If marriage is on the ballot in your state, chances are you've received a "personal appeal" from your bishop. Marriage equality, the letter says, doesn't reflect the church's concept of family. My letter to you makes a different personal appeal, asking you, on behalf of your gay and lesbian friends and family, to consider the notion that our faith actually supports the case for marriage equality and pro-equality candidates.
Clearly many Catholics disagree with the official church stance: Fifty-two percent of Catholics support giving gays and lesbians the right to legally marry, and there are "Catholics for Marriage Equality" alliances patiently pressing their cause across the country. From my conversations with faithful friends and family, accumulated over a lifetime growing up in the church, it seems that many are uncomfortable with the opinion of the church hierarchy and the church's active role funding anti-equality campaigns. Fortunately, the bishops' opinion is just that: an opinion. Not only does the church permit its flock to vote according to their conscience; it requires it. Article 6 of Part 3 of the Catechism says, "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment ... for man has in his heart a law inscribed by God."
The Catechism instructs us to consider church teachings in our reflection, and the church's official stance against same-sex marriage is clear, but this teaching is not dogma. It is one thread in the tapestry of our conscience, a thread that competes and complements the threads of life experience, personal feelings and beliefs and conversations among family and friends. Church insiders themselves are not of one mind on marriage: There are rigorous theologians who believe that same-sex relationships deserve to be consecrated. Come Nov. 6, once you have struggled to educate your conscience, your vote should reflect this personal deliberation.
Scholars continue to produce important theological analyses of marriage and family, but my plea for your vote reflects a more personal story. Growing up, I spent a lot of time praying -- in church on Sundays, at my school's Mass on Wednesdays, in bed every night, and a rosary on the way to school every morning. I frequently included a Prayer of Intercession, asking that I find happiness; I prayed that I stop feeling lonely and different. As I came to terms with the fact that I was gay, I prayed that I would be "healed," that I'd become straight. Despite great friends, a good education and a loving family, my health and happiness were compromised by the fear and shame of being gay and living inside an institution where I felt rejected and less than equal. My story is a common one; this pain is shared by thousands of closeted kids every year who are raised inside the church or who attend parochial schools.
In Catholic school we studied Pascal's "wager," the idea thought up by French theologian Blaise Pascal that a rational person should believe in God and the church, because, in believing, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose: If you're right you gain everlasting life, and if you're wrong you're dead and gone either way. Let's take the same approach to the question of voting on marriage equality. What do society and the church gain and lose with our decision to support or reject same-sex marriage?
If the bishops are right but we vote to support marriage equality for gays and lesbians, what is lost? The bishops claim that civil marriage equality threatens the religious liberty of the church, but that notion is 180 degrees from the truth. The United States Constitution protects, unequivocally, any church from ever having to consecrate a marriage it believes is invalid. Period. The church can never be forced to perform a same-sex marriage in the United States. Ask any non-biased lawyer or scholar and he or she will tell you that these proposed laws to legalize same-sex marriage -- advocated in the states of Maryland and Washington by devout Catholic governors -- deal only with civil marriage. This is a living example of Christ's epigram, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."
Now let's consider what happens if we oppose marriage equality. What is gained? The far right says we uphold the institution, and bishops say we "protect the family." But in this day and age, those arguments don't pass the smell test. Why won't the institution be stronger when more people can swear to abide by it? How does same-sex civil marriage threaten your marriage or family? States that currently have marriage equality have lower divorce rates. Nothing the bishops have identified seems like a sufficient payoff when you consider the costs. And those costs are high. They include undermining our nation's core value of equal rights for all Americans. And, closer to home, when we reject marriage equality, we tell our closeted children that the state considers them "less-than." I remember silently feeling horrible and wrong, not to mention alone, at age 12 when the church actively and vocally lobbied for passage of an anti-gay law in my home state.
Given the church's utmost respect for children, they should appreciate that all children, particularly kids struggling with their identity, deserve to wake up on Nov. 7 in a more tolerant country. With the passage of marriage equality, kids who might otherwise face fear and shame will find the world a little more welcoming; they may be a little more confident in who they are, a little happier and more embraced as equal under the law. If one depressed child who was praying that he or she would be "fixed" sees marriage equality pass and hears his or her family or friends express support for a marriage equality, then he or she can smile feeling validated by his or her community. Isn't that reason enough to support equality?
There is another powerful teaching of Christ that supports marriage equality: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Why did you marry your husband or wife? What inspired you to ask that person to spend forever with you? Love is mentioned approximately 180 times in the New Testament. It is at the core of our beliefs and the core of our family lives. When you said your vows, you promised to love and cherish your spouse unconditionally. Gays and lesbians fall in love, and they want to marry their partners to celebrate that love with their friends and families, with the dignity conferred by having the state act as a witness to that love.
With Catholicism's emphasis on the principal of universality, the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church," we are all members of the same body, sharing in the love and struggles of each other. We are all neighbors who seek to make our country, our states and our communities loving places. We are all citizens of the same nation, supporting one another in times of struggle and sharing joy in times of happiness. Take a few moments to remember the cover of the newspaper, seeing your fellow Americans react to Gov. Chris Gregoire or Gov. Martin O'Malley signing marriage equality into law. Watch Washington State Rep. Maureen Walsh, a Republican from Spokane, voice her support, as a Catholic woman, for equality. When you bear witness to the love shared among loved ones of any orientation, warmth fills your heart. Imagine how wonderful you will feel come Nov. 7, knowing that you contributed to that joy for your son or daughter; your niece, nephew or cousin; your colleague or friend or neighbor. Your vote of "yes" on Question 1 in Maine, "yes" on Question 6 in Maryland, "yes" on Referendum 74 in Washington, or "no" on the Minnesota marriage amendment has the power to bring incredible happiness to your community. If this love doesn't educate your conscience, then I don't know what else could.