Washington’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl is confronting the City Council’s push to legalize same-sex marriage. He sent a letter to his clergy re-iterating the Church’s position on the uniqueness and importance of traditional marriage, gave a set of interviews, and is joining hands with a group of Baptist ministers who also oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.
Already, the opposition has begun to throw out straw men and other obfuscations. "I respect the bishop for his view…but we live in a representative democracy where there is a separation of church and state. We do not live in a theocracy," councilman David Catania told the Washington Post. True enough, but no one suggested that we do transform our constitutional arrangements in a theocratic direction. Indeed, Catania’s comments are carefully chosen – and especially galling - because he and his allies are trying to prevent a referendum on the issue. Ours is a representative democracy, and Catania is a representative, but he should not so scorn the demos, the people, as to deny us a vote on the definition of an institution so central to our lives and society.
It is good that Archbishop Wuerl is at the center of this brewing storm, in which emotions are highly charged, because he is a man for whom thoughtfulness comes naturally and moderation is the norm. He can explain the teachings of the Church as well as anyone I have ever met, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
The Church does not owe anyone an apology for stating our belief in the importance of traditional marriage, nor for the argument that our society should continue to privilege this unique, life-giving form of human friendship and loving that is marriage. But, we must also be clear that our opposition to anything that would detract from the centrality of marriage is not rooted in any bigotry against gay and lesbian people. Nothing in the Church’s teaching insults the human dignity of anyone else, but even a cursory reading of the Book of Genesis leads to the conclusion that the equality between the sexes is an equality of difference, and that marriage is founded on that equality of difference as something that is integral to our sense of what it means to be human. The Church should resist any attempt to paint us as bigots but it also must make sure that no one speaking in Her name betrays any bigotry.
It would be welcome, too, if those who do get excited and see same-sex partnerships as a "threat" to traditional marriage would get equally excited about liberal divorce laws. Those are a more proximate threat to traditional marriage in a society where fully half of all marriages end in divorce. Here again, the Church is consistent but many of our allies may not be.
One of the ways to show that the Church’s position on traditional marriage has nothing to do with anti-gay bigotry is to adopt what could be called "the Levada solution." In 1996, when San Francisco decided that agencies contracting with the city had to extend health benefits to same-sex partners, then-Archbishop Levada negotiated with the city to achieve a solution that worked for both the city and church. The city mandated that the employees of agencies working with the government could designate anyone who was legally domiciled with an employee to receive the benefits. It could be a same-sex partner, an unemployed cousin, a retired aunt. The Church was only blessing the extension of benefits and did not need to inquire further. Gay and lesbian couples were able to enjoy the societal benefits that are not intrinsic to marriage but which have for a variety of complex reasons become associated with marriage.
In Puerto Rico a few years ago, a special commission of the legislature was updating the Civil Code and gay activists were pushing for same-sex marriage rights to be included. The Catholic Bishops made a counter-proposal that was built on the Levada solution model. Those who have "shared habitation" are eligible for benefits whether or not they work for the government or an agency with government contracts. This model is now working its way into the legal codes of South America.
Societal attitudes are changing on the nature of homosexuality as fast as scholarly consensus, or faster actually, about its complex origins. The American people have a profound commitment to fairness and equal justice as well as a deep and abiding belief that marriage is different from other social arrangements and should not be lightly changed. There is a way to acknowledge both parts of the national character to come to a solution on the issue of the rights of same-sex partners while protecting the uniqueness of traditional marriage.