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Geoffrey R. Stone

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Marriage Equality and the Catholic Bishops

Posted: 06/25/11 05:41 PM ET

New York State has taken an important step forward in our nation's never-ending quest to remake ourselves as a more decent, more inclusive, more just and more moral society. Looking back from the future, our grandchildren will surely see the legal recognition of same-sex marriage as an inspiring chapter in America's story, a story in which we have progressively abolished slavery, ended state-sponsored racial segregation, prohibited laws against interracial marriage, protected equal rights for women, promoted religious diversity and tolerance and outlawed discrimination on the basis of disability. There is no doubt that, in the long run, the United States will follow the lead of New York State. The challenge, though, is to make the long run short.

The most vehement opponent of marriage equality in New York was the Catholic Church. Indeed, in the heat of the debate in the state legislature, the New York State Catholic Conference issued a ringing proclamation: "The Bishops of New York State oppose in the strongest possible terms any attempt to redefine the sacred institution of marriage. Marriage has always been, is now, and always will be the union of one man and one woman. Government does not have the authority to change this most basic of truths."

That the leaders of the Catholic Church take this position is certainly their right, but it is a sorry testament to their understanding of their Church's own history in this nation. If anything, one would expect those leaders to be leaders in the fight against bigotry and intolerance, rather than voices in support of prejudice and discrimination. After all, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. once observed, prejudice against Catholics has been one of "the deepest bias[es] in the history of the American people."

Sadly, this was so from the very beginning. In the mid-seventeenth century, both the Colony of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted laws prohibiting Catholic settlers. In the 1830s, prominent Protestant leaders attacked the Catholic Church as an enemy of republican values, and in the 1840s the "nativist" movement was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics. Anti-Catholicism reached a peak in the mid-nineteenth century when Protestant leaders became alarmed by the heavy influx of Catholic immigrants.

Rabid anti-Catholicism continued into the 1920s, when anti-Catholics fumed that Catholicism was incompatible with democracy. When Al Smith ran unsuccessfully for president in 1928 as the first Roman Catholic candidate, Protestant ministers warned that the nation's autonomy would be threatened if he were to be elected, because he would listen not to the American people, but to the pope.

Many Americans opposed Smith because they believed the Catholic Church was "unAmerican." In an influential manifesto, the Lutheran Dr. Clarence Reinhold Tappert warned about "the peculiar relation in which a faithful Catholic stands and the absolute allegiance he owes to a 'foreign sovereign' who 'claims' supremacy in secular affairs and who, time and again, has endeavored to put this claim into practical operation."

In 1949, Paul Blanshard wrote in his bestselling book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, that the Catholic Church was widely seen as an "undemocratic system of alien control" in which the lay were chained by the "rule of the clergy." Even today, when things have clearly changed for the better, only 45 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Catholic Church (as compared to 53 percent who have a positive view of same-sex marriage).

In light of that history, one would have hoped that the leaders of a religion that has been so vilified and discriminated against would have been able to take a step back and recognize similar bigotry and prejudice when it is directed at others. Instead, the bishops' proclamation does precisely what the critics of the Church have long condemned. According to the proclamation, marriage is a "sacred" institution -- that is, an institution set apart for veneration by God -- and government therefore "does not have the authority to change" it. In other words, in a self-governing society, the democratically-elected representatives of the people do "not have the authority" to change the law in a way that conflicts with the religious beliefs of the bishops. That is not a winning argument.

Ironically, it is not a winning argument even with Catholics, a substantial majority of whom reject the Church's position and support same-sex marriage. Indeed, whereas 53 percent of all Americans now support same-sex marriage, approximately 60 percent of Catholics now take that position. It is heart-warming and inspiring when the adherents of a religion -- any religion -- are more decent, more wise and more moral than the "leaders" of their religion. It's enough to give one faith in the future.