It has been one year since the U.S. Supreme Court officially blessed the redefinition of marriage and opened the federal flood gates to a wave of (largely successful) lawsuits by same-sex couples. The most recent cases involve the overturning of a gay marriage ban in Indiana and an appeals court ruling in Utah that struck down a ban there.
In the past 12 months, there has been a tectonic shift not only in the courts, but in popular opinion. The pace of this grand cultural reversal has surprised even some supporters of same-sex marriage, but it is quickly becoming normative.
Those who support a traditional definition of marriage — as President Barack Obama himself did only a few years ago — are now on the defensive. Even the Church is struggling to find the language to explain what has been its teaching for 2,000 years without sounding prejudiced or spiteful.
What makes the task even more difficult for the Church is that many self-identified Catholics tell pollsters they do not agree with their Church either.
Earlier this spring there were two incidents in which students and parents vociferously objected to speakers defending the Church’s teaching on marriage. One speaker was a Dominican nun in North Carolina. The second was a priest in Rhode Island. Neither had a reputation as a firebrand. Both were roundly criticized for their presentations. None of this is entirely unexpected except for the fact that the schools were Catholic, as were the parents and students.
While such protests suggest a wide divergence in the pews, the Church is also being dragged into the courts by lawsuits filed when diocesan, parish or school employees marry their same-sex partners and then lose their jobs. As recent moves in Cincinnati and Cleveland illustrate, the Church now tries to shield itself from such suits with pre-emptive contracts explicitly stating what is expected of its employees, but those in turn are creating another backlash. The lawyers may be reducing risk but raising ire.
Where this all will lead is anyone’s guess, but the future does look ominous. No matter how the Church tries to articulate its position, there is, at least at this moment, a reaction in the popular media against divergent viewpoints that is quite clearly intended to intimidate and silence.
Take the case of Brendan Eich.
Brendan Eich was the hapless digital genius who created the Java script found in millions of computers. He also co-founded a company called Mozilla that has a popular open-source Internet search engine called Firefox. Earlier this year he was appointed CEO of Mozilla.
Unfortunately, he had been outed two years ago on Twitter as someone who had donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8’s definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. California law makes donors list their place of work, which brought criticism on Mozilla then. After his appointment as CEO last March, a campaign was begun to boycott Mozilla. Eich resigned in less than two weeks.
It is important to note that there were no charges that he had been discriminatory in the workplace. There were no charges that he had made derogatory comments or had acted in ways overtly hostile to people with same-sex attraction, or that he had imposed a hostile environment at Mozilla or any place else.
Eich’s only sin, and it was apparently mortal, was that he had dared to support the traditional concept of marriage by quietly making a political donation.
Many people of good will are struggling with this issue now, and Catholics are no different. They too have gay sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. The Church has a huge pastoral and catechetical challenge: How to help Catholics understand the Church’s teaching and its context — the what and the why.
To date the Church has found it hard to explain what it teaches and why both to many younger Catholics and to the larger culture.
My concern, however, is that those who accept as true the Church’s teachings in this area may soon pay a price for such beliefs, just as Eich did. Catholic institutions may not be always immune from the wrath of the courts, and Catholic individuals — whether lawyers or doctors or bakers or photographers — who accept this teaching may expect a backlash as well.
So make that two challenges the U.S. Church faces. The first is how to teach effectively what it believes. The second is something it has not had to worry about in a long time: Preparing people for the price that may be exacted for believing what they have been taught.
Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also an adviser on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Read more reports from him — Click Here Now.
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