Last month -- just a week before the president announced his support for marriage equality -- I had the privilege of hearing Governors Chris Gregoire of Washington and Martin O'Malley of Maryland speak (at the Human Rights Campaign [HRC] offices in Washington DC) about their hard-fought battles to secure marriage equality in their respective states. To listen to these two Catholic politicians eloquently and passionately defend the right of same-sex couples to get married in the eyes of the state was a wonderfully refreshing and genuinely empowering experience. And it made me proud to be Catholic especially at a time when many American bishops are ratcheting up -- in truly unprecedented ways -- their divisive and un-Christian attacks on queer people.
What should we make of the fact that five Catholic governors have come out in support of marriage equality? To date -- in addition to Gregoire and O'Malley -- former Governor John Baldacci of Maine, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Governor John Lynch of New Hampshire have all worked to extend the civil right of marriage to their lesbian and gay constituents and all of them are practicing Catholics.
With the news full of stories about Catholic bishops lining up (and often coughing up millions of dollars) to deny marriage equality to same-sex couples, it is indeed remarkable to see these five governors do the right thing and advance significantly one of the most important social justice movements in our country today. And their actions find firm theological support (surprising to many) in the rich Catholic tradition of social justice which is rooted in centuries-old church teachings on the dignity of the human person and the duty of the individual to follow her/his conscience in all matters (see, for instance, The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom : §2 and §3).
Perhaps the most eloquent explanations of how her Catholic faith played an important role in her decision to defend marriage equality comes from Governor Gregoire who had initially opposed, on religious grounds, civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Speaking in a television interview on Seattle's KING Channel 5 on 4 Jan. 2012, the governor related how she had been hesitant to support marriage equality, in large part, because of her Catholic faith. It was in talking with her own daughters, however, that she began to understand that marriage equality was a civil rights issue similar in some ways to the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s which she had supported passionately as a child. After talking with a priest friend who supported her change of heart on the matter and after entering into respectful dialogue with her local bishop (who did not support marriage equality), Gregoire made the bold and faith-filled decision that she could not in good conscience deny the right of civil marriage to lesbian and gay couples in her state. Moreover, it was as a person of faith, as a Catholic, that she realized that she had a moral obligation to support marriage equality.
This good news about Catholic support for marriage equality is that it extends well beyond gubernatorial offices, of course, as is demonstrated by an Oct. 2011 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. According to the poll, a full 52 percent of Catholics now support same-sex marriage (versus 37 percent in the opposition) which is a significant increase over a 2010 survey of Catholics which indicated only 46 percent of those polled in support of same-sex marriage (vs. 42 percent opposed). This means, according to the same poll, that Catholics now trail only slightly the views of white mainline Protestants who show the strongest support among American Christians for same-sex marriage (54 percent) and it reveals that Catholics are far more supportive of same-sex marriage than white evangelical Protestants (74 percent of whom oppose it).
While the march to full marriage equality in the United States seems to advance at an agonizingly slow pace, it is important for us to recognize that most American Catholics (who now represent the largest single religious denomination in the country and, with just over 68 million members, make up approximately 22 percent of the American population) support marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Although it is the increasingly conservative bishops of the US church who get the lion's share of press coverage on the issue, more newsworthy stories are actually those that report that five Catholic governors have worked, often at considerable risk to their political careers, to advance marriage equality. Even better news is that they are working in concert with the beliefs of millions of other American Catholics who understand that the Gospel AND important church teachings support marriage for all.
So, Let's Hear It For The Millions of American Catholics Who Support Marriage Equality!
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