In the political battle that ended last week with New York’s legalization of gay marriage, Catholic defenders of man-woman marriage found themselves pitted against an unlikely batch of adversaries: fellow Catholics.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who, like his father, has spent his career touting his Catholic credentials while ignoring church teachings that clash with his liberal social agenda — jump-started that battle last summer by declaring same-sex marriage a top legislative priority for 2011. His influence propelled the same-sex marriage bill to a vote and it passed with support from numerous Catholic lawmakers. Among them was state senator Mark Grisanti, who infuriated many constituents by reversing his gay-marriage opposition after receiving the full-court press from celebrities and gay rights activists.
“I’m not here as a senator who is just Catholic,” Grisanti said, attempting to explain how his well-publicized view of marriage as a man-woman union squared with his support for its redefinition as a gender-neutral institution. “I know that with this decision, many people who voted for me will question my integrity.”
It’s not only Grisanti’s integrity that invites questioning. His logic also perplexes. Like many Catholic lawmakers, Grisanti seems unable to distinguish between his private sectarian beliefs and the reason-based arguments for man-woman marriage that faithful Catholics share with millions of other Americans. Those arguments spring from human nature and human history, not simply sacred texts.
In nearly every known society throughout history, marriage has existed for the purpose of keeping men and women united for the sake of the children they bring into the world together. The civic institution of marriage exists, in other words, to bridge the divide between the sexes and promote the welfare of the next generation, not to ratify private romantic feelings or eradicate homophobia.
The justification for this common-sense, civic definition of marriage does not depend on some obscure religious doctrine, Catholic or otherwise. But you would never know that from listening to many same-sex marriage advocates, who attempt to silence their opponents by deriding them as knuckle-dragging bigots.
They get plenty of help from Catholic lawmakers like Grisanti, who shrink from wrestling through the logical implications of their votes and opt instead to use the “personally-opposed-but” excuse for legislating politically correct measures that they claim to disdain. It’s a nonsensical, cowardly move. Yet it provokes praise from media elites who continue to peddle the fiction that the only Americans not yet on the gay-marriage bandwagon are religious fanatics and residents of those “middle places” where one sees “the dance of the low-sloping foreheads,” as New York Times columnist David Carr recently described Missouri, during a discussion of another charged political issue.
Like the snobbery of some coastal pundits, the incoherence of cafeteria Catholic politicians makes them an easy target for the ire of their fellow believers. But last week’s razor-thin victory for same-sex marriage was facilitated not only by the fuzzy-headed logic and moral malleability of Catholic politicians. It also was enabled by a larger Catholic populace — including many Catholic clergy — who snoozed through the same-sex marriage fight, unwilling to speak out boldly or organize effectively until it was too late.
It’s a problem that afflicts many committed believers of other traditions, as well: diffidence about broaching sensitive social issues for fear of being labeled one of those low-sloping-forehead types. Their timidity masquerades as tolerance and they tell themselves they are biding their time, ready to speak out when it counts.
The longer they wait, the more freedom they lose. Canada already has speech codes regulating what citizens can say on these issues. We soon may have the same. And observant Catholics will be prime targets for freedom-stripping measures. Already, we have seen attacks on the conscience rights of Catholic health care workers, government agencies attempting to strip Catholic colleges of their religious exemptions and Catholic adoption agencies forced out of business for refusing to place children with same-sex couples.
The struggle to maintain religious liberty is broader than any single issue or religious tradition. But for Catholics who value religious freedom, and all Americans who resent attempts to dismiss man-woman marriage as a mere relic of bigotry, the lesson from New York is clear: Speak now or forever hold your peace.