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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