The year is 2025 – nine years after a plebiscite narrowly approved same-sex ‘marriage’ and Parliament amended the Marriage Act and many other laws to remove all references to ‘a man and a woman’, ‘husband and wife’ and ‘mother and father’. After an initial flurry of rather colourful same-sex ‘weddings’, numbers have now plateaued to only a few hundred each year. Sociologists debate the long-term effects on public understandings of marriage and family. Certainly there have been political ramifications: no major party allows dissenters on this issue; this caused some significant haemorrhaging from Parliament before the 2019 election; even for most ‘independents’ going against ‘the tide of history’ on this matter is regarded as disadvantageous.

While provisions in the Marriage (Marriage Equality Amendment) Act exempting registered ministers of religion and registered places of worship from taking part in ‘gay weddings’ have continued to stand in law, the High Court has ruled that section 116 of the Constitution does not protect faith-based schools from having to teach a ‘gay friendly’ state-imposed curriculum; continuing to teach that marriage is an opposite-sex union was held by a majority of the justices to be motivated by outmoded and bigoted attitudes and to be harmful to children. Already one Catholic bishop has been briefly jailed for refusing to apply the state-approved ‘LGBTIQQ safety orotocols and awareness program’ to the schools in his diocese; and parents at Jewish and Muslim schools have been advised that they may not withdraw their children from such programs.

Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher giving the 2015 Acton Lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies.

"People should in general be free to seek and believe what they will religiously, and given latitude to worship and live according to their conscientious beliefs. This is not a case of making exceptions for benighted eccentrics, but a recognition of something essential to human flourishing and enriching for the community."

Many clergy and teachers in faith-based schools have been cowed with threats of prosecution for ‘hate speech’ if they teach that divine law limits marriage to people of opposite sex. There are also actions pending against evangelical Christian and Maronite Catholic business owners for failing to provide photography, stretch limousine and hospitality services for ‘gay weddings’. Greens and others have used this issue to chip away at the remaining ‘exemptions’ and ‘benefits’ enjoyed by churches and faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies. Government schools in most states no longer allow Scripture classes and church-based adoption services were forced to close. Religious organisations are now required to extend spousal benefits to same-sex ‘married’ employees, have lost their charitable status, and now pay the same taxes and rates levied on any other business.

By 2025, public speeches and debates on same-sex ‘marriage’ and the like are rare as few organisations and venues are willing to risk the vilification that follows upon hosting them. The idea that marriage is a natural institution that precedes states and religions, that it is founded on sexual complementarity and oriented to family formation, is now regarded as unspeakable in the public square - though from time to time the usual suspects still raise it in their ‘extreme right-wing’ think-tanks, newspaper columns or pulpits.

Will all this come to pass in the decade ahead and, if so, what does it say about the quality of our democracy right now and about our nation’s particular take on secularity and religious freedom? Many years ago, when I was still a young priest and academic, the commentator BA Santamaria asked me how it was that I was so optimistic about our culture. I responded that it was probably partly temperamental, partly my reading of the trends, and partly a matter of theological hope. He responded that he was not as naturally sunny in temper as I was, that he read the trends in our civilisation more pessimistically, and that Christian faith only promises things will turn out for the best ‘in the end’: in the meantime things could get very bleak indeed!...

The need for civil discourse: the case of the same-sex marriage ‘debate’
Eight centuries ago rights talk was less fashionable than it is today: yet already people were aware of duties owed and grievances sustained. The first right recognised in the Magna Carta was religious liberty; the ecclesia Anglicana was to be free to order her affairs and enjoy her liberties ‘unimpaired’. We are heirs to the idea that religion, in the very broad sense of speculation about the higher order of things, or the ultimate ground of reality, and consequent honour of that or worship of those beyond the here and now, is a universal good. People should in general be free to seek and believe what they will religiously, and given latitude to worship and live according to their conscientious beliefs. This is not a case of making exceptions for benighted eccentrics, but a recognition of something essential to human flourishing and enriching for the community. So the right to the free exercise of religion is recognised in multiple international treaties.

I will not rehearse my case for marriage as traditionally understood and for retaining that understanding of marriage in our laws which I have offered on many occasions. Tonight I would like to reflect instead upon the conduct of the public ‘debate’ on this issue so far and what this reveals about the state of our democracy.

