A Widening Gap

Last week was certainly a study in contrasts between American Catholics and their spiritual leaders and teachers.

On Sunday, the spokesperson for the American Church, New York's affable Archbishop Timothy Dolan, pulled no punches while confidently defending the church's conservative positions on gay rights, women’s ordination, and priestly celibacy on 60 Minutes. He stated that gay people do not have any right to marriage, in the same way that a child does not have a right to marry his mother. Societies have always regulated sexual relations, he stated, and restricting marriage to a man and woman is but a useful and necessary continuation of this tradition.

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Two days later, the Public Religion Research Institute released a study entitled, "Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues: A Comprehensive Portrait from Recent Research." The findings show that not only do Catholic laity in America support gay rights generally, but do so at rates higher than any other Christian denomination and the American public as a whole. The research shows that 71% of Catholics support civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples, echoing results from a similar poll released the week prior.  That poll, from ABC News and the Washington Post, finds a dramatic 23% increase in support for gay marriage among Catholics compared to the same poll five years ago.

In a Friday news release, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement entitled, "USCCB Urges HUD Not to Include Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Among Protected Categories," which calls on the government agency "not to adopt a proposed regulation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected categories for which discrimination in HUD programs is prohibited."

Contrast that statement with findings from the PRRI poll about non-discrimination laws: almost three-quarters of US Catholics favor laws that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Dioceses continue to opt out of adoption programs rather than comply with local non-discrimination laws, notably in Massachusetts and Washington, DC. Church leaders in both regions said that they could not in good conscience place children in homes with same-sex parents, and as a result, they would halt the decades-old programs.

Not surprisingly, the PRRI poll found that 60% of American Catholics support the rights of gay couples to adopt children.

Gays serving openly in the military? You know the drill. The Archbishop for Military Services USA, Timothy Broglio, released a statement pleading with Congress not to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Sixty-three percent of Catholics in the US support open service.

It’s possible that some church leaders who support a more pastoral approach to these issues, and they do exist, stay quiet for fear of the consequences that could result in offering another view. What’s more likely, however, is that church leadership in the US is dominated by men with a very specific, unbending worldview, even as members of their flocks evolve on these contentious and important social issues.

What are lay Catholics to make of this ever-widening chasm between their beliefs and what they hear preached from their leaders?

Catholics in the US, especially young people, are increasingly accepting of gays and lesbians. The church is digging in its heels, unable to comprehend this sudden change in societal norms. Despite the campaigns, statements, and preaching, lay Catholics lead the nation in support of gay rights. At some point, something has to give. Will the church change its stance on homosexuality? Of course not. Catholicism is the largest denomination in the US, but it is still a tiny sliver of the global church, and attitudes elsewhere, especially in the growing hotspots of global Catholicism, remain rigidly conservative. But church leaders may want to reconsider where they focus their limited time, energy, and resources. The battle for gay rights in this nation increasingly looks like it will be won-eventually-by those who support them. The church can continue to be a vocal minority in opposition to change, alienating the many people who increasingly know, love, and accept gay family members and friends. Or, it can refocus its efforts to highlight the love of God that animates a nourishing, life-giving, freeing faith, and attempt to reach those who need this love most: those who feel marginalized by the church now.

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