As views on same-sex marriage shift, how will the church respond?

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The Catholic bishops at last week's Synod on the Family may not have been able to come to an agreement on how to approach the issue of same-sex relationships, but young Catholics in the United States seem to have their minds made up. According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, American Catholics ages 18-29 are signaling a strong shift in opinions homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The poll finds that among Catholics in the youngest age group, 85 percent say homosexuality should be accepted, while 75 percent support same-sex marriage (complete results are shown at the right). Not surprisingly, those numbers decrease as the respondents get older, showing a clear trend that younger generations are moving toward greater acceptance of same-sex relationships. 

This is the point at which someone will likely argue that the church is not a democracy, and it doesn't matter how many young Catholics disagree with the church's teaching on these issues. That is true–the church is not a democracy, but that doesn't mean the opinions of the faithful don't matter. Even if 100 percent of Catholics disagree with a church teaching, that doesn't mean it can or should change. But as last week's debate at the synod showed, there are strong differences even among church leaders in how to approach these issues.

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I thought of this debate while listening to a report on NPR about divisions within the Republican Party over the issue of same-sex marriage. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer says that many older Republicans won't budge on the issue, but younger voters can–and already have–shifted their views. As a result, the party is having trouble attracting younger voters. Granted, there are some big differences between a political party platform and the doctrine of a global church, but there are a lot of parallels, too.

As Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski notes, the question the party had to ask is, "How do we change how we talk to voters?" The Catholic Church may need to ask itself the same question. It isn't a question of whether or not to change the church's position, but how can it change the way it talks about same-sex relationships with a generation that clearly sees things differently?

The views of younger generations are, at least for the time being, clearly moving away from the views of the church on this topic.  And if the church doesn't want to alienate those Catholics, it needs to find a way to engage them in a serious discussion of those dissenting viewpoints–or risk losing them entirely.

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