Last week, President Obama declared, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” His public support for gay marriage followed Joe Biden’s remarks a few days prior, in which the Catholic vice-president said that he had a change of heart over the years and felt compelled to support same-sex marriage. During his interview, Obama cited his Christian faith as an underlying motivation in coming out for marriage equality:
"In the end the values that I care most deeply about and [Michelle] cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president."
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is not happy with the President. The head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops quickly released a statement:
“President Obama’s words today are not surprising since they follow upon various actions already taken by his administration that erode or ignore the unique meaning of marriage,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops, in a May 9 statement.
“We cannot be silent in the face of words or actions that would undermine the institution of marriage, the very cornerstone of our society,” Cardinal Dolan added. “The people of this country, especially our children, deserve better.”
But while Catholic bishops have been clear in their opposition to gay marriage, some lay Catholic theologians are disagreeing, and quite publicly:
Yet while many non-Catholic Americans may take the political position put forward by the bishops as the final word in American Catholic life, progressive Catholic thinkers and theologians say it is time for the church to step back from political arguments about same-sex marriage, and reconsider its own position.
Among the theologians who say the bishops are in the wrong is Paul Lakeland, a professor of religion and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University, a Catholic university in Connecticut. “That’s not really an argument that has a theological justification,” Lakeland said of the church’s opposition to same-sex civil marriages. “It’s an argument that’s based more on fear or repugnance.”
“There is a lot more to be said about these issues than one stream of words from the hierarchy,” Lakeland said.
Evidence suggests that Catholic bishops in the US are fighting a losing battle in opposing same-sex marriage, even among their own flock. Catholics as a whole support legalizing same-sex marriage at higher rates than their Protestant and Evangelical peers. As I’ve noted before, Catholic governors are responsible for signing same-sex marriage laws in five states. Some Catholic politicians feel comfortable expressing support for same-sex marriage not despite their faith, but because of it.
What is happening?
As with the public as a whole, the more visible gay and lesbian people are in families, schools, and the workplace, the more likely Catholics are to support laws that they see as extending civil rights to a group of historically marginalized people. But is there something about Catholicism in particular that would lead to acceptance of same-sex marriage, even as some church leaders rail against it? I think the sacramental nature of our faith, the belief that the world is good and infused with God’s grace, and the understanding of family and community as pivotal to living out the Gospel might compel Catholics to reject the call to take up a fight against same-sex marriage. Perhaps some of the laity have taken to heart the church’s emphasis on social justice, its call to protect the marginalized, and its preached message of inclusivity for all, and are now applying these themes to a specifc, modern situation. Some bishops may lament this break between shepherd and flock, but in some ways perhaps it is not so troubling? If Catholics are following what they believe to be well-formed consciences and standing up for those they see as victimized and marginalized, the Gospel message lives.
Michael J. O'Loughlin
(Image: The cover of Newsweek, in which columnist Andrew Sullivan considers Obama's record on gay rights and same-sex marriage. Sullivan, a Catholic, has been at the fore of same-sex marriage activism in the US).