Protecting Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church is strenuously—some would say obsessively—opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriage. How persuasively is the church making its case? Is the church right to emphasize the issue in the uncompromising way some of its most prominent prelates do?

The church’s position does not seem to be gaining traction. According to opinion polls, attitudes toward homosexuality have changed significantly over the past twenty years. The repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is perhaps the most dramatic indication that the traditional moral consensus is eroding. In June, New York became the sixth, and most populous, state to legalize same-sex marriage. The crucial votes in the state Senate were cast by Republicans, all of whom had opposed similar bills in the past. Crucial to winning the votes of the Republican senators was the inclusion of a robust set of exemptions protecting religious organizations and affiliated groups from lawsuits, or penalties imposed by the state, for violating nondiscrimination laws should they decline to provide religious services or open their facilities for same-sex marriages. Passage of the law was seen as a defeat for the church, but it may prove to be a model for how to accommodate both the aspirations of homosexual people and the church’s legitimate concerns regarding freedom of conscience. 

During the public debate over the bill, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan compared the prospect of changing the law to the tyrannical edicts of governments like China and North Korea, which routinely redefine institutions such as the family. The archbishop was right to warn against overweening state power, but equating a democratic legislative process, whatever its flaws, with decrees of totalitarian regimes was unhelpful, to say the least. For better (usually) and for worse (too often), democracies invest the people and their representatives with the authority to decide the most controverted political and social issues. The stronger public argument, one often made by Dolan and others, is to call attention to the damage inflicted, especially on women and children, by the loosening over the past fifty years of society’s expectations regarding the permanence and value of marriage. In the process, marriage has increasingly become something that individuals define for themselves, rather than a relationship and an institution that should fundamentally define the individuals who enter into it. 

That is a difficult argument to make in a culture where any check on individual autonomy, especially when it affects “consenting adults,” is viewed with great suspicion. Grandiose pronouncements from those on both sides of the debate have done little to bring about realistic compromise. For example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, newly appointed to succeed Cardinal Justin Rigali in Philadelphia, has declared same-sex marriage “the issue of our time.” Given the changes in Americans’ attitudes toward traditional marriage, Chaput’s clarion call to man the barricades against same-sex marriage is likely to prove futile. Chaput is right in thinking that the debate over the meaning of marriage is important. Private decisions have real public consequences. But the tendency of church leaders to denounce same-sex marriage as the most serious (and obvious) threat to the good order of society strikes people as hyperbole. 

That hardly ends the argument, however. The legal recognition of same-sex marriage can pose a real threat to the freedom of the church and other religious communities that object to the practice on theological and moral grounds. Without the sort of legal protections contained in New York’s “Marriage Equality” law, there is little doubt that the coercive powers of the state will be brought to bear against religious groups. The authority of the state has already been exercised in numerous instances. When the Salvation Army, citing religious conviction, declined to provide benefits to its employees’ same-sex partners, the City of San Francisco withdrew $3.5 million in social-services contracts. A Methodist group in New Jersey was deprived of a portion of its tax exemption for refusing to rent its facility for a marriage reception. Catholic Charities in Massachusetts ended its adoption services when told it had to place children with same-sex couples. 

It is almost never a good idea for the state to force consciences in this fashion. “Gay marriage is a significant change; it’s a big change,” acknowledges Jonathan Rauch, one of its most eloquent advocates. “The public has come to understand that we can take our time with this,” he concedes. “It’ll take a while, and I think it should take a while.”

No one can be sure exactly where public opinion on this issue will end up. But whatever the final popular consensus, the right of conscientious objection, for both individuals and institutions, should remain a liberal as well as a religious cause.

Related: Legalize Same-sex Marriage, by Paul Griffiths
From Sex to Sect? A Response to Paul Griffiths, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels



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What the Roman Church really wants, as always, is not freedom (whose advocates it has always persecuted), but domination.  Thus, it is never sufficient that religuous conservatives be free to live their beliefs (as they are in all western countries, that is, where not inhibited by another religion), but that the powers of the state be used to impose their beliefs on everyone else.  Marriage is typical:  Catholics are free to marry only heterosexually (or not at all if they are Western Rite clergy), but they insist also on having the "right", imposed in law, to prevent homosexuals from marrying, regardless of their beliefs.  "Freedom", in your sense, has three parts, which you consider to be inextricably connected:  1) freedom to say and do whatever you claim is right, and 2)  freedom to denounce and legally prevent everyone else doing anything else, and 3) freedom from any criticism by anyone.  For the rest of us, your "freedom" comprises no more than being faithful Roman Catholics, or else.  Even more disgraceful is your centuries-old habit of inventing and spreading around malicious fabrications about those who are different (women, Jews, aboriginals, blacks, atheists, whoever).  No wonder we seek freedom from religion!  As for the exercise of modern human- and civil-rights legislation, it never imposes any requirement or limitation, or penalty on genuinely religious institutions or activities.  You are always free to think and preach whatever you want, and to employ, or not, whoever you want.  And, much to your hostile opposition, you are expected to allow that to others!  But, if you (like anyone else--horrors!) offer a service, such as a rental hall or state-funded child-adoption, to the public, then you must select your clients on their individual merits as tenants or parents, and not by religious dogma.  You have as much a freedjom as you are rightfully entitled to.  How about allowing it to others?

