As we’re approaching the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage equality, conservative Catholic bishops, together with fundamentalist leaders, are pushing the myth that religious freedom is under attack. When you look at the long history of our nation respecting religious groups countering, within their communities what is acceptable under civil law, the idea that marriage equality will force an imposition on the Catholic Church is absurd at best. It seems odd that Catholic bishops would embrace the idea that this approach to religious tolerance would be abandoned in the area of marriage. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg elaborated on that pointedly when she brought up the sectarian practice of rabbis not allowing marriages between a member of their own communities to a partner outside of their communities. It’s hard to imagine how our bishops could be that dumb. After all, canon 378 of the Church’s Code of Canon Law require candidacy to episcopal office requires the candidate to have a doctoral, or at least a licentiate, degree in specific theological or canonical areas; preference clearly leading to doctoral. I have personally never met, nor have ever heard of, a bishop who did not have a doctoral degree. How can someone that well educated so obviously misread the legal consequences of a civil action in the United States?
What just happened in Catholic Ireland – they just amended their constitution by popular vote to honor same-sex marriage – highlights Catholic prelates’ real fear and explains why our bishops are reacting to marriage equality so aggressively. Even in the United States, a study published a few years ago showed that Catholics in the pews support lgbt rights and same-sex marriage proportionally greater than members of any other Christian community; even more than members of Christian denominations that formally recognize same-sex marriages. That is the real fear of right-wing Catholic bishops; not that civil recognition of the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry would impose an obligation on Catholic clergy, but that the civil recognition of same-sex marriage would act as a catalyst for an internal conversation within the Church community itself. They fear that this change will not only happen in civil society, but that same move for a change within the Catholic community (e.g. https://www.dignityusa.org/) would gain a renewed and more empowered voice among Catholics who want the Church to change.
That fear is not without cause. German bishops are right now “pushing the envelope” in how to pastorally respond to the lgbt community and their relationships. Lay Catholics in the U.S. already have a majority support for lgbt rights. Many priests vocally support lgbt rights and same-sex marriage (I suspect many more secretely share that same position). Some are becoming more vocally supportive; e.g. http://www.fathergary.com/. If modern history is any indicator, some priests will risk their own vocations by pushing the question of same-sex marriage within the Church by presiding over same-sex weddings and honoring the marriages extra-juridically. All this will push the Church on the question of the validity and dignity of same-sex unions much more dramatically in the forseeable future; and that is what our bishops fear.
Don’t get me wrong. As unquestionably liberal as my approach to Catholicism appears to many, I’ve also always been very insular. Everytime I see or hear people outside of our faith commmunity trying to inform us what we’re supposed to believe and do, I respond aggressively. The status of lgbt persons and our relationships in the Catholic community is something I’ve always believed we, as Catholics, have both the right and responsibility to settle ourselves. I accept no outside interference. But I also believe it is true that what is legally happening in the the civil world will act as a strong catalyst to force these particular questions within the Catholic community. I strongly suspect our conservative bishops in the U.S. forsee that as well. Despite all their posturing response to civil law movement, this is what they really fear. That better explains how people who are so well educated can come across so dumb. Let them fear. Its going to happen.