The Supreme Court’s decisions last week that a major part of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and that marriage equality should be revived in California were not welcomed by the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, who described the court’s actions as “tragic.” However, the people in the pews of Catholic parishes across the country have been ecstatic that these major injustices against their lesbian and gay friends and family members are now dissolved. For these lay Catholics, the court’s rulings feel like, in the words of the prophet Amos, “justice rolling down like a river.”
It has been well documented recently that a yawning gap exists between the opinions of lay Catholics and their bishops on the issue of marriage equality. Survey after survey has shown that ordinary Catholics are overwhelmingly supportive of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples. Polls consistently show that U.S. Catholics are ahead of the general population in their support of marriage equality. The Public Religion Research Institute found in 2011 that 71% of Catholics favor civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples, higher than any other mainline Christian denomination. More recently, a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of 39 nations found that the most accepting countries are those that have been traditionally Catholic.
For those not familiar with Catholicism, and who mainly hear the widely broadcast messages of the bishops, statistics such as these may come as a surprise. But for Catholics, supporting LGBT equality is connected to a fundamental part of their faith: the tradition of social justice. For more than a century, official Catholic teaching has stressed the principles that all human beings are born with inherent dignity and must be respected, no matter what their condition in life. Similarly, all people must be treated equally under the law, with a special preference to protect those who have been marginalized or ostracized.
As LGBT issues became more prominent in society and in church circles, it did not take long for Catholics to see that the justice tradition needed to be applied to the various social and legal situations involving sexual minorities. This moral tradition attaches great importance to increased access to health care benefits, protection of children, dignity in end-of-life choices, and, most importantly, the promotion of stable family units — all of which are expanded when marriage equality legislation is enacted. Catholics know too that we can only have a stable society when all families are treated fairly and equally under the law.
So, far from being “bad” Catholics, these people were living up to some of the most cherished principles of Catholic teaching. Indeed, Catholics work for marriage equality and LGBT rights because of the faith they profess, not in spite of it.
Catholic lay people across the U.S. and in California have worked hard to support their deeply held Catholic belief that equal treatment by our government’s laws should be extended to lesbian and gay couples who want to marry. When we look at the states that have enacted marriage equality laws, quite a few have been led by supportive Catholic governors: John Baldacci (Maine), Andrew Cuomo (New York), Christine Gregoire (Washington State), John Lynch (New Hampshire), and Martin O’Malley (Maryland). Catholic governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed a civil unions bill and is working to be able to sign a marriage equality bill. And it was Catholic vice president Joe Biden whose supportive statement on marriage equality pushed President Obama to do likewise.
Catholics have been working on state campaigns, often forming under a “Catholics for Marriage Equality” banner to highlight the role that their faith identity plays in their support for the issue. They are often the most effective force in neutralizing the often harsh critiques that come from a state’s Catholic bishops. They are certainly the most effective persuaders of Catholics who might be confused or “on the fence” about the issue.
These Supreme Court decisions are definitely not the final word on marriage equality in our nation. Much work remains to be done. And Catholics will be part of that work in state and national campaigns to facilitate marriage equality and to end other injustices against LGBT people, such as discriminatory immigration policies. Catholics will stand with those of other faiths to show that religious people do not support discrimination.
Catholics also have a lot of work to do within our own church. Many of us are ashamed and dismayed that our bishops are often the most vocal opponents of marriage equality. Their statements often reveal a stunning ignorance of lesbian and gay lives and a lack of compassion that is unbecoming of faith leaders. Their ideas about sexuality and relationships are too often learned from theories they have studied in theology and philosophy, and not from the real-life experiences of the people that they are charged to lead.
Catholics pray that the recent Supreme Court decisions will open our bishops’ eyes so that they will at least meet and dialogue with lesbian and gay Catholics and their families. If the bishops would do this, they would witness firsthand how the gospel of justice and love they preach is lived and practiced in so many caring families headed by gay and lesbian couples.
FRANCIS DeBERNARDO, executive director of New Ways Ministry, is the author of Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach. He blogs on Catholic LGBT issues at Bondings 2.0.