Please hold the line

The letter came from Michael Digges, the business manager at the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney. He is a cheerful looking man in heavy spectacles and clashing patterns, the kind of person who keeps pens in his top pocket and appears innocuous, who doesn’t know what to do with his face in photographs.

“You may be aware that the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney is a significant user of goods and services from many corporations, both local and international,” the letter began.

And later: “Undoubtedly, many of the Catholic population of Sydney would be your employees, customers, partners and suppliers. It is therefore with grave concern that I write to you about the Marriage Equality for Australians campaign.”

The letter was sent to organisations that undersigned a newspaper advertisement supporting marriage equality, which ran in May and June last year.

The subtext was scarcely subtext at all: continue to publicly support marriage equality and the Catholic Church will boycott your services. Digges’ jarring patterns were more a curdled logic.

After the letter was sent, the then chair of Telstra, Catherine Livingstone, was reportedly summoned to the offices of the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher. Telstra holds multimillion-dollar contracts in Catholic schools. An insider told The Australian the company “did not want to risk its commercial relationship with the church”.

At the meeting with Fisher, Telstra agreed to quietly back away from the campaign for marriage equality. This week, the company said it had “no further plans to be active in the debate”.

The church has an ancient view of its primacy. It has an ancient view of marriage, too: described in Digges’ letter as being “as it is now and has been over the millennia”.

But it is out of step with society. Often, it is out of step with its own congregation. Many would be appalled to know that the church used its businesses – businesses built on tax exemptions – to secretly force companies into abandoning social causes.

A church that acts this way is a church of power rather than religion. It is the work not of a faith but a pressure group. It is a church poisoned by a high-handed executive, a church aware of its dwindling relevance, working in the shadows to maintain its import.

Telstra was wrong to step back from its support for marriage equality. It has stepped back from decency. The other businesses that signed up to the Australian Marriage Equality campaign last year would do well to step forward now and make their support vocal. They will be in agreement with the majority of Australians and with history.

And that is what is truly appalling. The church’s view is a minority position. It has become the fringe on this issue. But the church’s spectral power – in business, in politics – trades on a fear that continually overestimates its position.

In Digges’ letter he characterises support for marriage equality as part of a “cashed-up, activist-driven media campaign”. But it is nowhere near as cashed up as the medieval campaign run by the church; certainly, it is nowhere near as activist.

The next census will place “no religion” as the first option in its question about belief. Business and politics would be wise to do the same.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2016 as "Please hold the line".

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