The Hon. Michael Kirby talks at UNE about engaging with the Catholic Church about homosexuality

JUSTICE: The Hon. Michael Kirby spoke at UNE on Thursday. Photo: Nicholas Fuller
JUSTICE: The Hon. Michael Kirby spoke at UNE on Thursday. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

One of Australia's foremost jurists, the Hon. Michael Kirby, AC CMG, spoke at UNE's School of Law, Thursday, about homosexuality and the Catholic Church.

Mr Kirby was Australia's longest-serving judge until his retirement in 2009. He is an international figure, appointed to UN, Commonwealth of Nations, and World Bank bodies. He has visited UNE several times to deliver lectures and host graduation ceremonies.

Mr Kirby - himself gay, and an Anglican - visited the Vatican in April on a high-level delegation from the International Bar Association to encourage Pope Francis to urge the abolition of laws criminalising homosexuality.

"What is done in the Vatican is relevant not just for Catholics, but for Christian people everywhere, and therefore the leadership of Pope Francis will be very important," Mr Kirby said.

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Gay sex is still illegal in most Islamic countries, and in 32 of the 54 Commonwealth countries - the legacy of the British Empire, where more people were hanged for sodomy than for murder in mid-19th century England.

"Everywhere the Union Jack ever flew, there was a criminal law against gays, and very severe punishments," Mr Kirby said. "Those criminal laws still exist today."

Attempts to abolish those laws repeatedly fail because politicians fear they will be defeated in the elections, Mr Kirby said. India only decriminalised homosexuality last year, "liberating millions from this relic of colonial times".

Britain itself legalised homosexuality in 1967. Australia began the process in the 1970s: South Australia first, in 1975; Tasmania last, in 1997. France, more rational, abolished the offence in 1791, followed by most of Europe.

LEGAL EAGLES: Michael Kirby with Professor Michael Adams, Head of UNE's School of Law. Photo - Nicholas Fuller.

LEGAL EAGLES: Michael Kirby with Professor Michael Adams, Head of UNE's School of Law. Photo - Nicholas Fuller.

The International Bar Association, the world's leading organisation of lawyers and law societies, resolved in 2011 to oppose the criminalisation of same-sex activity.

An Argentine lawyer - the Pope's compatriot - suggested approaching the Pope to secure his support for a statement that criminal laws against gay people should be removed in every country, and so influence governments.

The Pope has shown a more tolerant attitude than his predecessors. In April, he said homosexual tendencies were not sinful. "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" he told a press conference in 2013. Last year, he told a gay Chilean sex abuse victim to accept himself, and that God and the Pope loved him the way he was. He believes, though, that gay people should not join the clergy.

When the IBA learnt that the Pope might declare that criminalising homosexuality was not necessary to Catholic doctrine, it sent 50 delegates to see the Pope.

ROME: Will Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Palorin move towards a more gay-friendly Catholicism?

ROME: Will Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Palorin move towards a more gay-friendly Catholicism?

Mr Kirby, co-chair of the IBA's Human Rights Institute, would be the gay representative, "speaking to the very heart of the Catholic Church in Rome".

The delegation was told the Pope would grant a private audience - but, just as Mr Kirby was about to fly out of Australia, he learnt they would instead see the Vatican's highest official, His Eminence Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Secretary of State of the Holy See.

Mr Kirby was unsure whether to go, but his spouse, Johan van Vloten, urged him to travel.

"You have an opportunity to go into the very heart of the Roman Catholic Church," Mr Kirby reported his partner telling him. "It is a place of huge influence on people and their faith and their beliefs all around the world, and you must not forfeit the opportunity to speak truth to power."

WEDDING: Michael Kirby married his partner, Johan van Vloten, this February, on the 50th anniversary of their meeting.

WEDDING: Michael Kirby married his partner, Johan van Vloten, this February, on the 50th anniversary of their meeting.

Mr Kirby told the Cardinal of his pain and sorrow growing up with a "big, dark secret" he could not share with his family. "It is very wrong to impose that obligation of false shame about something you do not choose, and cannot change," he said.

He only came out to his mother shortly before her death, he told the UNE audience.

"She looked at me with her lovely green-blue eyes, and said: 'Michael, you've been bringing Johan here for 30 years, every Sunday night. Do you think I came down in the last shower?' So parents know, and love is love."

Mr Kirby told the Cardinal he hoped the Pope would declare that those laws should be ended.

The Cardinal said there was much common ground to uphold human dignity, and avoid violence and discrimination, and would convey the request for continued dialogue to the Pope.

THOUGHTFUL: A pensive Michael Kirby.

THOUGHTFUL: A pensive Michael Kirby.

In June, however, the Congregation for Catholic Education issued a dictum, "Male and Female - He Created Them", condemning teaching gender theory - particularly gender and sexual fluidity.

"It's mainly a statement against trans people," Mr Kirby said. "It's not so much about gay people - but it's not friendly."

The Catholic Church, Mr Kirby said, cannot condone any variation in gender stamped on people by their body-parts. The CCE consulted theologians, philosophers, and church historians - but not, Mr Kirby said, the gay and transgender people most affected: "Not the people who can tell from real-life experience of the tears on the pillows as children coming to terms with their actuality."

The dialogue would, however, continue, he said.

Michael Kirby, in Canberra.

Michael Kirby, in Canberra.

Gay and transgender issues, Mr Kirby said, would become more important in Australia, particularly with demands to legally protect religious freedoms - in practice, believers' right to declare what they believed, even when offensive to others.

Australia, unlike almost every other democratic country, lacks a bill of rights. It does not formally protect, Mr Kirby said, young people's right to education, life, health, information, and to speak points of view with which religious people might not agree.

"If we make protection for religious freedoms, who is then going to speak up for the other rights and freedoms?" he asked. "Where will the words be that judges and tribunals can find to counterbalance the rights of the religious?"

Some Bible passages support hate - a passage in the Gospel of Matthew led to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution, culminating in the Holocaust - while some religious people want to exclude young gay people, or remove gay teachers.

"How do we respond? This is their religion, so they can do it?" Mr Kirby asked.

Gay youths were three times more likely to think of suicide, according to the Ruddock Religious Freedom Review (2018), and transgender people 18 times more likely to commit suicide - particularly if told they must stick with their body parts.

THINKERS: Michael Kirby with UNE's new vice-chancellor Professor Brigid Heywood. Photo - Nicholas Fuller.

THINKERS: Michael Kirby with UNE's new vice-chancellor Professor Brigid Heywood. Photo - Nicholas Fuller.

"Some people are thrown out; some suffer cruelty; and trans people suffer the hardest cruelty of all - which is not always understood or supported by gay people," Mr Kirby said.

"It's a matter of getting to know you, and once you get to know people, it's not such a big deal, really."

Mr Kirby hoped the story would have a happy ending - "but I'm not sure it will," he said.

"We will solve our Australian ending in the democratic way, but how it will be solved in the councils of the Roman Catholic Church, only Pope Francis, his colleagues, and the Holy See in Rome will ultimately reveal."

UNE's new vice-chancellor Brigid Heywood thanked Mr Kirby for his lecture. "He has reminded us of the history behind one of the great debates of the 21st century; of the burden of that debate on individuals, on people we know; and of the importance of that debate to this great nation, Australia."

This story Gay sex and the Catholic Church: Michael Kirby talks at UNE first appeared on The Armidale Express.