The landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges represents the high-water mark in the culture wars that have afflicted the country and the church for decades. Some view the court’s decision to redefine civil marriage in order to accommodate same-sex couples as an egregious instance of judicial overreach, one that must be resisted at all costs. Indeed, there is a serious constitutional principle at stake: We the people must consider whether we want major public policy questions like the definition of civil marriage settled by judicial fiat, rather than by our elected representatives or by direct vote of the people.
Yet prescinding from the constitutional questions prompted by the case, it is clear from most national polls that the court’s decision accords with the opinion of a majority of U.S. citizens, as well as a majority of American Catholics. The court’s decision also comes on the heels of a recent referendum in Ireland in which a large majority of Catholics across that country voted for the legalization of same-sex civil marriage. Some Catholics have argued that the outcome in Ireland and the dramatic shift in Catholic opinion in the United States are a result of the failure of ecclesial leadership to clearly articulate the position of the church. That is not true. Catholics in the United States and Ireland understand the position of the church on the question of civil marriage; until recently, it was their position as well. Yet large numbers of Catholics in both countries have reconsidered this position and have now rejected it. That is the reality of the situation.
These two events are part of a larger phenomenon—the transition of Western Europe and the United States to a thoroughly secular, postmodern social politics. In the United States, this transition has been underway since the sexual revolution of the 1960s ushered in a series of social and political battles collectively known as the culture wars. With the Obergefell decision, it is increasingly clear that those who believe that the civil law ought to reflect and codify traditional Judeo-Christian values have lost not just these most recent battles but the war itself. The New York Times columnist David Brooks, a self-described conservative who is sympathetic to religion, recently called on “social conservatives” to “consider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.”
Catholics in the United States should also ask whether “cultural warfare” is a helpful organizing principle for the church’s public witness. The church is not merely one more faction organized for public action. We are the body of Christ before we are the body politic, evangelists before we are activists. Evangelization and cultural warfare are not simply in tension with each other; they are opposites. Yet that fact does not justify the church’s retreat from public life. The church is by its nature a public body. While the separation of church and state is a prudent arrangement, the separation of the church from politics is inconceivable, for the Gospel makes radical demands on every dimension of human living.
In the months and years ahead, however, Catholics should reconsider not whether the church should engage in the public life of this country but how we will do so. The present moment affords an opportunity for Catholics of every political stripe to assume an even more robust public presence, but from a different starting point: that of human encounter rather than of tactical confrontation. As Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta observed in the wake of Obergefell, this moment affords us “an opportunity to continue the vitally important dialogue of human encounter, especially between those of diametrically differing opinions regarding [the ruling’s] outcome.”
The same Gospel that Christians seek to announce in the public square requires that we engage in such a “dialogue of human encounter” in a penitential key, with humility, so that we may better discern the signs of the times. This humility is most important, perhaps, when reflecting on matters of human sexuality, which make such dramatic and compelling claims on every human heart. While the church must hold fast to what God has revealed in Scripture and tradition, can we not also acknowledge that the same Spirit that spoke to our forebears speaks to us still? It simply cannot be true that we have learned all there is to know about human sexuality. How can we discern together, then, what the spirit is saying to us now? How can we better discern the good, the true and the beautiful in the signs of the times? As Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich, has said, “We cannot say to someone: you are homosexual, you cannot live according to the Gospel. It is unthinkable…. [If] two people in a homosexual relationship have been faithful to one another for 30 years, I cannot call that nothing.” While acknowledging and preserving what is essential, Cardinal Marx adds, “We cannot see everything in black and white, in terms of all or nothing.”
The temptation to see the recent court decision in black and white terms is evident among some of those who describe Obergefell v. Hodges as a second Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade concerns a vital question of life and death. Obergefell v. Hodges involves the question of who can contract a civil marriage. While both decisions have far-reaching moral implications, they involve different degrees of moral gravity. This view, moreover, that Obergefell is a second Roe, may lend itself too easily to the binary culture-war thinking that can impoverish our understanding of events and narrow the horizon of our public choices.
The temptation to see the court decision in black and white terms is also evident among some of those who see the court’s action only as one more attempt to marginalize the church and diminish religious freedom. We should resist this temptation as well. The church must vigorously defend its freedom; the state has no natural or constitutional right to compel religious believers to perform actions that compromise our consciences. There will be many more debates and decisions in the years ahead, however, involving contestable questions of religious freedom and the public interest. In engaging in such debates, Catholics must be careful not to develop a “Masada complex” that would reduce our self-understanding to that of a besieged minority. Such a narrow self-perception is contrary to the generous, expansive nature of the good news we seek to share.
The church’s public presence, however, is not the most important challenge before us. The church must also carefully discern how to provide better support for Catholic marriages and families. The Obergefell decision has no bearing on the church’s understanding and practice of the sacrament of matrimony. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a crisis involving the sacrament. Marriages in the church throughout the Americas declined by 46 percent between 1980 and 2012, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. There were nearly a million fewer celebrations of such marriages in 2012 than in 1980. It is inaccurate to claim that same-sex civil marriage is the cause of this crisis. Still, the crisis is such that some level of the energy and resources that the church summoned to oppose the redefinition of civil marriage should be redeployed to pastoral programs and community outreach that will strengthen these sacramental unions.
The church must also carefully consider our pastoral approach to gay and lesbian people and to Catholic families headed by same-sex couples. This outreach should extend especially to gay and lesbian people who are also poor and are perhaps the most invisible population in the country.
In crafting a new pastoral approach, we should dispense with the facile and dangerous assumption that the “culture war” is in large part a battle between Christians and gay people. That claim, which is made often by those who should know better, is unfair and empirically false. According to a new report published this year from the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of lesbian, bisexual and gay Americans identify as Christians. Still, one of the reasons why the church’s position on civil marriage was rejected by the public is that they rightly perceived that members of the church have often failed to extend to gay and lesbian people the “respect, compassion, and sensitivity” that Catholic teaching requires. Indeed, too many among us have been too slow to recognize the unjust discrimination to which gay and lesbian people have been historically subjected.
A new pastoral approach, therefore, should be marked by basic human respect, which “must be real, not rhetorical,” as Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago has said, “and ever reflective of the church’s commitment to accompanying all people. For this reason, the church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God.”
While the culture wars may be over, the new evangelization continues. The church in the United States must realize anew the true motive force of that evangelization, what Pope Francis has called “the first proclamation, that Jesus Christ has saved you.” Whatever else it is, the public witness of the church begins and ends there. For too long the public has wrongly perceived the church as one more political faction aligned almost exclusively with the forces of reaction. It is not surprising that in a country obsessed with all things sexual, the church should be seen as singularly obsessed with such matters. Our task is to change that perception in order to create a more fertile field for the seed of the Gospel. We will not change this perception, however, through the mere assertion that it is not true. A credible public encounter must begin in humility, with our humble admission of the ways in which the perception is at least partly true. Most important, we should begin with the first proclamation, with our compelling witness to God and the person we are saying yes to, rather than the litany of things we are saying no to.
Now, as always, we must heed the word of the Lord: “Be not afraid.” The world is not ending; it is changing. It is unsettling for many, surely. Yet it is also hopeful. We are at our best when we encounter any change with the certain hope that everything has within it the power to call forth from us a deeper response to God. The church has the resources to rightly discern the lights from the shadows in the changing signs of our times. Above all, we have the grace of the one who has saved us, the one who now calls us to greater faith, deeper hope and lasting charity for all.