This month in Maryland and the state of Washington, an extraordinary dynamic is playing itself out: Two Catholic governors are prodding legislators to pass bills legalizing same-gender marriage. Like Govs. Andrew Cuomo in New York and Pat Quinn in Illinois — whose states recently legalized same-sex civil unions — Govs. Martin O’Malley and Christine Gregoire are acting against the strongly expressed opposition of their church’s bishops.
As Catholics who are involved in lesbian and gay ministry and outreach, we are aware that many people, some of them Catholics, believe that Catholics cannot faithfully disobey the public policies of the church’s hierarchy. But this is not the case.
The Catholic Church is not a democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. Ideally, our bishops should strive to proclaim the sensus fidelium , the faith as it is understood by the whole church. At the moment, however, the bishops and the majority of the church are at odds. A survey published in September by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 52 percent of Catholics support marriage equality and 69 percent support civil unions.
Those numbers shouldn’t surprise people who are familiar with the Catholic theological tradition. For example, Catholic thinking dictates that we should use the evidence we find in the natural world to help us reach our conclusions. Many Catholics have reflected on the scientific evidence that homosexuality is a natural variant in human sexuality, and understand that lesbian and gay love is as natural as heterosexual love.
In forming our consciences, Catholics also consult scripture and our theological tradition. Here, again, there is little firm reason to oppose marriage equality. The Bible presents us with a marital landscape that includes polygamy, concubinage, temple prostitution and Levirate marriages (in which a man is bound to marry his brother’s widow.) Jesus disputed the Mosaic law on divorce, saying that what God has joined man must not separate, but this dictum was modified in the letters of St. Paul.
When we see the manifold changes that marriage has undergone throughout history, many Catholics wonder why our bishops believe that heterosexual marriage in its current 21st century state is a matter of divine revelation.
Those who delve into the theology of marriage will encounter the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, who articulated what Christians have come to call “the goods of marriage.” These are enumerated in contemporary terms as partnership, permanence, fidelity and fruitfulness. Same-sex couples demonstrate all of these attributes just as opposite-sex couples do, unless one defines “fruitfulness” narrowly as the ability to procreate. But many heterosexual couples cannot or choose not to procreate, and the church marries them anyway.
The deeper one looks into the church’s core teachings, the more one realizes that the bishops are not representing the breadth of the Catholic tradition in their campaign against marriage equality. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of Catholic social justice teaching.
Catholic social teaching requires that all people be treated with dignity, regardless of their state in life or their beliefs. It upholds the importance of access to health-care benefits, the protection of children, dignity in end of life choices, and, most importantly, the promotion of stable family units. Marriage equality legislation would be an obvious boon to same-sex couples and their children in each of these areas, yet the bishops are spending millions of dollars opposing it.
In our work within the church, we have met countless people who do not necessarily challenge the church’s teaching on the nature of sacramental marriage, but support civil marriage for same-sex couples with a clear conscience.
Some are concerned that the children of gay and lesbian couples will suffer if their parents’ relationships are not legally recognized. Others have a gay or lesbian colleague, friend or family member whom they want to protect. And still others realize that their own lives would be very different if the bishops had the power to make church law into state law — say by banning artificial contraception or making it impossible to remarry after a divorce.
The opposition to marriage equality by the church’s hierarchy is well known, but in the quiet of their own consciences, millions of Catholics are arriving at different conclusions rooted deeply in the teachings of our faith. We support marriage equality, and we won’t forget the Catholic legislators and governors who have worked on behalf of justice for lesbian and gay couples.