prelates, those, despite the crystal clarity of the answer that (as a matter, I suggest, of pastoral dutyunder Canons 213, 386, 747 § 2, and 760) should be given to Catholic faithful.
So, Catholicus Catholicis, here we go.
Jesus expects all of us to be good citizens and summarizes our political obligations with his famous remark “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In nations blessed with the ballot, being a good citizen implies, among other things, the obligation to inform ourselves about issues and to vote in furtherance of the common good. See Catechism of the Catholic Church 1915 and 2238-2240.
To be sure, the great majority of issues coming before political leaders are practical in nature (cf. Aristotle on politics being the art of the practical) and so do not have obvious yes-or-no answers. Thus, even though some faith-based analysis might help illuminate this political point or that, in general, we Catholics are free to disagree among ourselves about most political issues and, in consequence, we must “avoid setting forth [our] own opinions as the doctrine of the Church.”1983 CIC 227. But, in those rare instances where “doctrine of the Church” is precisely what is at issue in a governmental policy, different norms apply.
Canon 209 § 1 states that the “Christian faithful, even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church.” Note the canon says always, not always except in the voting booth, but always.
Canon 1055 § 1 states that marriage exists between a man and a woman. Never in the history of the Church (again, I could say never in human history, but this post is directed to Catholics and not to the world in general) has marriage ever been recognized as anything other than the union of a man and a woman. Never. Ever. Which leads us to the next point.
The Church’s multi-millennial treatment of marriage as uniting a man and woman is so constant and so consistent that one must conclude that Church teaching on this point is definitive and has been proclaimed infallibly by the ordinary Magisterium. See 1983 CIC 749 § 2. Now, the fact that an assertion is proclaimed by the Church with infallible certainty has canonical implications for us as Catholics, including, that a Catholic who rejects such an assertion “is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.” 1983 CIC 750 § 2. And what can happen to Catholics who reject the doctrine of the Church? PerCanon 1371 n. 1 they can be subjected to a “just penalty”.
But the stakes for us as Catholics are likely higher still.
It is, in my view, settled that the Church’s teaching on marriage (as something possible only between a man and woman) is not simply asserted infallibly, as noted above, but is also revealed by God as an “object of belief”. If this is correct (and I know of no credible argument to the contrary), rejection of this point of Church teaching on marriage is heresy per Canon 750, heresy that can render a Catholic liable to excommunication and, if that Catholic is a cleric, to dismissal from the clerical state. 1983 CIC 1364.
Let’s draw these points together.
Although it would be impossible to prove canonically how a given Catholic voted in this marriage plebiscite, a fact that moots the prosecution of a charge under Canon 1364 or 1371 based only one’s vote—though not necessarily of a charge based on one’s public support for the proposal per Canon 1369, or even on one’s negligent failure to oppose it per Canon 1389—this forensic impossibility of proof regarding a ballot does not exempt Catholics from the obligationin conscience “to maintain communion with the Church” (c. 209), does not excuse Catholics from acknowledging what is beyond question “the doctrine of the Church” (c. 227), and does not justify a Catholic taking an action that is probably tantamount to heresy (c. 751).
Insofar as good citizenship is, as noted above, a moral duty for all Catholics, our conduct as citizens, including our casting a ballot, has moral implications; we are accountable to God, who sees everything, for every morally significant choice we make, including casting a ballot.
So I end these remarks where I began, by underscoring how very unusual it is for a government to ask its people a straight-forward question such as “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” and by wondering how often is a Catholic asked to vote on an issue that is directly and authoritatively answered for Catholics by the Church? Yet Australian Catholics are precisely in that position, they are being asked to vote on a matter of grave public concern on which the Church has an unalterable position. How, in the meantime, some Australian ecclesiastics can think that this question, as it is actually posed to voters, is somehow complicated, or can suggest that there is any room for disagreement among Catholics concerning the answer, or shrug off the prospects of Australia passing a “same-sex marriage” law as ‘not being the end of the world’ (as if anything besides the end of the world itself could ever be the end of the world), escapes me.
(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” blog and is reposted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.)