This week, as the Supreme Court decisions about DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 were handed down, we watched two very different reactions develop, in face-to-face conversations, official statements, and especially over social media.
Among many of our friends — gay and straight, active Catholics and “raised Catholics,” religious and non-religious — there was a sense of celebration. Many claimed that equality had won the day, and even more importantly, they felt that their own relationships or those of their gay friends had been recognized as having dignity and being worthy of protection. A sense of threat (a very real threat, backed by the power of the federal government) against those relationships was removed, and rejoicing followed.
At the same time, our bishops issued a statement declaring yesterday “a tragic day for marriage and our nation.” And we noticed — in all honesty, we felt ourselves — an uncomfortable silence among voices that often speak about matters involving religion and public life.
In fact, we find ourselves in a very profound tension: we understand why so many are rejoicing. At the same time, we recognize the beauty of the Church’s understanding of the natural purposes of marriage. And we struggle because we do not know how to hold these two things together. Neither of these are maliciously motivated; neither deserves to be vilified by the other side. Nor can we opt for silence simply because anything we say will offend.
Here, then, is what we can say: there is something to be learned in that uncomfortable silence; there is something to be learned from the fact that denunciations are less credible — by far — than images of rejoicing and gladness.
We believe that the Church can make public contributions to the gay marriage debate in a way that makes clear what the Church truly believes in: a fundamentally positive and life-affirming vision of human sexuality and human relationship. We know that many people yearn for affirmation and acceptance from the Church. We know that the Church affirms the fundamental dignity of each and every person regardless of sexual orientation.
Sadly, the Church has not yet effectively proclaimed this message in a way that it can be heard. What has been heard instead — especially among the very people whom the Church hopes to reach — is that the Church opposes everything they support. That the Church opposes same-sex marriage, that the Church opposes progress, that the Church opposes equal rights, and ultimately, that the Church opposes gay people, that the Church opposes them.
When the Church is reduced to mere opposition, one of two sides in an argument, both “sides” suffer. The temptation from the one side is to see the Church and its bishops as motivated merely by discrimination and prejudice, which misunderstands the true nature of the Church’s concern. From the other side, the Church could be tempted to understand itself as the victim, go on the defensive, prepare to speak truth to power, and expect to be persecuted for it. But that too misses the mark: the Church’s contributions are being discounted because the Church has been understood as being on the side of the persecutors in this debate.
And that is tragic. Tragic because it obscures the more fundamental truth of God’s love that the Church is missioned to proclaim, and tragic because it sidelines any real contribution of the Church’s teaching to the marriage debate. But most of all, it is tragic because it makes gay people and those who support them feel like the Church does not value them. And that is simply not true.
Our society will continue to disagree about the nature of marriage and how it should be recognized. But the Church cannot accept even the appearance of siding with discrimination or with the persecution of any children of God. The resulting wounds are not primarily political defeats; they are real injuries to the Body of Christ.
Where we have failed to meet this standard, we must both lament and repent. We must find a way to present the Church’s teaching on marriage that shows that God’s desires, and therefore the Church’s, are not only for obedience, but also for the fullness of life. When that day comes, we will all rejoice.