Amid the debate, several leaders at prestigious Australian boarding schools have weighed in with statements that appeared to challenge the bishops and Catholic teaching.
Principal Paul Hine of the prestigious Sydney-area St. Ignatius' College appeared most defiant of the bishops. In an Aug. 25 message to parents, staff and students, he said Archbishop Hart's comments "have not gone unchallenged."
Hine portrayed his stand as supportive of all the school's self-identified LGBTQI employees. People with same-sex orientation "face the onslaught of the press, religious institutions and the social divisions that surround this contentious matter," he said, adding, "we will continue to support staff in whatever marriage choices they make."
"This is a courageous statement as it not only questions Church officialdom, but, it goes to the heartland of gospel teaching," Hine claimed, adding, "One of the features of Jesuit spirituality is its readiness to challenge prevailing culture by supporting those who may be adversely affected by the vortex of public opinion and disparagement."
The school's rector, Father Ross Jones, S.J., also criticized Archbishop Hart. The priest asserted that contracting a same-sex marriage was a private matter and would not publicly contradict Saint Ignatius College's Catholic values.
While Fr. Jones seemed to back Archbishop Fisher's concerns for religious freedom, he appeared to question Archbishop Costelloe's pastoral letter, saying there is more than one approach to natural law. He outlined an argument which a married couple might use "in good conscience" to reject Catholic teaching on contraception.
"Presumably, same sex-couples, who make such a commitment to each other in good conscience, do so by reflecting on experience and on what it is to be human, using their God-given reason," said the priest.
Saint Ignatius' College alumni include Archbishop Fisher, as well as former Prime Minister Tony Abbot and current deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce. Both oppose the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriages.
In Melbourne the rector of Xavier College, Father Chris Middleton, S.J., voiced concerns that opposition to same-sex marriage was being virtually equated with "hate speech," as well as concerns about offensive posters against gay marriage that were being posted in Melbourne.
"The 'yes' campaign, in my reading of the polls, can only lose if a perception of suppressing alternative voices alienates many in the middle, and the 'no' campaign can risk all credibility for its proponents in Australian society if they are identified with prejudiced or hateful language," he said.
Fr. Middleton said the debate over marriage "exposes a real disconnect between the Church's public opposition to same-sex civil marriage and the attitudes of young people," given "almost total unanimity amongst the young in favor of same-sex marriage." He said young people are "driven by a strong emotional commitment to equality, and this is surely something to respect and admire."
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"They are idealistic in the value they ascribe to love, the primary gospel value. Any argument against same-sex-marriage must respectfully address these core values, or they will fail a basic test of credibility with our young."
Michael Cook, writing of the Australian religious commentary site MercatorNet, reflected on these leaders' remarks.
"For many Catholics, there must be a deep sadness in this admission of failure of schools to pass on Catholic values to the next generation," Cook said Aug. 31.
He characterized Fr. Jones' comments as "muddled and meandering", and suggested both rectors' statements reflected a defeatist attitude out-of-step with Pope Francis' hopefulness.
Cook cited the Pope's 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, which said defeatism is both among "the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal" and something which "turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, 'sourpusses'."
"Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand," the Pope said.