Commonweal’s Ambivalent Position on Marriage Equality

ambivalentThe August 16th issue of Commonweal magazine leads off with an editorial which expresses the publication’s opposition to marriage equality laws.  Yet, at the same time, the editorial shows support for greater discussion of this important topic, as well as for finding ways to publicly acknowledge and affirm committed lesbian and gay couples.  These two notions leave the reader with a sense of the authors’ ambivalence, make the editorial challenging to read, and guarantee that it will make nobody happy.

The editors note that they have always “expressed skepticism and urged caution regarding the legalization of same-sex marriage, while at the same time defending the rights and dignity of homosexual persons both in society and in the church.”  A sentence like that is not necessarily ambivalent.  I believe, though disagree with, people who say that they oppose marriage equality while they want to defend equality of lesbian and gay people in other arenas.

The ambivalence comes in with the editors’ discussion of social scientific evidence concerning the social efficacy of granting marriage to same-sex couples and of the effects on children raised in families headed by same-sex couples.  The ambivalence is on display in a sentence such as this one:

“There is simply not yet enough social-scientific data to say one way or the other how children raised in same-sex marriages fare, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that same-sex couples are as devoted to their children as their heterosexual neighbors.”

Granted, there is a difference between empirical and anecdotal evidence, but if anecdotal evidence is telling them something, don’t the writers owe it to themselves and their readers to see exactly what the empirical evidence is saying.   Their claim begs the question of just how much empirical evidence is “enough” for them.  Vermont passed the U.S. civil union law in 2000.  We now have 13 states and the District of Columbia which offer marriage equality, and numerous nations, provinces, cities around the globe have done so, too.  Isn’t that enough of a sampling to be able to see if same-sex marriage is a stabilizing or detrimental social force? Over the years, I have seen reports of dozens of empirical studies which support the idea that children in households headed by lesbian and gay couples fare no worse, and sometimes much better, than children in heterosexually-headed households.

The ambivalence is on display later in the editorial when they call for greater recognition of child-rearing by lesbian and gay people:

“It is also time for the church to open its eyes to the selfless work same-sex couples do in raising children, many of whom would otherwise go uncared for and unloved.”

Yes! I agree wholeheartedly!  But then why do they make the claim that we don’t know how much of a social good these couples provide?

The editorial is right on target when they criticize the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for their harmful and self-defeating rhetorically-hyped opposition to marriage equality:

“The conference’s advocacy, which has often cast the debate in hyperbolic terms, has persuaded few and offended many. With typical alarm, the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage issued a statement calling the Court’s decisions ‘a tragic day for marriage and our nation,’ and a ‘profound injustice to the American people.’ The statement went on to use variations on the phrase ‘the truth of marriage’ seven times in two brief paragraphs, as though mere incantation were a substitute for persuasion. A more dexterous rhetorical strategy is needed if the church’s witness to the “truth” about marriage is not to be written off as blind prejudice. The bishops might begin by emphasizing that the church strongly defends the dignity of same-sex oriented people, a fact most Americans remain ignorant of. The bishops might also acknowledge the good of faithful, life-long same-sex unions, as well as the progress made in the public recognition of the manifold achievements and contributions of gays and lesbians.”

New Ways Ministry and many other Catholic advocacy groups have been making the same suggestion to bishops for years. Perhaps if more Catholic organizations like Commonweal make that same suggestion, bishops will begin to listen.

In discussing religious liberty questions, the editors worry about churches being unfairly labeled as discriminators.  They make the case:

“Traditional religious communities continue to do indispensable work in caring for the needy, educating the young, and calling the larger society to account on important questions like war, torture, abortion, euthanasia, and economic justice. American democracy cannot afford to deprive itself of those moral and social resources, yet that is what could happen if the law comes to equate institutional resistance to the recognition of same-sex marriage with racial discrimination.”

Yet, this is a red-herring, given the fact that every marriage equality law passed in the U.S. provides exemptions for churches.  No religious leader that I know of has been silenced from expressing their opposition to marriage equality.  It seems unlikely that any such thing will happen in the future.

The best part of the essay comes when the editors call for a more humane discussion and approach to marriage equality, especially from Catholic leaders:

“Surely, whatever its legitimate reservations about the legalization of same-sex marriage, it is time for the church to begin to come to terms with this challenging new cultural and pastoral reality, a reality that calls for far more than overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity. Same-sex marriage may prove to be a mistake or a failed and eventually abandoned experiment, but it is not an existential threat to the church or to Western Civilization. It is now time to listen and learn from those the church has long silenced or ignored. Who knows, those being listened to might even return the compliment.”

I can quibble with their use of the term “church” when they seem to actually mean “hierarchy.”  As regular readers of this blog will know, poll after poll shows that Catholics in the church already support marriage equality.   But they are correct in saying that a new attitude is needed and called for from those leaders who think of themselves as “the church.”   And they are even more correct in saying that if leaders show a willingness to listen, perhaps their opponents would listen to them, too. That is what real dialogue is all about:  listening respectfully.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

4 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    It might be interesting to know the nature and the extent of Commonweal’s readership constituency. Are they mainly the laity? Are they mainly members of the clergy? Virtually every practicing Catholic picks up a parish bulletin at weekend Mass. And virtually every one of those bulletins trumpets the Catholic bishops’ official party line of absolute non-acceptance of same-sex marriage. Just look at the previously-cited church bulletin atrocity in Woonsocket, Rhode Island as Exhibit One. And yet we also know that well over 50% of surveyed Catholics themselves declare that same-sex couples should have (at least) full civil marriage rights. So if Commonweal is trying to be “all things to all Catholics”, it seems to me that it risks saying not much of anything at all to anybody at all. Comments?

  2. Chaplain Bill
    Chaplain Bill says:

    “And I’ll huff and I’ll puff and blow your house down.” Gay and lesbian civil rights is an idea whose time has come. Marriage equality, as we saw again this week, is happening. There is no “right side” to a civil rights issue. The Roman Church’s leadership can stand on the side of equality or continue to marginalize itself to the wider society. The often quoted stat that the “majority of Catholics” favor marriage equality just makes the church leadership seem irrelevant and out-of-touch. You can’t lead w/o followers. Blessings for the holiday weekend.

  3. Larry Quirk
    Larry Quirk says:

    The fact is that the current hierarchy has lost its moral authority on this issue and they cannot get it back. You can see it in the struggle in this article and the positions that people like Dolan take. When they sense that their rhetoric is losing they just back up slightly looking for the position that seems reasonable but still moves their homophobic agenda forward. How many times in the civil political sphere do we see opponents of this or that say that it needs more study? The current hierarchy, Pope Francis excluded for the moment, is too suspect to believe anything they say.

  4. Janet Hanson
    Janet Hanson says:

    You know, we never ask, “Should children be raised by heterosexual parents?” And we never ask, “Should they be raised by grandparents?” (Which is dirt common…) Should they be raised by aunts and uncles? Older siblings? Should underage siblings parent each other when a parent is unable? How about a grandma and a son living in the same house parenting children from another adult child? You see, if you work in a school or work with children in any other settings, you have seen dozens of permutations of “families”. And they work IN ALL CASES sometimes well, sometimes not so well.

    Frankly, the arrangement that ALWAYS makes me the most nervous is a single parent with a changing parade of partners over time. That situation is _always_ a potential risk factor for children in the home. But by itself, it is not reportable. Nor do I think it should be.

    So, the real question is why do we haul out this over whelming concern “for children” in this case?

    And we all know the answer about why that is.

    The answer is that we should accept and support families no matter what their form.


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