American political life these days seems to be in a heightened state of moral and philosophical chaos.
In Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of gay marriage, weighing in on both California’s Proposition 8, passed by the voters in 2008 banning gay marriage, and the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law passed in the Clinton administration and now opposed by the Obama administration. Several prominent Republicans now are in support of legalizing gay marriage.
Thirty states have passed constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage, while nine allow it. Several states allow civil unions but stop short of marriage itself. Popular votes overwhelmingly tilted against gay marriage (32-0) until the 2012 elections, when three states for the first time allowed it.
Regarding abortion, in Kansas a bill declaring that life begins at fertilization has passed the House of Representatives, while in Arizona abortions are banned after 12 weeks. North Dakota has banned abortions after the heartbeat is detected as well as any sex selection or eugenics abortions. To date, 21 states and counting have passed some sort of legislation restricting abortion or abortion providers.
But in the state of Washington, the legislature is considering a bill that would force insurance companies to provide abortion coverage, a precedent-setting law that, if passed, would have pro-abortion forces celebrating.
As social consensus has broken down on a wide variety of issues, states are under pressure to legislate in these areas. The result is increasing moral chaos as actions allowable in one state are criminalized in another. Conscience rights is a growing concern as well, whether it be for medical students who may not want to be trained in abortion techniques, or for a florist or a baker who does not want to provide services to a gay wedding. Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to shut down rather than give children to gay or unwed couples.
The battle over the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that organizations, including many religious organizations, must provide birth control, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs for employees and their families has attracted the greatest attention because it uses the might of the federal government to force such organizations to violate their consciences and the teachings of their religion.
How is one to understand a country that seems to be moving in opposite directions at the same time?
When it comes to abortion, this is a battle that has been ongoing for more than 40 years. A precipitous Supreme Court decision did not resolve the issue, but rather hardened the opposition. Four decades later, Americans remain sharply divided, and there seems to be little chance of consensus.
Attitudes toward gay marriage appear to have been much more malleable. A changing social environment, which includes the erosion of the institution of marriage among heterosexuals and a more public gay presence in mass media and in society, has propelled the gay marriage movement at breakneck speed.
How the Catholic Church will more effectively respond to this dynamic and rapidly shifting social landscape remains to be seen. It was the first to engage the battle over abortion, and it has remained an eloquent and successful opponent. The velocity of the gay marriage issue has been more challenging. It will be imperative for Church leaders to continue to teach both their own people and the larger society with clarity as well as charity, recognizing that this will be another long-term struggle in which the Church will likely pay a high price.