Above popular opinion

I tried, but I could not convince her. A reader called me insisting that soon Catholic priests in this country will be presiding at weddings in which both partners are of the same gender.

It will not happen, I replied, but she said that indeed it would happen.

The exchange made clear this reality. Popular opinion has a massive effect on American Catholics, and it is nothing new.

More and more Americans accept same-gender intimacy and same-gender relationships. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling requiring states to permit marriages between persons of the same gender accelerated this acceptance.

Although marriage as possible only between one man and one woman is an uncompromised tradition in Christianity, holding it without exception is becoming unique to the Catholic Church among religious denominations. Influencing it all is the historic American concept that I can do as I like, and you can do as you like, and everything is fine, unless we get in someone’s way.

Bottom line: The Catholic Church in this country is under increasing pressure regarding its view of marriage, and the situation will not improve.

If I yield to pessimism, I can see the day when a couple of the same gender will approach a priest with the request that he witness their marriage. He will refuse, and they will protest. Outraged, they will go to court, arguing that the priest is denying them their rights.

Once I would not have worried. Logically, a court would say that it had no authority over the internal procedures and teachings of any religion, because of the First Amendment to the Constitution, telling the couple that if they wished to be married, they could go to any justice of peace at any time and be married under American law, the only law the court can enforce. Now I wonder — and I fear not just about the courts.

This well may develop. The bishops will preach and teach the established doctrine, but people gradually will say that the Church is out of step. This has been said before: “The Church does not understand how impossible natural family planning is for spouses.” “The bishops and priests make people feel uncomfortable about divorce and remarriage.” In other words, popular opinion will affect Catholics, and in history popular opinion has won. Today’s rapid communications will propel the process.

What can be done? It is not just a question of making clear the Church’s position, through pronouncements by bishops. It has to go further. First and foremost, parents will have to teach their children not just the one-sentence doctrine that marriage only can exist between one man and one woman, but parents must convince themselves before convincing their children of the Church’s teaching.

Religious educators first will have to believe in the teaching themselves. Only then can they draw their students to their conclusions. No one, however, will be lucky in convincing anyone without sincerely believing that the Church is a greater authority, and is more reliable, in determining right and wrong than any single opinion or the collective mind of the majority of the population.

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But while Catholics challenge the popular opinion, they cannot entertain, or promote, hostile feelings about persons who think differently.

“Hate the sin, love the sinner” is an axiom of Catholic tradition, but many have trouble with it, practically speaking.

It lay behind that famous remark of Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” I was reminded of the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, about as traditionally Catholic as any bishop ever to serve in this country, but never was there a greater friend of victims of AIDS than he.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.