In Bondings 2.0’s continuing effort to try to chronicle all the key Catholic reactions to the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, we’ve mostly been compiling snippets of responses into a series of posts [For a complete list of past reaction posts, see the bottom of this post, below my signature.]
Yet one Catholic commentator’s analytical response stands out over the rest of them for its incisive distinctions and its hopeful suggestions, and so it warrants examination in a post of its own. Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter is a seasoned church observer and political analyst who has responded to the court ruling by writing a column explaining “How the bishops should respond to the same-sex marriage decision.”
Reese doesn’t usually mince words, but even for him, his opening paragraph was particularly pointed:
“With the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States, the U.S. Catholic bishops need a new strategy going forward. The bishops’ fight against gay marriage has been a waste of time and money. The bishops should get a new set of priorities and a new set of lawyers.”
His enlightening factual account cuts through the rhetoric of some marriage equality opponents who have tried to predict a religious freedom nightmare looming:
“First, let’s make clear what the decision does not do. It does not require religious ministers to perform same-sex marriages, nor does it forbid them from speaking out against gay marriage. These rights are protected by the First Amendment. The court has also made clear that a church has complete freedom in hiring and firing ministers for any reason.”
Reese then analogizes marriage equality law with divorce law, something bishops in the past vociferously opposed, but later, after passage, have come to accept. He extends this analogy into some specific recommendations:
“Today, Catholic institutions rarely fire people when they get divorced and remarried. Divorced and remarried people are employed by church institutions, and their spouses get spousal benefits. No one is scandalized by this. No one thinks that giving spousal benefits to a remarried couple is a church endorsement of their lifestyle.
“If bishops in the past could eventually accept civil divorce as the law of the land, why can’t the current flock of bishops do the same for gay marriage? Granted all the publicity around the church’s opposition to gay marriage, no one would think they were endorsing it.”
Perhaps most importantly, Reese exposes the falsehood that religious liberty will be compromised because of marriage equality. He shows, through a number of examples, how in the past Catholic church leaders, civic leaders, and business people have accommodated themselves, in a morally justified manner, to new laws they may disagree with:
“Let’s be perfectly clear. In Catholic morality, there is nothing to prohibit a Catholic judge or clerk from performing a same-sex marriage. Nor is there any moral obligation for a Catholic businessperson to refuse to provide flowers, food, space and other services to a same-sex wedding. Because of all the controversy over these issues in the media, the bishops need to be clear that these are not moral problems for Catholic government officials or Catholic business people.
“Again, Catholic judges have performed weddings for all applicants, including Catholics who are getting married in violation of church teaching. Catholic business people have provided services to any wedding party, including those of divorced Catholics marrying outside the church. Similarly, there is no moral problem for them to do the same for gay couples.”
Yet, Reese doesn’t stop there. In addition to recommending that bishops give up their resistance to marriage equality (“It is time for the bishops to admit defeat and move on. Gay marriage is here to stay, and it is not the end of civilization as we know it.”), he also suggests that they start to be pro-active in other areas of LGBT equality. For example, Reese observes:
“Currently, there is no federal law forbidding discrimination against gay people in employment or housing, but an increasing number of states are enacting such legislation. Will the bishops fight the passage of these laws out of fear of their impact on Catholic institutions?
The better strategy for the U.S. bishops is to imitate the Mormon church that worked together with gay activists on the enactment of laws against discrimination in employment and housing in Utah. . . . John Wester, now archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., supported this legislation when he was bishop of Salt Lake City.”
Reese’s pragmatic approach also covers possible religious freedom questions which may emerge. His principle is that gay and lesbian couples should not be treated any differently by church institutions than any other couple who does not exemplify the Church’s sexuality teaching:
“For example, Catholic colleges and universities that provide housing for married couples are undoubtedly going to be approached for housing by same-sex couples. Unless the schools can get states to carve out an exception for them in anti-discrimination legislation, they could be forced to provide such housing.
“But since they already provide housing to couples married illicitly according to the church, no one should see such housing as an endorsement of someone’s lifestyle. And granted all the sex going on at Catholic colleges and universities, giving housing to a few gay people who have permanently committed themselves to each other in marriage would hardly be considered a great scandal.”
By the same principle of equal treatment, Reese says the church could grant employee spousal benefits in the same way that they do for others couples in what the Church would call “irregular marriages.”
Towards the end of his essay, Reese tackles the complicated question of adoption by lesbian and gay couples, and he critiques the claim made by Pope Francis and other bishops that children need a mother and a father. This kind of thinking, he notes, is not valid:
First, it casts doubt on the millions of single parents who are heroically raising their children without spousal support.
“Second, it has a narrow vision of the family. The church has traditionally recognized the importance of uncles, aunts and grandparents in the raising of children. There will be other sexes in the extended families of these children.
“Third, often, same-sex couples adopt children whom no one else wants. Would these children be better off in foster homes or orphanages?
“Finally, there is no evidence that children of same-sex couples suffer as a result of their upbringing. The original study that argued that children raised by same-sex couples did not do as well as those raised by heterosexual couples has been proven faulty.”
And after noting the wealth of social scientific research on the healthy development of children raised by lesbian and gay couples, Reese states:
“Just as Pope Francis depended on scientific consensus when dealing with the environment, the church should also consult the best of social science before making sweeping assertions about children and families.” [The link in this sentence was added by Bondings 2.0, not by Reese.]
Reese concludes with a clarion call for the U.S. bishops to widen their pastoral and teaching scope beyond the area of sexuality:
“It is time for the U.S. bishops to pivot to the public policy priorities articulated by Pope Francis: care for the poor and the environment and the promotion of peace and interreligious harmony. Their fanatical opposition to the legalization of gay marriage has made young people look on the church as a bigoted institution with which they do not want to be associated. As pastors, they should be talking more about God’s compassion and love rather than trying to regulate people’s sexual conduct through laws. “
I have nothing more to add to Reese’s remarks other than to say that I think this is the best Catholic analysis I have read so far on the marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court. If you want to read the entire essay by Reese, and I recommend that you do, click here.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Previous blog posts of Catholic commentary on Supreme Court marriage equality ruling: