John Heard: Judge’s outdated sixties thinking undermines family

29 Oct 2008

By therecord

In Perth last week the former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia labelled Catholics as bigots in relation to same-sex marriage. Record columnist John Heard, who is open about his own experience of same-sex attraction, begs to differ from the Judge…

Campaign: Demonstrators stand on the steps of San Francisco City Hall on the first full day of legal same-sex marriage in San Francisco on June 17. Californians will vote in November on an initiative that would ban same-sex marriage and amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, James Harker and Paul Festa pose for pictures in San Francisco City Hall after being “married” by Mayor Gavin Newsom, also on the first full day of legal same-sex marriage in California.Photos: CNS/Erin Siegal, Reuters

An editor came up to me at a conference recently, and – having identified me from a paper we’d worked on – told me that he would “usually cut sentences like the ones” I write. He meant, apparently, that he cuts sentences that are relatively long. He was “no great fan”, he stated, of multiple commas, semi-colons, and colons, and he felt comfortable telling me that he likes plain writing.
When I asked him why he hadn’t cut my (sprawling) sentences down, he said: “Because you seemed to know where you were going”.
The writers who don’t, he implied, deserve to be cut.
In politics, as in writing, there are two ways to be wrong-headed. First, there are those who don’t know where they are going, but carry on anyway.
Like absent-minded writers, such people usually fall foul of the “law of unintended consequences”.
They start off with all the right intentions, and conduct themselves in a disciplined, enlightened manner. However, without proper planning, and without a solid account of their goal – what it is, how to achieve it – even the best intentions can lead to marred outcomes.
In writing, of course, one aims for lucidity, beauty, and truth, whereas in politics the goal is the common good.

“…[Justice Nicholson] said that Catholics in particular “have an almost pathological concern about the recognition of same sex relationships” and a “fear of gay clergy and gay people”.

