Commentators have shown general surprise at recent findings of widespread support among Catholics for same-gender marriage and civil unions, laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and other LGBT-friendly policies. What may be a little surprising is that Catholic support is stronger than in other Christian denominations, with Latino Catholic support for civil unions or civil same-gender marriage crossing the 50 percent mark. (You can read the CNS story on the study here.) Critics have pointed out that white Catholics tend to prefer the civil union option, and critics have pointed out that 41 percent of respondents didn't attend Mass often.
The big question is why, especially given the bishops' full court press on same-gender marriage in recent years, including their role in the recent defeat of same-gender marriage legislation in Maryland–with two bishops reiterating soon after that Maryland-based New Ways Ministry, a group that works with gay Catholics and their families, could not be considered "Catholic" because of its support for civil same-gender marriage. Indeed, the bishops just announced a Spanish version of their initiative on marriage, some of which is dedicated to explaining why marriage–both sacramental and civil–is reserved to opposite-gender couples.
There are many possibilities for the discrepancy between the official position of the bishops and the views of the faithful.
1. The faithful are ignorant of the church's teaching on this issue. This is possible, but it seems unlikely to me that anyone who does not live beneath a rock is unaware of the Catholic Church's opposition to same-gender marriage.
2. The faithful are indifferent to the church's teaching. I think many Catholics, especially since Humanae vitae, have written off the church's sexual teaching as out of touch with reality. Add to it the damage the sex abuse crisis has done to the bishops' credibility on sex, and anything they say about sex falls on deaf ears.
3. The faithful disagree with the church's teaching for some reason. I think this is just as likely as No. 2. After all, many Catholics know gay and lesbian people, have gay and lesbian children or relatives, or are themselves LGBT–we do baptize regardless of sexual orientation, after all. The experience of the faithful is telling them that same-gender relationships are capable of being loving, fulfilling, and life-giving. Many same-gender couples raise children as well. It's hard to square that experience with church teaching that says a same-gender sexual orientation is an "objective disorder" to an "intrinsically evil act." Nor do they see why these families should not be afforded some legal protection, whether marriage or a marriage-like arrangement.
Unfortunately, what is called for here is conversation in the church about this issue, even if that doesn't immediately lead to consensus on how best to move forward–a point I argued in a column some time ago. That conversation must start by separating the civil and religious dimensions of the question, but it quite frankly can't stop at the civil ones. Indeed, if we are not going to take the experience of LGBT Catholics seriously, we should stop baptizing them–an option equally stupid, impossible, and contrary to the will of God and the practice of the church.
God continues to call into the church the fullness of the human family into the communion of Christ's body–a grace I fear we have yet to take as seriously as we should.