Following up on Ireland’s referendum in favor of same-sex marriage, Frank Bruni’s column in today’s New York Times (May 27, 2015) provides some interesting information but stops short of the difficult question. Bruni points out that most of the countries around the world that have accommodated same-sex marriage or civil unions have large Catholic populations, and that American Catholics are the most “gay-friendly” of all Christian denominations, when it comes to questions about marriage or civil unions. But the real issue is why Catholics find themselves in this somewhat surprising position, surprising not least because church leaders, even those who ask “who am I to judge?” teach the opposite of what a significant majority of the Catholic people seem to believe. If we leave aside the tempting thought that Catholics say this because their bishops teach the opposite, what can they possibly be thinking?
One possible response to the U.S. context that would be high on the list of First Things would be to point out that the “Catholics” polled in the Pew research are always self-identified Catholics, that this includes many who are rarely if ever in church, and that the more often an individual goes to church, the more likely s/he is to be in the minority of the nay-sayers. It is also true that if you look at generational cohorts, it is in the youngest groups that the highest percentage of those favoring same-sex marriage can be found. And everyone knows, don’t they, that this is also the cohort least likely to be found in church on any given Sunday. The counter is pretty obvious: there is no litmus test for a Catholic (remember James Joyce’s “Here comes everybody!”), and perhaps the younger Catholics have experience that older Catholics don’t. In my long years as a teacher of mostly Catholic undergraduates I have found the growing support for gays and lesbians to have nothing much to do with moral relativism and everything to do with encountering and befriending gay and lesbian kids in high school.
So what other answers might there be to the question of why American Catholics are so supportive? I have three suggestions and I hope that readers will add more. First, perhaps the fact that Catholics have a celibate clergy that includes a large number of gay men means that the fear bred from ignorance is less likely to be operative than in other traditions. Second, could it be that a natural law approach to ethical questions, that is, that reason should guide our thinking and our conclusions, is bred into the Catholic bone? Third, might Catholics be so imbued with the sacramental principle that they recognize any expression of genuine love to be evidence of God’s presence in the world, and hence to be cherished rather than condemned? In Ireland or here or elsewhere, the actual principal difference between leaders and people, on same-sex issues or birth control or religious freedom or perhaps many other issues, is that the leadership thinks deductively while the rank and file think inductively. Experience trumps ideology, which—strangely enough—is Pope Francis’s consistent message!