Over the past weekend, a news story about Rhode Island’s marriage equality victory toted that the win for equality highlighted the fact that the Catholic hierarchy is losing its influence in politics in New England and other parts of the United States.
Yet, just a few days later, news broke that the marriage equality bill in Illinois ended up being scuttled, and the Catholic Conference in that state was one one of the strongest opponents of the proposed law.
So, what’s the deal? Is the Catholic hierarchy losing power or does it still have influence? Let’s look at some of the different facets of these stories.
According to an Associated Press story which appeared in The Guardian, the Rhode Island marriage equality victory was a watershed of sorts:
“Frank Ferri made peace with God years ago. Last month, Ferri defeated the Roman Catholic Church.
“The openly gay state representative led the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in what may be the most Catholic state in the nation’s most Catholic region.
“In early May, Rhode Island became the sixth and final New England state to allow gay couples to marry. The Democratic-dominated Legislature, led by an openly gay House speaker, overcame years of successful lobbying by the Catholic Church.
” ‘They put the fear of God into people,’ Ferri said, claiming that ‘the influence of the church’ had been the primary stumbling block as every other neighboring state, and many people across the country, started embracing gay marriage.
“Ferri’s victory marked the Catholic Church’s most significant political defeat in an area where more than 40 percent of the population is Catholic.”
Of course, the reason for the defeat is something that is starting to become a well-known fact: Catholic lay people do not follow their bishops’ opposition to marriage. The news story quotes some new statistics:
“In March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a majority of Catholics, 60 percent, felt the church was out of touch with the views of Catholics in America today.
“A CBS News/New York Times poll in February found that 78 percent of Catholics said they were more likely to follow their own conscience than the church’s teachings on difficult moral questions.
“That poll highlighted several areas where most Catholics break with church teachings: 62 percent of American Catholics think same-sex marriages should be legal, 74 percent think abortion ought to be available in at least some instances and 61 percent favor the death penalty.”
And the story cites a well-know Catholic politician with her analysis of the situation:
“Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a member of one of the most storied Catholic families in American politics, says she’s encouraged by Francis’ early leadership. But she says the church’s political influence will continue to wane unless it adapts.
” ‘Gay marriage is part of a larger refusal on the part of the church [meaning "hierarchy"] to listen to, and to understand, the people in the pews,’ said Townsend, who regularly attends church and wrote the book, ‘Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way.’ “
So, the lesson here is that Catholic lay people are leading the way in the struggle for marriage equality. Their support for the cause is trumping the bishops’ opposition to it.
Yet, in Illinois, the report this weeks seems to contradict such a trend. NewsInfo.Inquirer.net reported that the Illinois marriage equality bill, which had passed the Senate, and which had the backing of President Obama, did not make it to the floor of the House because there were not enough votes. The successful opposition was strongly backed by the Illinois Catholic Conference. The news report states:
“The Catholic Conference of Illinois, which opposes gay marriage, said in a statement that the state’s bishops were ‘profoundly grateful’ that lawmakers ‘listened to their constituents and declined to consider legislation that would redefine marriage in Illinois.’ ”
I think the Catholic Conference has it wrong. I think the lawmakers didn’t listen to their Catholic constituents, but to the Catholic hierarchy. After all, the states’ Senate passed the bill. Or perhaps the problem was simply that other denominations opposed the bill, too. The Washington Post reported:
“The state legalized civil unions for gay couples two years ago, but the marriage initiative has run into opposition, led most notably by African-American and Catholic churches.”
So, maybe the problem is that there weren’t enough Catholic voters in the state, as there were in Rhode Island. In other words, what I think is interesting in juxtaposing the cases of Rhode Island and Illinois is that it shows that when there is a larger population of Catholics in a state, there is more of a chance that marriage equality will become the law of the land. Rhode Island has more Catholics per capita than Illinois, so it looks like the legislators in the New England state knew that they needed to follow the directions of this large voting bloc. In Illinois, with fewer Catholics per capita, Catholic lay support for marriage equality played a smaller role. Perhaps the Catholic hierarchy in Illinois was politically as ineffective as it was in Rhode Island.
Whatever the cause, the story of these two cases reminds us that, as Catholics, we need to continue to work to make our voices heard for equality, justice, and fairness in the marriage debate. We need to keep working to make sure that marriage equality exists everywhere in our nation. Though we’ve had a string of successes recently, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Yet, the other lesson we can learn is that we can do this work filled with hope because we know that more and more Catholics and more and more Americans each day are supporting marriage for lesbian and gay couples. It’s only a matter of time.
–Francis DeBernardo New Ways Ministry
May 14, 2013: Minnesota Becomes 12th US State with Equal Marriage Laws