By Frank Wessling
Pollsters have asked American Catholics whether they accept or approve of same-sex marriage or civil union. Most say they do. While this may disappoint our bishops, who are trying to draw a bright line of disapproval, it is not surprising.
Catholics as a whole are an open-hearted lot. We have a sense of boundaries or limits to what our religious sensibility will tolerate, but those borders are more like a permeable film than a rigid stone wall. We can hear the sounds and see the fellow-humanity of people on the other side. If they cry in pain, we can hear it.
Also, although homosexual people are a tiny minority in the human family, more of us in the majority have come to know, and know of, real flesh-and-blood homosexuals as persons. They are less an abstract “they” whose fate can be separated from our own.
Public opinion polling accepts the self-definition of people it contacts. If we respond to a survey by checking the “Catholic” box, we’re accepted as a representative of whatever Catholic means in the context of the questions being asked. We know that only a minority of self-declared Catholics in this country — somewhere in the range of one-third to 40 percent — are serious enough to join in Sunday Mass regularly. And a smaller minority has had even so much as an elementary education in Catholicism.
So, the overall “Catholic” response in a poll will reflect a tepid faith along with ignorance about our tradition of belief and very loose loyalty to episcopal leadership. We will appear to be little different from whatever currents are running strong in the culture. In this case, the current is a rising acceptance of homosexual coupling as both acceptable and worthy of social sanction in the same way that heterosexual coupling is sanctioned.
Among Catholics more serious about their religion, the picture is different. Those of us who come to Mass at least once a week don’t accept same-sex marriage by a large majority. We’re less firm about our disapproval of civil unions, but a slight majority of us also rejects that arrangement. We are with the bishops in their resistance, more or less.
Not that the most “loyal” Catholics are a hard-hearted bunch. We can understand the desire of homosexual people for acceptance. We might even agree that there should be some way for society to recognize and value the committed union of two people, something analogous to marriage.
But we see in our sacred Scripture and our tradition a unique blessing for the union of a man and woman. It alone allows the human race to reflect in itself the steadfast love of God. It alone allows the human race to reflect in a natural way the creative, life-giving character of that love. Setting aside the historic practice of polygamy, which represents male domination more than love, the union of one woman and one man is the natural state given the name marriage.
More of us might come to this view but for some confusion about freedom and rights.
There are two forms of freedom: positive and negative. We can have freedom for something, as in the ice skater who can spin and jump in ways most of us can’t. And we can be free of constraint, as in the hunter allowed to bring out his bow or gun and shoot deer once the season opens. Secular culture tends to speak of freedom and liberty in the negative sense, as freedom from limits. And this affects the way we talk about rights, as well: I should not be prevented from doing what everyone else does; therefore, I have a right to do that.
In contrast, the Church tends to think of freedom in its positive sense, as freedom for something. The liberty of the children of God is our freedom to do what God has designed for us, to do what is right, to be what we ought to be.
There is purpose and goal out ahead of positive liberty. Its negative side has only a general expansiveness of human action as purpose. The Catholic Church sees a certain good in marriage as it is traditionally understood and wants to protect that. The culture today sees a certain good in ending constraints on the liberty of homosexual people.
If history is a guide, the culture is likely to win this struggle. That doesn’t mean that the Church necessarily loses. If the struggle goes on with respect for the dignity of all people, especially those we have trouble understanding, and with respect for the truth of the human condition as we know it, we can all gain.
For the most committed Catholics, the Church today reminds us that we cannot not love homosexual persons and desire what is best for them. And the homosexual minority needs to love and try to understand those who seem to oppose them. These attitudes will lead to a better outcome in this struggle and more wisdom all around.