The danger this first sort of person poses to a democracy is, therefore, relatively minor. This is because good people, (like good writers) once apprised of their mistakes – told, for instance, that they are headed for a brick wall, or worse, for a cliff – will generally change course. They either submit to correction, or else they get what’s coming to them: rejection slips from publishers, or electoral defeat (as the case may be).
Either way, justice is served.
The other sort of wrong person, the much more serious one, is someone who usually knows exactly where he is going, and proceeds diligently to some unreasonable goal. Imagined as a writer, he would have it in his head to ignore the rules of grammar, or deliberately and consistently misspell certain words, even though his final work is incoherent.
In politics, such a person is dangerous precisely because – even in the face of multiple disasters – he will not submit to correction.
If the person has any political power, or other major influence, there is a real threat that when he comes to the final cliff, he will drag the rest of the community over with him.
This is why, in any liberal democracy, we have checks and balances on power.
At the end of things, most office holders are directly accountable to the people. We hope, of course, that “the people” are typically good, and true and we rely on them – assisted by social, religious, educational, and other institutions – to make the right decisions.
The only leaders who aren’t accountable in this way, at least in the Australian political system, are the judges and other officers of the courts who – for the sake of their continued impartiality and the stability of our system – are deliberately kept free from popular pressure. So it makes a certain kind of sense that, now the wider political debate has mostly been resolved against “gay marriage”, it is a few judges, former judges, and some other legal professionals (Attorneys-General, law reform committees, law / bar society members) who are – against the grain of popular, democratic, and bipartisan sentiment – making another push for “gay marriage”.
Recently, indeed, in a speech before a Gay Pride event in Perth, the former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, Alistair Nicholson, said that Catholics in particular “have an almost pathological concern about the recognition of same sex relationships” and a “fear of gay clergy and gay people”. He said that the Church’s arguments for marriage and the family are characterised by religious bigotry and “uninformed and hypocritical” views.
He even claimed that Catholics support positions that have “grave detrimental effects for the children involved”.
Nicholson was doing many things in his speech, but self-editing was not one of them and – in the absence of any real political accountability – it is unlikely he will be challenged to explain his views.
This is a shame, because by demonising those who disagree with him, and by disparaging the views of Catholics – including same sex attracted Catholics like me who support the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family – Nicholson revealed the late, intolerant face of a consensus that has dominated Western culture since about 1968.
It is about time that consensus was destabilised.
Catholics, especially young Catholics, are familiar with its general outlines. In various forms, the goal (stated or otherwise) is to purge politics, the courts, schools and universities of any Christian influence.
Under the umbrella of an enlightened secularism, its disingenuous exponents (often aging radicals) align with the tenets of militant atheism (usually taken to be the “neutral” position in any debate), and then seek to push their beliefs onto the rest of society (the members of which, if they disagree, are charged with trying to do the same).
This is a variant on the “dictatorship of relativism” that the Holy Father has described.
As Victorians have seen recently, during that State’s abortion debates, far from espousing secular principles, this new movement often imposes a particular, anti-human agenda, and its devotees spray anyone who resists.
Christians, and others, are supposed to be shamed into silence or – when the attempt to label whole swathes of people bigots, or fools fails – the “new intolerant” will try to literally shout down opposition.
Unfortunately, the former Chief Justice’s comments must be read in this context. Certainly, beyond the familiar, dated tone of his latest attack (Nicholson claimed that the Church is “completely out of touch”, a well-worn myth that sits uneasily with the massive success of the World Youth Days), the former Chief Justice’s remarks were deliberately provocative. Beyond that, his claims were self-defeating.
Surely, inasmuch as he appeared to suggest that Catholics are motivated by bigotry, ignorance, hypocrisy, cruelty and fear to support marriage and the family, and only reject “gay marriage” because the Church seduces us with child-harming policies, he is getting things confused.
Who would support, let alone love a Church with such a nasty program?
What kind of person, indeed, what kind of Christian, would be motivated by cruelty and fear to visit more cruelty and fear on the vulnerable: especially children?
If Catholics are anything other than monsters (and I’d hope that we have, as a group, proved to be at least a little better than that) Nicholson’s claims about the nature of Catholic teaching and the influence it has on children are simply untenable.
Rather, there is a solid consensus that it is radical sexual, social and political ideologies (circa 1968) that have caused the most lasting harm to our society. In 2008, most citizens have conclusively rejected the movements and ideas that so influenced Nicholson’s generation, and that coloured his controversial time on the Family Court.
Inasmuch as such views underlie his attacks on the Catholic Church, they are rightly considered extreme.
There is, of course, much in Nicholson’s public record (alongside this latest attack) to demonstrate that it is, in fact, the former Chief Justice of the Family Court who is completely out of touch.
Indeed, in a 2004 decision that provoked widespread outrage, Nicholson ruled that a thirteen-year-old child could take drugs to artificially retard her sexual development.
The court-sanctioned stunting was designed to continue until the child could choose (as a legal adult) to undergo a sex change operation, and live as a mutilated “boy”.
Nicholson’s decision provoked denunciations from groups across the political spectrum. He outraged feminists (who saw a gender bias in the Family Court), the Church, and family advocates. It even earned Nicholson his first major homoactivist denunciation; from a transsexual, who regretted a sex change operation performed when he was, he claimed, too young to decide.   
Certainly, while on the Family Court, Nicholson instituted and defended rules, procedures and penalties that many people now believe unfairly punished fathers.
Whole gangs of these people, angry dads who believe Nicholson helped ruin their lives while his court tore apart their families, protest at the former Chief Justice’s public appearances.
Indeed, in some respects, the system Nicholson dominated, if not the ideologies he continues to espouse, could be said to have hurried the disintegration of the family.
In 2005, distinguished historian John Hirst endorsed the conclusion that Nicholson’s Family Court was “a child abuser, a gross abuser of human rights, and…a monstrosity that is not a court of justice”. In his decisions and speeches, certainly, Nicholson never shied away from fanning the flames of a cultural tumult that most citizens would now agree has had multiple, grievous social outcomes.
In many respects, then, we are still falling off the cliff that Nicholson helped rush us towards, after a career marked by distinctly “out of touch” decisions. 
The immediate challenge for the Church in Australia, assailed by the former Chief Justice of the Family Court is, then, the same challenge that Catholics face everywhere. It is the same challenge that has always faced the Christian: how to respond to the anti-Christian world?
To compete effectively in the pluralist public square, to overcome the voices arrayed against us, especially those who would call us bigots and try to shame our bishops, we must know where we are going.
Like my editor with his views on sentence structure, “the people” will indulge many things (occasional rhetorical excesses, a certain reactionary habit), but only if we can convince them that we have a coherent case to make against “gay marriage”, and other mistakes.
We must, therefore, tirelessly articulate, re-assert, and defend a view of human nature that we: (i) learn from the Catholic tradition, (ii) reason towards in our best independent thinking, and (iii) hope lives up to the very high standards set by the Scriptures.
We will always suffer for the truth, and those who rule without remedy will delight in hunting us down but, as Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, we cannot expect any other reality, because: “Christ sent his believers into the whole world as sheep among wolves. Before making a pact with the world, it is necessary to meditate on that comparison”.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.
His blog can be found on the web at: Meanwhile, John Hirst’s comments on the Family Court can be found on the web as: