Does the church need a reality check on same-sex marriage?

Sometimes, everyone can benefit from a good reality check. And this week, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has said that we might need a reality check about same-sex marriage in the United States.

Contrary to what the senator says on his website, where he firmly supports marriage as between one man and one woman, on Wednesday he spoke on a radio program about the inevitability that same-sex marriage will eventually become legal throughout the entire country.

As Religion News Service reports, Hatch was quoted as saying on KSL Radio’s “Doug Wright Show”: “Let’s face it, anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land just hasn’t been observing what’s going on. There is a question whether (the courts) should be able to tell the states what they can or cannot do with something as important as marriage, but the trend right now in the courts is to permit gay marriage and anybody who doesn’t admit that just isn’t living in the real world.”

While clarifying that he disagreed with decisions from judges in Utah, who had overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Hatch continued: “I think it’s a portent of the future that sooner or later gay marriage is probably going to be approved by the Supreme Court of the United States, certainly as the people in this country move towards it, especially young people. I don’t think that’s the right way to go; on the other hand, I do accept whatever the courts say.”

Is there a way for the Catholic Church to respond to this reality in a similar way? To basically say: We don’t think this is the right way to go, but we accept that the courts say this is legal and that this here to stay. Instead of reacting by declaring court decisions mistakes and travesties of justice—as was done after the recent decision in Pennsylvania that declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional—it seems more realistic for the church as an institution to adopt the attitude that Hatch is putting forth. It’s no secret that Catholics in the pew don’t see eye to eye with church teaching on the issue: A March 2014 Pew survey shows that close to 60 percent of Catholics support same-sex marriage.

As Bryan Cones proposed in a recent Sounding Board for U.S. Catholic, one first step could be for us to separate the church and state when it comes to marriages. He writes: “It is time that Catholic conversations about the issue recognize that we are talking about two different realities when we use the word ‘marriage’—a legal contract on the civil side, and a sacramental covenant between two baptized people on the other—and adjust our practice accordingly. Doing so would allow Catholics to have a fruitful intramural conversation about our theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage without being entangled in the question of whether families and couples who don’t fit that vision should have access to the legal benefits and duties that go with its civil parallel.”

The church could spend more time and resources figuring out how to deal with the reality that people (including Catholics) will continue to have legal same-sex marriages. Church teaching is clear that gay people have full human dignity, even though church teaching is just as clear that the sacrament of marriage is meant for one man and one woman. But wouldn’t it be better for the church to acknowledge what’s happening, namely that legally recognized same-sex marriage is a reality in many states and that it will likely one day be legal nationwide? By, say, figuring out ways to effectively minister to gay couples, or to welcome children of same-sex parents into Catholic school?

These are real issues that the church faces now and will continue to face in the future. Pretty soon, it could be time for a reality check from the church.

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.