The debate about the legal status of same-sex marriages has erupted in earnest on both coasts of these United States. As the presidential election campaign gathers momentum, the issue threatens to be one of the most divisive challenges confronting both Democrats and Republicans.
In the wake of a 4-to-3 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that same-sex partners could not be denied the right to marry, Massachusetts legislators unsuccessfully struggled to fashion an amendment to the state constitution that would protect the traditional understanding of marriage as a heterosexual union, while offering gay and lesbian couples the possibility of establishing civil unions that would provide the rights and protections enjoyed by married couples. These attempts at compromise were opposed by both opponents and advocates of same-sex marriage. Whether some compromise may be possible is not clear.
Meanwhile on the other coast, where gay civil unions have been legal, San Francisco’s Mayor Gavin Newsom directed the city clerk to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, even though California state law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Hundreds of couples applied for such licenses overnight, and city officials were busy officiating at marriages, while the mayor invited the newlyweds to a reception in City Hall. The legality of the mayor’s action is being challenged, and the issue could make its way to the California Supreme Court.
While jurists may debate the legal and constitutional issues connected with same-sex marriage with the civility expected in a courtroom, this emotionally explosive issue can lead to ugly confrontations elsewhere. While legislators argued over the possibility of a compromise amendment in the Massachusetts State House, thousands of foes and supporters of same-sex marriage gathered outside and within the State House. Inside the building, supporters of an amendment banning same-sex marriages wore yellow stickers; opponents wore white ones. Outside the building, the lines of confrontation were more violently drawn when anti-gay slurs from parishioners from a local Baptist church provoked racial epithets from supporters of gay marriage. According to The Boston Globe, the confrontation “unleashed public passion and venom rarely seen on Beacon Hill.”
The opposition of Catholic teaching to same-sex marriage is clear and unambiguous. In calling for a constitutional amendment as a response to the judicial activism of a slender majority on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the archbishop of Boston, Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., spoke for a broad coalition of religious groups that based their defense of the traditional definition of marriage on fundamental precepts of natural law. The understanding of marriage that Archbishop O’Malley and his fellow Catholic bishops seek to protect is shared by most other Christians, as well as Muslim and Jewish traditions. Public opinion polls suggest that this continues to be the view held by a majority of the American people.
At the same time, as the acceptability of same-sex marriages continues to be debated in legislatures, courtrooms and on the campaign trail, the manner in which we participate in this debate is as important as its outcome. Vigorous and impassioned debate is one thing; contempt for the adversary is quite another. Christians on both sides of this issue should remember St. Paul’s admonition to the Romans: “We, though many, are one body in Christ and individually one of another.” If we take this fundamental Christian truth seriously, we will not allow deeply human aspirations and commitments to inspire a divisively emotional public debate. Truth and love are not opposed.
During the coming debates on this issue, Catholics must disassociate themselves from any homophobic language or tactics and the use of this issue for partisan advantage. After all, homosexuals, as the U.S. bishops said in their pastoral statement in 1997, are “our children.” “God does not love someone any less simply because he or she is homosexual,” they wrote in Always Our Children.  “God’s love is always and everywhere offered to those who are open to receiving it.”
Even if their allies do not do so, Catholics must continue to “make it clear that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression or violence against them” (Always Our Children). Catholics cannot let this debate degenerate into name-calling, in violation of the catechism’s injunction that homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”