As a non-binding poll on same-sex marriage in Australia looms, some leading Catholic bishops have again clarified Catholic teaching that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

“I wish to state quite clearly that the Catholic Church, through its official teaching, cannot support proposals for the changing of the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples,” Archbishop Tim Costelloe of Perth wrote an Aug. 17 pastoral letter.

He explained that this position is based on Catholic conviction that marriage is a beautiful union of a man and a woman for life, and the best way to raise children. These convictions rest on the belief that God’s “creative design is written into the nature of creation itself and especially into the nature of humanity.”

“This view presumes that marriage is about more than the mutual love between two people: it is also about the creation of a family,” the archbishop said, while also rejecting unjust discrimination against same-sex couples.

Australia is about to conduct a ballot survey by mail on whether to recognize gay marriage. Ballots will go out Sept. 12, with voters encouraged to return their ballots by Oct. 27. The final deadline for ballots is Nov. 7.

The poll is not legally binding, but if the results show support for legalizing gay marriage, a bill to do so would be introduced in parliament, where members of parliament would not be bound to vote with the public.

In mid-August, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney told The Australian newspaper that the redefinition of marriage would imperil the free exercise of religion.

“In other parts of the world that have legalized same-sex marriage, those who believe in traditional marriage have been harassed or coerced into complying with the new view of marriage,” he said. “It would be extremely naive to think that won’t happen here.”

Archbishop Fisher said the only explicit religious protections he had seen applied to ministers of religion and civil celebrants.

“What protections will be offered to people who work for church-run institutions such as schools, hospitals and universities?” he said. “Will teachers be free to teach church teaching on marriage or will they be forced to teach a more politically correct curriculum?”

The archbishop asked political leaders to explain whether schoolchildren would be subject to “propaganda in favor of same-sex marriage and gender fluidity” as part of anti-bullying programs, and whether parents and church schools could exempt the children under their charge.

“Will employers of such church agencies be free to choose staff in sympathy with their church’s teachings?” he asked, also wondering whether Catholic welfare agencies would be required to provide marriage preparation or counselling for same-sex couples or face anti-discrimination penalties.

For his part, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne became the subject of media coverage for commenting that Catholic Church employees who contract a same-sex union risk being fired for publicly contradicting Catholic teaching.

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.”

“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.

Cook added:

“Christians have the secret of happiness and the key to truth — Jesus Christ. It is undeniable that the many young people have succumbed to a tidal wave of secularization. But — so Catholics believe — the attractiveness of the Gospel message cannot fade. There should be no room for pessimism in advertising the beauty of the Christian vision of marriage.”