When people like me and some of you enter the fray on marriage we now expect to be tagged “ultra-conservative”, “tedious imbecile”, “delusional nutter”, “evangelical clap-trapper” and even “nauseating piece of filth” not just in the anti-social media but even in the mainstream. What is new is that such ad hominem hails not just from fevered activists and net trolls but from respected journalists and public figures. The ABC’s Q&A programme intrudes the same-sex issue, whatever the published topic of the evening every time; but even when a whole episode is devoted to debating the question it is very clear that only one view will gain serious attention. A number of commentators have noted the biased reporting on the same-sex marriage issue in many media outlets and the refusal of some to allow even paid advertisements for the other side. When the ABC’s Media Watch said it was time to give both sides a hearing, it was roundly scolded on the basis that hate has no rights and that it is ‘false balance’ to give the pro-traditional-marriage side any attention at all.

Closed-mindedness is, of course, no monopoly of people engaging on same-sex ‘marriage’. But I think the refusal to listen is presently mostly on one side. Those in favour of the traditional understanding of marriage know their opponents’ slogans and arguments well: “tolerance and diversity”, “love is love”, “no to hate”, hence “marriage equality”. But advocates of ‘gay marriage’ seem to think no reasonable person could think other than as they do; that not only are they right on this issue, but that their opponents are irrational and operating out of blind traditionalism or, more likely, hatred.

This is surely one of the strangest aspects of the ‘debate’ so far: that the understanding of marriage found in pretty well every serious civilisation, legal system, religion and philosophy till recently - that marriage brings together a man and a woman as husband and wife to be father and mother of any children that follow from their marital union - is now incomprehensible, even unspeakable, for many of our intelligentsia, journalists, politicians and business leaders. As Brendan O’Neill observed, “a chokingly conformist climate” now prevails on this and many other issues in Australia, so that those who dare to disagree will be demonised, harassed and marginalised rather than refuted. That the Catholic Archbishop in Tasmania has been taken to that state’s anti-discrimination commission for distributing a joint bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage is a sign of how far things have gone and are likely to go in the near future if not resisted.

Religious liberty at risk
Same-sex ‘marriage’ proponent, Senator Penny Wong, has insisted that there is nothing to fear from ‘marriage equality’, that religious liberty will be unaffected, and that those who support traditional understandings of marriage are “stubbornly clinging to discriminatory laws” and only offer arguments that are “increasingly irrational”. Such claims of bigotry and irrationality are strange given that Senator Wong herself opposed the redefinition until fairly recently. In any case, international experience of redefining marriage belies Senator Wong’s optimism about religious liberty. In the joint pastoral letter of Australia’s bishops many examples were given of individuals and groups who have suffered financial, social or legal sanction for holding to traditional marriage in places that have legislated for same-sex marriage or civil unions. Since that pastoral was published there have been more cases. Ministers of religion and places of worship may receive niggardly ‘exemptions’ in such regimes, but ordinary believers and their businesses are given no leeway and even religious institutions such as schools, hospitals and welfare agencies are expected to tow the PC line. Some Australian civil liberties commentators fear that were same-sex ‘marriage’ legalised here the power of the state would be similarly mobilised against dissenters. In the Tasmanian case the complainant seeks not only to have the archbishop sanctioned but also to have all church schools forced to promote LGBTI ‘awareness’, tolerance and behaviour.

"(D)emocracy degenerates into despotism when it licences such vilification of people’s conscientious beliefs."

In early 2013, lesbian couple Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman asked the Oregon bakery Sweet Cakes to bake a same-sex wedding cake for them. Although bakery owners Melissa and Aaron Klein had always served all comers, they believed that baking a distinctively same-sex wedding cake would be facilitating a same-sex ‘wedding’ and explained that this would violate their religious beliefs that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Cryer and Bowman filed a complaint that they had suffered discrimination based on sexual orientation and the government agency upheld that complaint. Meanwhile the baker couple faced vilification, boycotts of their business, violent protests and even death threats, and were forced to close their shop and work from home. They were then fined $US135,000 and encouraged by the tribunal to receive behaviour modification therapy so they could be rehabilitated. Even if it would not have been unethical for such bakers to assist a same-sex ‘wedding’ in so remote a way, democracy degenerates into despotism when it licences such vilification of people’s conscientious beliefs...

