Given all that has happened in the Episcopal Church in the past two decades, it was shocking, but hardly surprising, when its chief governing body, the General Convention, voted in mid-July to allow clergy to bless same-sex unions. American Anglicanism has drifted far.
(The General Convention is composed of two separate bodies. Actions must pass both bodies to become church policy. The House of Bishops includes all bishops in active service in the denomination in this country. Comprising the other body, the House of Deputies, are elected representatives from all the dioceses. At present, 100 Episcopal dioceses are in this country, plus 10 dioceses in American territories overseas, serving a population of more than 2.12 million in 2010, according to the Episcopal News Service online.)
The support for the rite was overwhelming in the House of Deputies. The vote in the House of Bishops also heavily favored the new proposal. Among the bishops, 111 voted for the rite, but only 41 were opposed.
Several bishops reportedly took a strong stand against the ritual. A South Carolina bishop actually left the convention floor. He, and several of his colleagues, correctly observed that this new arrangement flies into the face of long-established Episcopal Church teaching.
The Episcopal decision is a fundamentally radical, revolutionary shift in the view of marriage that has been held throughout the history of Western civilization, be the primary religious force Roman Catholic, Protestant of every tendency, or Orthodox. While Islam sanctions polygamy, it utterly rejects any thought of persons of the same gender being bound together in marriage.
To some degree, official Episcopal Church policies very much have been influenced by American popular attitudes.
Research into American public opinion over the past few years reveals that more and more people across the country, and not only Episcopalians, accept “same-sex unions.” Many states legally permit “same-sex unions.”
Connecticut (35 percent Catholic, according to the 2012 Official Catholic Directory), Iowa (16 percent Catholic), Massachusetts (43 percent Catholic), New Hampshire (21 percent Catholic), New York (37 percent Catholic), Vermont (19 percent) and the District of Columbia (22 percent Catholic) currently even legalize civil marriages between persons of the same gender.
The percentage of Catholics among the general population in each state is telling. Of course, there are Catholics, and then there are Catholics, in the sense of how closely people identifying themselves as Catholics follow Church teaching. Nevertheless, laws, democratically produced, allow practices considered gravely immoral by the Church to exist.
Two points are clear. No one with any awareness of things can say that somehow the Catholic Church is compromising its ancient view in these matters. The Church sees marriage as being between one man and one woman. Period.
The second point is that the mere success of measures in these states clearly seen as wrong by the Church exposes this reality. The oldest and most ingrained of all Catholic customs in this country is to live and let live. Prompting this view is the fear that if one group of people can dictate to another, then a citizen’s right to live as a Catholic will be in jeopardy.
So, many Catholics say, together with many prominent Catholic politicians, that they personally oppose abortion but would not impose their views on anyone else.
This thinking again and again frustrates Church efforts to bring moral standards into public policy.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.