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Article of Faith: Here we go again — Catholic bishops overstep their bounds

Date: 
May 14, 2009

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WASHINGTON, May 14 — In light of important wins in various states where same-sex couples have won the right to marry, some Catholic bishops and Vatican officials are mounting a public campaign to try to influence government officials to act against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality. What follows is an Article of Faith addressing the need for Catholics to follow their own values of love, justice, equality and mutuality when dealing with issues of marriage equality.

Article of Faith by Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D.
Co-director, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual
National Religious Leadership Roundtable Member

Persistent efforts on the part of Roman Catholic bishops and Vatican officials to stop marriage equality in the United States have a familiar feel to them. We have been down this road on abortion. It is not a pleasant journey but the destination is clear: justice will reign. It may take 50 states, Washington, D.C., the federal government and the Supreme Court to show the Roman Catholic hierarchy that its fears about marriage equality are unfounded and ultimately irrelevant.

Just as no one forces them to do abortions or even to like that others do, neither will anyone force them to perform sacramental marriages that offend their sensibilities. And yes, they will have to abide by the law or move out of the way as happened in Massachusetts when Catholic Charities decided not to do adoptions at all rather than include same-sex families as per the law of the Commonwealth.

As the Catholic hierarchy gears up to stall or halt marriage equality efforts, I offer a few insights from within the Catholic community. I hope that those both inside and beyond it will be empowered to remind the gentlemen of their place in a pluralistic society.

First, the American Catholic community is a big tent. While the bishops try to claim a privileged voice, many contemporary Catholics think, speak and vote for themselves. "Pro-choice Catholic" is no longer a contradiction in terms. "Pro-same-sex marriage Catholics" are increasingly the norm. In the last election, 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama vs. 52 percent of the population as a whole.

Second, Catholics love their faith but have serious doubts about their church. Even with a mandatory Mass on Sunday policy, church attendance among American Catholics has fallen steadily to no more than 30 percent today. Many Catholics have left the church, bored by pitiful preaching and scandalized by discrimination against women, divorced and remarried Catholics, LGBT people, and those from racial/ethnic minority groups. What drives the exodus and the disquiet of those who stay is not greener grass in other faith communities. It is holding up Catholic values of love, justice, equality, and mutuality to the institution — and finding it wanting.

Third, the bishops have lost a great deal of moral authority. Many of them covered up the criminal activity of priests who engaged in sexual abuse. Gone are the days when bishops could tell their people to jump and expect them to ask how high. Each bishop gets one vote like everyone else and has freedom of speech to say ludicrous things like the rest of us, but no more and no less. The key insight is that the bishops are not the church. Catholic people (bishops are people) are the church.

Fourth, Catholic institutions are starting to change, albeit slowly. The controversy over the University of Notre Dame's invitation to President Barack Obama to receive an honorary degree at its commencement demonstrates that Catholics hold a variety of viewpoints on controversial issues. But the fact that Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins did not rescind the invitation in the face of conservatives' threats to withhold millions of dollars is a step in the right direction. Doing so would have discredited the university and cast doubt on academic freedom in Catholic higher education.

Fifth, Catholic numbers still count. The Mormons found that out in California. Their money and Catholic voter clout combined to deliver Proposition 8, which effectively ended marriage equality there for the moment. Catholic bishops have no compunction about spending church money to influence public opinion, as they have proved again and again on abortion. But even with a Catholic majority of justices on the Supreme Court, Roe is still intact. Worries that the Vatican can pull big strings are simply unfounded. The numbers of Catholics who see marriage as a right for all are growing daily. Younger Catholics are consistent with their age cohort in approving it so the future is clear.

Sixth, there are good Catholic theological reasons to support marriage equality. It is the just and loving thing to do according to a religious tradition that condemns all forms of discrimination. Marriage is a human right that confers privileges that must be available to everyone or to no one. Catholics believe that marriage is both a contract and a sacrament, something that the state recognizes legally and the religious group affirms spiritually. Both dimensions strengthen the common good.

What can we expect from the Catholic bishops on marriage and how can progressive people counter it? I expect them to reprise their anti-abortion game plan with ad campaigns and shrill sermons, sanctions against politicians, academics, clergy and religious who support the right of anyone who wants to enter into marriage. I anticipate that there will be a growing Catholic theological chorus which calls for marriage equality as a logical extension of Catholic teaching about relationships, fidelity and family. Those in the vanguard will pay a price as we have on abortion — being called "not Catholic," being prevented from speaking and teaching in Catholic institutions. But it will be well worth it if we lead our tradition where other people of faith have gone before us to affirm the healthy, good, natural and holy dimensions of same-sex love.

I dread the day when, in typical Catholic universalizing fashion, same-sex couples will be expected to marry rather than live in sin (a state I have come to enjoy) but we'll deal with that when the time comes! For now, I suggest that we take the Catholic hierarchy's threat to justice as seriously as any other threat. There is no need to be afraid of being labeled anti-Catholic when it comes to speaking truth to this fading power. Just be sure to distinguish between the hierarchy which is small and the whole Catholic community which is growing in its embrace of all things just and loving. It is a distinction that is increasingly important.

About the Author: Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is the co-director of Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER).

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The National Religious Leadership Roundtable (NRLR), convened by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, is an interfaith network of leaders from pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) faith, spiritual and religious organizations. We work in partnership with other groups to promote understanding of and respect for LGBT people within society at large and in communities of faith. We promote understanding and respect within LGBT communities for a variety of faith paths and for religious liberty, and to achieve commonly held goals that promote equality, spirituality and justice.

The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the grassroots power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. We do this by training activists, equipping state and local organizations with the skills needed to organize broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.