I don’t really know how the legislative fight in New York over gay marriage will turn out this year. I am almost certain, however, of how it will turn out 10 years from now. By then, I would be extremely surprised if gay marriage has not been legalized in most of the Northeast and West Coast. Within 25 years, I expect that the number of states where gay marriage is legal will outnumber those where it is illegal
The bottom line is that opponents of gay marriage—among whom I would include the U.S. bishops—are going to lose this fight. They may win this year and perhaps even the next few years. But judging from the polling data I’ve seen, their ultimate defeat is as certain as the passage of time.
This isn’t surprising. From the sale of contraceptives to abortion to the introduction of no-fault divorce, the Catholic Church has tended to lose most of its high profile fights over social issues. To the extent that one sees these struggles as a form of witness the Gospel, victory or defeat may well be beside the point.
There’s losing, though, and then there’s losing ugly. The way in which the Catholic Church loses this particular campaign will have an impact on its ability to communicate the Gospel to younger Catholics, to say nothing of the broader culture.
Some sense of the difficulties the Church faces can be gleaned by reading UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, a 2007 book by Barna Group president David Kinnaman. The Barna Group conducted a number of surveys and focus groups with adults and young people, both Christians and those he calls “outsiders” to the faith. Kinnaman summarized his findings under a number of descriptive terms that the respondents tended to apply to Christians.
Chief among these terms was “antihomosexual.” Among Americans aged 16-29 who were not churchgoers, 91 percent felt this term described Christianity “a lot” or “some.” This far outpaced positive images like “has good values and principles” (26%), “consistently shows love to other people” (16%), “seems genuine and real” (11%), and “people you trust” (9%). Kinnaman concludes that “when you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic.”
Kinnamon, a conservative evangelical, makes clear that he is not arguing that Christians can or should change their traditional teachings on sexual morality. He does, however, argue strongly that young people who know gays and lesbians as family members, friends and co-workers simply will not respond to Christian rhetoric that paints them as uniquely disordered or that fails to acknowledge the complexity of their lives.
Comparing same-sex marriage to the actions of an authoritarian government like China and North Korea fails this test. While the bishops have not only the right but the responsibility to bring Catholic teaching into the public square, they need to do so in ways that do not seem uniquely obsessed with the sins of gays and lesbians.
It might have been helpful, for example, if the bishops’ willingness to take on same-sex marriage has been coupled with an equally enthusiastic effort to reform no-fault divorce laws. Given contemporary mores, such an effort would have had almost zero chance of success. But coupling the issues would at least make it clear that the bishops understood that the most serious threats to marriage arise from the behavior of heterosexuals.
More fundamentally, I suspect that many young people who grow up within the Church sense that the ways that heterosexuals fall short of Church teaching—fornication, cohabitation, contraception, remarriage after divorce—are, in pastoral practice at least, taken less seriously than the sexual sins of gays and lesbians. While I have no illusions that a more consistent application of the Church’s teaching would be “appealing,” it would at least immunize the Church against the charge of hypocrisy. The emerging generation of young people may not be inclined to adhere to the Church’s sexual ethics, but it would be a measure of progress if they could at least respect them.