There is something disturbingly retrograde about the proposition that the Catholic Church is under seige because a Catholic governor, acting through the mechanisms of our Constitution that has set a standard for religious freedom, is working out a re-examination of arguably obsolete (bio-scientifically speaking) moral precepts where the Church leadership remain fearful to tread.

It is difficult to imagine how the work of the gospels is going to be carried out when its precepts of critical engagement among the secular domain, the advocates of tradition, and the champions of the Good News is to be set aside. I don't think that soon-to-be Cardinal Chaput is going to leave much of a mark if he thinks that gay-bashing is the big deal of the day!

THese are your examples of coercion?

"When the Salvation Army, citing religious conviction, declined to provide benefits to its employees’ same-sex partners, the City of San Francisco withdrew $3.5 million in social-services contracts. A Methodist group in New Jersey was deprived of a portion of its tax exemption for refusing to rent its facility for a marriage reception. Catholic Charities in Massachusetts ended its adoption services when told it had to place children with same-sex couples."

It sounds to me like the secular legal and political system declined to do business with organizations who refused to adhere to its norms. The only way this is coercion is if you think the secular state should be required to financially support religious organizations regardless of the religious groups' embrace of secular law. You can't have it both ways. Either religion is beholden to the state for money and business, or religion is free.

Kudos, Chris Vogel.  You have very clearly illustrated why religious organizations do not have the right to impose their beliefs on others.  While I have great respect for the church's support of traditional marriage, the right for the church to refuse marrying gay couples is protected under the NY law. 

Aaron Ashcraft, Barcelona

The church heirarchy would do well to examine why heterosexuals and many of the clergy aren't complying with their stringent rules regarding sexual matters. Why not look at the heterosexuals who are doing a fine job of destroying the institution of marriage by opting out and engaging in serial manogomy at best, and multiple sexual liasions with no attachment at worst. The church has long ago lost credibility on this issue and I suspect will not regain it so long as forced celibacy and all male clergy is the rule. The church is being destroyed from within, partly because Rome finds it impossible to move beyond the twisted teachings of Augustine and Aquinas on sexual matters.


Each of the examples provided of the "church being under seige" for its position of promoting institutionalized discrimination against same-sex couples is really a case where the state, rightly, refuses to allow the use of public funding in a way that violates existing law. Catholic doctrine should guide what is done within the Church, and not how the rest of society functions. Bishops don't want priests to bless/witness the vows between committed lesbian and gay couples? Fine. But refusing to treat all families recognized by public authorities as equal, and believing it is fine to do that with public funds, crosses a fundamental line.

On another note to the editors of this fine and valued publication: PLEASE stop using the terms "Catholic Church" or "the Church" when what you really mean is the hierarchy. The Church--i.e., the people of God--demonstrably affirms that same-sex couples deserve to have their relationships and commitments recognized as equal to those of opposite-sex couples. It is the hierarchy that holds different views. Language is power; please use it more thoughtfully!


These comments all correctly address the issue that your editorial tiptoes quietly around so as not to arouse a response - whether the position of the Catholic hierarchy (not the Church as correctly noted) is correct, both sociologically and theologically. We can argue about the value of durability in marriage and its role in defining who we are. I can certainly attest that after 33+ years, I am a different person because of my wife and my daughters. But can we really restrict the graces of the sacrament provided by the Holy Spirit from those who love people of their own sex.  Much evidence of the durability of these relationships was present in the marriage weekend in New York. Stories highlight the long and supportive relationships that were affirmed by the state. Will we not (some day) be able to do the same?

The church heirarchy is in effect saying that some married couples should be celebate.  But even that may not be good enough.  If two same sex people raised children, this would be wrong even if the two adults were celebate.  It would probably be OK if the two people were siblings.  How silly is all this?  Why such concern about same sex couples? 

The bible is more against rape than homosexuality per se.  Victors in wars often raped losers, women and men.  This is clearly seen as sinful.  Long term committed same sex relationships were unknown back then.  Logically, biblical quotes cannot be seen as commentary on such relationships.  This doesn't stop people from doing so.       

What I find distrubing about the Church's stance is that it fails to reflect the attitudes leader of the Catholic Church -- Jesus. Jesus said that we should leave the 99 and go back for the one left behind. Jesus sat at table with those who were social outcasts. Recall the Gospels! He engaged them and worked with them. The Church argues that this franchise should not be extended to gays and lesbians. Yet if fidelity is the lesson of the Cross, then one can learn that lesson of fidelity with another irrespective of gender, provided there is a solid commitment and community support. The Christian community should come to support long-term stable relationships for all. The science continues to pile-up that being gay is a product of factors not in one's control. It is found in Nature so it is part of God's Plan. (And please spare me the Natural Law malarkey, it's more like mental masturbation when compared to real empirical Science.)

