04/16/2013 06:16 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

May Catholic Supporters of Marriage Equality Receive Communion?

Can a Catholic who upholds marriage equality receive Holy Communion? This was the question put to Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, who answered in the negative, declaring that Catholic supporters of marriage equality should refrain from the Eucharist. They "deny the revelation of Christ entrusted to the Church," the Archbishop said, and added: "This sort of behavior amounts to publicly rejecting one's integrity and logically bring[ing] shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury."

On April 12, however, retired Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton contradicted Vigneron and reassured Catholics: "Don't stop going to Communion. You're okay."

So, in this Motor City clash, who is right? To resolve this question in absolute terms, we need to know more about what Archbishop Vigneron was thinking. It is possible that he meant only to address Catholics who believe that marriage equality is a settled matter of ecclesiastical law and doctrine. That is, he may have been speaking to Catholics who wish to have local parishes perform same-sex marriages as a matter of internal Church practice.

But it is more than likely he had something else in mind. And that was to speak to Catholics who believe that secular society should adopt an expansive understanding of marriage, embracing both heterosexual and homosexual unions so as to accommodate the needs of a rich and diverse nation. Clearly, one of the Archbishop's principal sources for his statement, the Detroit canonist Ed Peters, had this in mind when he wrote that "[t]he Catholic Church has the right and duty 'always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it.'"

Well, OK, then, where to start? American marriage law has never conformed precisely with the Catholic understanding of marriage. Never. To be sure, early American marriage law possessed a religious character, derived variously from Anglican canon law and the cultural Calvinism that defined sexual mores for much of American history. But even when American marriage law was distinctly Christian, it was never distinctively Catholic.

And that is certainly true today, as marriage has grown increasingly secular in the post-World War II era. What about divorce? The Catholic Code of Canon Law teaches that an essential property of marriage is its "indissolubility" (c. 1056). From the very beginning of American history, however, secular courts have been in the business of decreeing divorces and permitting persons to move freely to new spouses, a process that greatly accelerated with the enactment of no-fault divorce in the 1960s and 1970s.

Surely, we would expect to see bishops and archbishops vigorously defend this essential property of marriage by reminding Catholics that they should not support a legal regime that permits divorce. Perhaps Catholic lawyers who have a family-law practice should never take a divorce case? Perhaps Catholic judges should resign from the bench? Perhaps Catholics in the pews should be called upon to ask their legislators to repeal American divorce law? Ireland, until the 1990s, did not have secular divorce courts, relying instead upon ecclesiastical tribunals. Perhaps our own secular law of divorce needs to be rolled back. That, at least, is where Ed Peters' logic would lead.

And what about contraception? In 1965, in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, the United States Supreme Court recognized access to artificial means of contraception as a constitutional right. This constitutional doctrine stands squarely athwart the Church's teaching on contraception as it is expressed in Humanae Vitae. Perhaps Catholic jurists should demand Griswold's reversal. Rick Santorum, at least, seems to think that should be done. And when Griswold is reversed, the old laws against contraception should be once again be enforced. Again, the same logic that would ban supporters of marriage equality from Communion could be extended to cover all those who refuse to support the reinstatement of the old contraception prohibition.

What of in vitro fertilization? Once again, must Catholics rally to outlaw most forms of in vitro fertilization? And must Communion be used to police this political cause? What of pre-nuptial agreements made in contemplation of divorce? Should these also be outlawed? The list could be extended.

The point in saying all of this, of course, is to stress that on matters of divorce, contraception, and even in vitro fertilization, Catholics have reached a modus vivendi with the larger secular society. Catholics truly believe in the indissolubility of marriage. That, for Catholics, is what makes marriage sacred. And even while most Catholics practice contraception at some point in their lives, they also, most of them anyway, acknowledge that opposition to contraception is part of their Church's teaching. Same goes for in vitro fertilization. Most Catholics appreciate the moral dilemmas posed by this practice. But Catholics by and large do not try to outlaw these practices as a matter of secular law, nor do bishops try to use Communion as a means of enforcing this sort of political agenda.

If the Catholic Church and secular society can achieve co-existence on these points, why not on marriage equality? If a Catholic can believe that a secular divorce law is allowable, even though it is opposed to an essential property of marriage, how is that different from a Catholic who believes that secular law should adopt marriage equality, even if it does not conform to the Catholic understanding of marriage?

What this line of questioning is really calling for is a searching re-examination by Catholic thinkers of Church/State and Church/Society relations. What does it mean for the Catholic Church to exist in a world that is authentically pluralistic? These are questions, however, that should be considered in another post, on another day.