Citing a year-long personal evolution and the Golden Rule, Barack Obama this month became the first sitting U.S. president to endorse the redefinition of marriage: “At a certain point,” he said in an interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” 

His announcement echoed a similar media appearance just a few days earlier by his Catholic vice president, Joe Biden, who said he was “absolutely comfortable” with the idea of “men marrying men, women marrying women.” 

The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan called Obama’s new public stance “deeply saddening.” 

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“As I stated in my public letter to the President on Sept. 20, 2011,” Cardinal Dolan said in a statement, “the Catholic bishops stand ready to affirm every positive measure taken by the president and the Administration to strengthen marriage and the family. However, we cannot be silent in the face of words or actions that would undermine the institution of marriage, the very cornerstone of our society. The people of this country, especially our children, deserve better.  

“Unfortunately, President Obama’s words today are not surprising since they follow upon various actions already taken by his Administration that erode or ignore the unique meaning of marriage. I pray for the president every day, and will continue to pray that he and his Administration act justly to uphold and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman. May we all work to promote and protect marriage and by so doing serve the true good of all persons.” 

Many commentators grappled to understand the timing of Obama’s announcement, especially against the backdrop of campaign strategy in an election year. 

On one hand, at least according to opinion polls, it seems a fairly safe move. Just before his surprise announcement, Gallup reported that 50 percent of Americans “think marriages between same-sex couples should ... be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.” 

On the other hand, his announcement came just after North Carolina’s voters resoundingly approved a constitutional amendment that reads: “Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.” 

The vote makes North Carolina the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment codifying the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. 

The head of the bishops’ ad hoc committee on the promotion and defense of marriage, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., said he hoped Obama would take heed of the vote, and respect the essential role of marriage in promoting the common good. “This is not a partisan issue, but a matter of justice, fairness and equality for the law to uphold every child’s basic right to be welcomed and raised by his or her mother and father together,” he said

A matter of first importance for Catholics, though, must be adult faith formation. The Gallup survey cited above shows Catholics polling right at the national average, with 51 percent supporting marriage redefinition. 

That means far too few Catholics have been given the opportunity — or taken the time — to seriously engage what the Church teaches and why, on the meaning of marriage and respect for the dignity of all people. But now is no time for indifference or ignorance.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.