Notice a proliferation of red on Facebook last week?
Many of your friends, and perhaps you yourself, may have changed their profile pictures to a red equals sign, showing their support for same-sex marriage as the Supreme Court heard arguments in two pivotal cases. Tuesday, the justices listened to arguments surrounding California’s law that banned same-sex marriage there, known as Prop 8. The next day, they heard arguments challenging the constitutionality of the Clinton-era law known as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where they are legal. A woman whose partner had died, resulting in a staggering estate tax bill of $362,000 that a heterosexual couple would not have been charged, brought the case to the court.
What struck me about the Facebook campaign was the diversity of my friends who changed their profile pics that day. Of course, my younger liberal friends showed support, but even my more center-right, orthodox Catholic friends got in on the action. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. A recent poll exploring attitudes toward same-sex marriage among religious folks shows that 62% of Catholics under 34 support same-sex marriage.
Some prominent Catholic leaders, however, are clear in their opposition. Many Cardinals, bishops, priests, and laypeople lead the movement to preserve what has been dubbed traditional marriage between one man and one woman. The archbishop of San Francisco, Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, spoke at a rally in front of the Supreme Court building to the National Organization for Marriage, reiterating the Church’s teaching. The Church, he said, isn’t opposed to anyone, but instead strives to support the traditional definition of marriage.
But are there changes in the wind on how the Church approaches this sensitive issue?
As the world dove into the Pope Francis’ past, exploring his actions when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, one item caught the eye of many Catholics. In 2010, as Argentina was considering legalizing same-sex marriage, then Cardinal Bergoglio (now the pope) tried to broker a deal with his fellow bishops: The church would support civil-union legislation as a compromise, reserving marriage for heterosexual couples but giving same-sex couples the legal protection he felt they needed. His brother bishops rejected the compromise, reportedly the Cardinal’s only defeat during his term as head of the Argentine bishops conference. The compromise has been portrayed as both pragmatic and exemplary of the Church’s view that all people, gays and lesbians included, are to be treated with respect and dignity.
Fast forward to today. Recognizing perhaps that the Church is losing its young members on the issue of same-sex marriage, and perhaps understanding that the battle may be lost entirely, some leaders are beginning to soften their tone. Remember, there’s two parts to the teaching in the catechism: homosexual acts are immoral, we’re told, but all gay people must be treated with respect and dignity. Perhaps the Church is beginning a campaign to emphasize the latter after so many years of touting the former?
David Gibson writes at Religion News Service that following the events at the Supreme Court, some church leaders had some surprising thoughts to share on the Sunday talk shows. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told ABC News that the Church must be more welcoming to gays and lesbians, and always be reminded that God loves them. Further, Gibson writes:
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, and his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, were also on Sunday morning news shows addressing the issue of gay rights and stressing that the Church needed to be welcoming. As McCarrick put it, the Church could be open to civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage.
If the Catholic Church were to support civil unions, it would be a watershed moment for how it reaches out to gays and lesbians. Of course, society has seemed to move beyond civil unions, but the gesture would be welcomed by the so-called millennial generation.
What, though, can the Church do today, without changing any of its teachings, to make gays and lesbians feel welcome and part of God’s community?
As Pope Francis continues to demonstrate so powerfully, symbolism matters. So imagine the powerful image of a senior Catholic prelate sitting down to share a meal with a gay couple and engaging in friendly dialogue about how the Church might make their family feel more welcome in parish life. There’d be no implicit approval of same-sex marriage or conversation about moral theology. Instead, just a pastor and two faithful Catholics exploring ways to live out radical hospitality. Though it seems obvious at first glance, engaging gay and lesbian Catholics in dialogue about their experiences would be a radical shift in how the Church approaches these issues.
Also, a shift in emphasis could make a huge difference in how young adults relate to the Church on an issue that they view as one of social justice. Reemphasizing the part of canon law that demands all people are treated with dignity and respect is the first step. Imagine the Church denouncing laws that condemn gays and lesbians, sometimes even with the death penalty, in places like Uganda and Russia. This kind of advocacy would fit with the Church’s teaching on social justice issues and would require no change in Church teaching on gender or marriage.
The Catholic Church has historically been, and remains in many ways today, a champion of the marginalized. While a cursory glance at headlines might suggest that gays and lesbians seem to enjoy universal support in the United States today, there are still many, many cases of unjust discrimination, hate, and often violence committed against them. What can the Church do to fight this injustice? How might Catholics mobilize and witness to the profound love and radical hospitality preached by Jesus for all? And, if the Church soon finds itself in a new reality where same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, how might it partner with those who want to strengthen marriage for all?
These are not easy questions to answer, but we as Catholics must strive to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another in whatever context we find ourselves, no matter how quickly it seems to change.