US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Can Catholics and their church work out their differences on same-sex marriage?

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Today the Supreme Court is hearing arguments in its second case dealing with same-sex marriage, and in particular the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And although the court is unlikely to make a sweeping decision on the legality of same-sex marriage in the United States, Catholics will no doubt be watching the court's handling of the case very closely.

Catholics by now are well-acquainted with their church's strong opposition to legally recognizing marriage as anything but "one man and one woman," a phrase Catholic leaders have repeated over and over in this debate. But the court, of course, will not be looking at questions of morality or what God intended for marriage. Instead, they'll be looking at something much more concrete: Whether 83-year-old Edith Windsor should have to pay $363,000 in estate taxes because the federal government does not recognize her legal marriage to Thea Spyer, Windsor's now deceased wife.

Windsor and Spyer, a couple for more than 40 years, wed in Canada and their marriage was legally recognized by their home state of New York. But after Spyer's death Windsor was hit with a tax bill for the inheritance of Spyer's estate. If the federal government legally recognized the marriage, Windsor would not have to pay the bill, and now the Supreme Court must decide on DOMA's prevention of federal benefits for spouses--all 1,138 of them--being denied to same-sex couples.

In the midst of all this debate, I heard an interesting piece on the local public radio station in Chicago this morning about how Catholics--particularly those who are parents of gay and lesbian children--deal with the church's public stance on this issue. I find it disheartening to hear how Catholics like Toni Weaver, who responded to her own son's homosexuality with nothing but love and acceptance, have been driven away from the church because of the messages it proclaims on marriage and GLBT people in general. And Weaver isn't alone; the Public Religion Research Institute now reports that 52 percent of Catholics favor federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states that legally allow them. In other words, more than half of Catholics disagree with the position that their church has so fiercely argued in the public square.

As Father Bill Tkachuk, a priest in Evanston, Illinois and a U.S. Catholic contributor, said in the radio story, the church needs to change its tone on the issue by “speaking in the language that people can hear with their hearts and accept with their hearts, as opposed to a more academic language that can be received as very hurtful, even if it’s not intended that way.”

Too many Catholics have openly gay friends and family members, some of whom may even be legally married in their state, for them to take a harsh stance on this issue. Many Catholics also see a distinction between the church's sacramental definition of marriage and the state's legal recognition of a partnership that happens to use the same name. To them this is not a black-and-white issue, even though some in the church portray it as one. No matter how the Supreme Court rules or what future laws our country adopts, the church needs to take into consideration the way it approaches the conversation about same-sex partnerships and how it communicates with the faithful--especially those who don't see eye-to-eye with the hierarchy on this issue.