The Church is full of closeted homosexuals. (A lot of them live in Vatican City.) Most of them are self-hating because that is the lesson of the Church - being gay is bad. They in spill their self-hatred back into society. They get brownie points from the Pope for doing so. It is disgusting. They attack those who have the strength to live fully integrated lives as gay people in sight of everyone.  But what is even more disgusting is when these closet cases ask me out on dates and it has happened more than a few times.

The Church argues that same-sex marriage will harm women and children. HOW? I know more than a few single gay men/lesbian women and same sex married couples who have adopted children who came from dysfunctional straight households. They have loved these children and provided them with the stability and guidance and material support that they need. Yes, this includes taking them to Church. Again, tell me how this is a bad thing?? They are living the gospel message while our bishops act like the pharisees of old.

The parting on the left is now a parting on the right.


A/B Chaput is wrong of course about 'same sex marriage is the issue of our time'....However the decline of Catholic sacramental church marriages, a decline as much as 50% in the last 15 years, IS the Catholic issue of our time. When Wall Street sees same store sales decline like that they get very excited and demand new management. Present Church 'management' ignores the 'issue' both as to its cause or even postulating/preparing a fix. 


"Forbidding to marry" is the oldest Christian heresy, and it is still with us. Wake up, Commonweal.

“The legal recognition of same-sex marriage can pose a real threat to the freedom of the church and other religious communities that object to the practice on theological and moral grounds.”

It is those very “theological and moral grounds” for objection to same-sex marriage that have yet to be seriously discussed within the Catholic Church.  I am greatly encouraged by a symposium addressing this need that will take place this fall here on the east coast presented by four leading academic institutions, two of them Catholic universities.  A premise of the symposium is that thus far there has been only a monologue on these matters, the only voice being heard that of the bishops, with no collaboration or consultation whatsoever with anyone else.  The appalling statements to the National Catholic Reporter by Archbishop Chaput on the subject of same-sex marriage is an example of the need for the monologue to end.  There is an ever-widening gulf between the Catholic bishops and the membership of the Church they supposedly lead.  With their handling of the scandals of the past decade and the ill-conceived, reactionary positions they set forth on a wide variety of current social issues, the bishops have lost all credibility and respect, and are alienating countless thousands from an ancient faith that has greatly enriched our world with a magnificent corpus of learning.  I grieve to see a Church that once gave us Rerum Novarum marginalized as people turn in increasing numbers away from the ridiculous pronouncements now emanating from its bishops.  It is noteworthy that not a single one of them will be among the speakers at the above-mentioned symposium.     

The idea that there should be a state religion seems to die hard.  I undertand a fellow named Spinosa wrote a book in Latin no less on the rights off indvidual religious choice. I think it's still on the Index of forbidden books. Anyway now the secularisits are in the ascendancy and the Church can't do adoptions in Illinois unless the provede adopton services to homosexual couples.  Quoting Spinosa to them might not help but I think it would be constent with your statement: "No one can be sure exactly where public opinion on this issue will end up. But whatever the final popular consensus, the right of conscientious objection, for both individuals and institutions, should remain a liberal as well as a religious cause."  It's already, I believe, a conservative cause.


I'd like to point out that attitudes towards homosexuals have changed, from hating them to accepting them.  Negative attitudes towards particular sexual acts between other consenting adults (or, what goes on behind closed doors) may not have changed, one way or another.  I wonder if there is any evidence that anyone's repertoire of sexual acts has broadened to include homosexual acts, just because "attitudes toward homosexuality have changed significantly over the past twenty years."  That kind of quote is always answered by "just because everyone else is jumping off the bridge doesn't mean you can do it." or "…you have to do it."

It may be that the genesis for same-sex marriage came out of the AIDS crisis when hospital visitations for AIDS patients was limited to blood relatives and "legitimate" spouses; when employees had to hide from their employers that their significant other was of the same sex; when relatives could evict the life-long partner of the deceased from a home because that partner had no legal claim to the house; that there was no health insurance or retirement benefits for the "partner."

"Same-sex marriage" isn't about marriage.  Its about common human decency and respect.  Gay men found their voice and their strength out of the AIDS crisis because no one else was going to give them the strength to demand to be heard.  Gays fought for every inch gained in their fight for common decency and respect. Nothing was ever handed to them from a generous and loving heart. If anyone says that isn't so; where were they before the AIDS crisis?

If attitudes changed, it wasn't a benevolent public who suddenly "saw the light."

Where has the Catholic Church gone wrong in countering the Same-Sex Marriage locomotive barreling down the tracks?  It has ignored ministering to gay men and made them invisible within the Church.  There are three vocations for adult Catholics: Holy Order, Marriage and Religious Life.  Being a single adult layman or woman for life has no place, no role in the Church.  Young adults are preached to as though they will eventually marry.  Intimacy, affirmation, connectedness, friendship, dignity are all denied to homosexuals in the eyes of the Church.  Rather, they are special cases who "deserve" intimacy, affirmation, etc and are left on their own to find it.

And find it they did, in "gay marriage."

It is not about marriage for gays, it is that they will not wait around any longer for the Catholic Church to get its act together.

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