A house divided

There is probably no more divisive topic in the Church right now than the subject of gay marriage.

Catholics, particularly younger Catholics, increasingly mirror the rapid change in attitudes toward same-sex marriage that has typified both popular and legal opinion. The Church finds itself pinned between its assessments that homosexual acts are gravely disordered, that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that marriage is meant to be only between a man and a woman, and its affirmation of God’s love and mercy for all and the pastoral understanding that flows from this affirmation.

On the one hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear what has been its historic teaching regarding sexuality and marriage. On the other hand, the words of Pope Francis, oft quoted even if oft out of context, are now used to beat anyone who tries to defend what the catechism teaches: “Who am I to judge?”

While much has been made of the recent resignation of the head of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, because he supported Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, less noticed have been signs that Catholics who defend the Church’s position on gay marriage and related issues may be judged offensive by fellow Catholics. Within the last month, talks on these topics by Father Francis Hoffman in Rhode Island and Sister Jane Dominic Laurel in North Carolina have provoked local firestorms of controversy from Catholic parents and students and fumbled apologies by school administrators.

No transcripts or recordings have been released of the talks so that observers can judge for themselves if the remarks were “cruel, condemnatory and totally unchristian,” as one parent claimed. It seems hard to believe, however, that — one being a priest of Opus Dei (and a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor’s magazine The Catholic Answer), and the other being a Nashville Dominican — either of them strayed very far from the teaching of the Church.

What is not hard to believe is that many Catholics no longer accept the Church’s teaching. Natural law arguments mean nothing, because gay marriage is understood solely as a matter of love and civil rights. To oppose both love and civil rights in our society is to be a very bad person. If you have qualms about it, you are advised to keep your qualms in the closet.

This leads me to hazard a few conclusions:

The pressure on the Church, already enormous because of the clergy abuse scandals and the HHS mandate, is likely to grow exponentially because of the turnaround of public opinion on same-sex marriage. The Church’s teachings are now not just something to be argued with, but to be condemned out of hand as bigoted.

As a result, the Church must find new ways, even a new language to articulate its teachings on marriage and sexuality to its own people. (John Cavadini’s article in the Feb. 16 issue of OSV Newsweekly was such an effort.) It is clear that its teachings pose a big problem for the majority of young Catholics. It is posing a problem for many middle-aged Catholics as well.

To articulate these teachings effectively, it isn’t enough to approach the subject as a matter of discrete categories worthy of condemnation: abortion, birth control, divorce, same-sex marriage. The entire ecology of Catholic moral thought in this area must be communicated as something more than a series of “thou shalt nots.”

This fall the extraordinary synod on the family will be held in Rome. How it will address the issues of marriage, sex and family will be closely watched, but it is safe to predict now that whatever statements are issued, this will continue to be a painfully divisive issue in the West.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.