Where to draw the line between claims of conscience and of law
A member of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently said that, sympathetic as she is to religious freedom, there’s a ‘zero-sum’ game with respect to religious freedom and LGBT rights; instead of attempting to balance such competing liberties, society must opt for LGBT rights over religion every time. Several justices in (the case of) Obergefell acknowledged that would be an inevitable effect of the decision to legalise same-sex ‘marriage’. Yet true democracy is a political order that acknowledges deeply held moral and religious convictions are important, permits differences in these matters and, as far as reasonable, allows expression of those differences in action or inaction on conscientious grounds. The democratic state concedes that people must obey both God and Caesar. That is why the various human rights instruments and their underpinning political philosophies acknowledge the right to hold different religious or moral convictions as a non-derogable right, and also rights to express those convictions in public and not be compelled to act against them, to be protected in this by the state and not denied it by powerful ideological, financial or majority-political interests.

Not that all claims of conscience will always be trumps: as the centrality of the human person and the common good grounds respect for conscience, it also requires that practices like child sacrifice be forbidden. Beyond such extremes, considerable latitude is possible. But in post-modernity, having principles, internally consistent and embraced with passion over a long period, is not only less common but can seem unimaginative, even fanatical. The desire to ‘get along’ may mean we give each other space to ‘do our own thing’; but we are left suspicious of what the other person’s ‘thing’ might be and sceptical that there is any truth in matters of life and love. As conscience reduces to personal tastes, respect for its claims is harder to sustain.

Thus while totalitarian secularists will concede some pleas of conscience to oddballs, they aim to rid law and policy of any whiff of incense and are inclined to view conscience claims as marginal, even anti-social. Beyond a narrow field of worship, they would similarly reduce the scope of religious liberty.

In conclusion
The year is 2025 - nine years after the plebiscite to redefine marriage was defeated, partly because most Australians still treasured marriage as traditionally understood, partly because they thought government had no business regulating other friendships, partly because they were convinced a mature democracy does not rush into such important decisions and partly because they feared ‘marriage equality’ would make Australians less equal in matters of faith and conscience. Rather than taking the divisive turn proposed back in 2015, other signs of respect for people with same-sex attraction have been embraced by most Australians. Terms like ‘man and wife’ and ‘mother and father’ survive in law and practice, and new measures help support marriages and marriage-based families. A robust but courteous debate continues, but most agree the decade-long exercise of patience and respect in pursuit of a moral consensus in this area has demonstrated democratic maturity and strengthened, not diminished, common life.

In this 2025 faiths still play a major role in our community as providers of much human and supernatural support, of formation in crucial moral and political values, and as providers of charitable services in education, health and aged car , welfare and the like. Believers feel supported rather than threatened by the state in holding their high ideals and there is healthy dialogue between people of different faiths and between believers and ‘nones’. Australians are proud of their historic ‘compact’ between church and state, freedom of conscience and the rule of law - all the more so in a world where many countries take a less tolerant direction and whole populations have suffered persecution, exile or death as a result. Most agree we should resist totalising ideologies that would seriously upset that historical balance. Most want our bakers to be left to bake good cakes, unencumbered by such dogmatism.

My more sanguine 2025 required people back in 2015 to embrace the mission of not only rebuilding the nation’s physical infrastructure but also renewing its spiritual capital so that it might be visionary, principled and practical, with a right reverence for God and people - to use Pope Francis II’s inherited tests of democratic health. Having and following principles, internally consistent and embraced with passion but also publicly contestable, is not only regarded as epistemically and psychologically defensible but also as socially and politically essential. Forming people in such ideals and giving them confidence in their application was something to which the Church devoted much energy in the intervening decade. Teachers, scholars, lawmakers, commentators and other thoughtful individuals have made important contributions to renewal of our democracy. “Liberty,” as Lord Acton observed, “is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” In the 2010s and 2020s we realised that only by renewing our social-spiritual capital could we ask what that ought is that we should do with our liberty and then be able to do it.

The Most Rev Anthony Fisher is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. This is an edited excerpt of a speech given as the 2015 Acton Lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies on 14th October, 2015.