THE BLOG
12/10/2013 11:19 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

The Catholic Church Isn't Anti-Gay, but Are Its Bishops?

On Meet the Press earlier this month, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, claimed that the Catholic Church is not anti-gay. "We're pro marriage. We're pro traditional marriage. We're not anti anybody. We've been out-marketed. We've been caricatured as being anti-gay," he explained to the show's host, David Gregory. Dolan's right. The Catholic Church isn't anti-gay, but evidence suggests its bishops certainly are.

Catholic bishops' opposition to marriage equality is intense, if not particularly effective. Their point man on the issue, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, in a rather cruel slap to the LGBT community, was appointed archbishop to San Francisco last year, a symbolic place in the fight for gay rights. When Hawaii legalized same-sex marriage last month, Cordileone used battle imagery, offering prayers to those "helped defend" marriage there. He said that their "efforts were not in vain." In Illinois, Bishop Thomas Paprocki held an exorcism as Gov. Pat Quinn signed that state's marriage equality bill into law. Paprocki called same-sex marriage evil, the result of "diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture."

The U.S. bishops' lobbying arm, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to Congress opposing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). They fear that the law would hinder religious liberty, protect "extramarital sexual conduct," and reject "the biological basis of gender by defining 'gender identity' as something people may choose at variance with their biological sex." But Freedom to Work, an advocacy group pushing the law, disagrees, saying, "ENDA exempts churches, religious organizations and religious schools."

The list goes on. The Catholic archdioceses of Boston and Washington, D.C., ended adoption programs rather than comply with laws that prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation. Some dioceses have issued guidelines that prohibit children of same-sex partners from attending Catholic schools. Effective Catholic schoolteachers who are gay have been fired. Communion has been denied. Bishops have threatened to pull support for immigration reform if same-sex couples are recognized as families. And one prominent American Cardinal even compared LGBT activists to Ku Klux Klan members.

And yet, lay American Catholics remain at the forefront of supporting LGBT rights.

Catholic legislators and governors have been some of the most vocal advocates for inclusive state laws. In Illinois, one state lawmaker said she supported the bill as "as a Catholic follower of Jesus and the Pope" and the speaker of the Illinois State House, Michael Madigan, cited Pope Francis's question, "Who am I to judge?" as his reason for supporting the bill.

Poll after poll shows that Catholic laypeople support marriage equality. A Quinnipiac poll found that Catholics are the only Christian denomination with a majority supporting same-sex marriage in Virginia. A PEW poll found that 71 percent of Catholics in the U.S. believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. All six New England states have marriage equality laws, and the Public Religion Research Institute suggests that overrepresentation of Catholics in the northeast compared to the rest of the U.S. may have played a part.

The Catholic Church is actually quite supportive of LGBT people. It's just that the sheep are well ahead of their shepherds. With Pope Francis, though, change is in the air. He wants pastors to smell of the sheep! He's asked whom he is to judge gay people seeking a relationship with the Lord. He slapped the wrists of conservative Catholics who fixate on gay marriage and abortion. And he's avoided preaching on the topic, instead focusing on the poor and God's love. Might U.S. bishops take a cue from their leader?

Here's how the bishops could change the public's perception of them as being "anti-gay."
Change the emphasis. Catholic law condemns homosexual acts, but it also calls for unmitigated respect for all people, gays and lesbians included. Yet too often we hear words of condemnation. Imagine if bishops supported laws like ENDA that protect the dignity of gay and lesbian people? Might they highlight and condemn the abuse LGBT people face at home and around the world? This would be truly Christian, though radical considering the source, giving voice to the marginalized.

Include more diverse perspectives. If U.S. bishops sought input from lay people, especially women, they might appreciate the struggles gay and lesbian people face and perhaps even advocate on their behalf. When families know gay people and understand their struggles, they're more likely to become supportive of them. Bishops would benefit from listening to their insight.

Finally, drop the opposition to marriage equality. It's here to stay, and young Catholics support it at overwhelming numbers. To be against marriage equality is equated with bigotry and being out of the mainstream. To lose a generation of Catholics on this issue is shortsighted and will hinder social justice efforts to alleviate poverty, prevent war and strengthen the common good. This will be a tragedy that will take many years to overcome. It doesn't mean supporting marriage equality, but simply focusing on other issues, much like the bishop of Rome.

Pope Francis shows that Catholic bishops can get it right. Will his American colleagues can follow his lead?

This article appeared originally at RNS.