Hopes for Justice, Understanding, and Unity in the Wake of Obergefell v. Hodges

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case this past Friday, legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation, I was in the midst of a workshop with a group of highly intelligent, dedicated young Catholic teachers. As it has everywhere around the country, this news stirred up considerable conversation.

What made our conversation perhaps somewhat different from most was the fact that, in a couple of months’ time, these young teachers will be responsible for teaching Catholic doctrine to their students, doctrine which as of Friday is seemingly incompatible with federal law on the matter of marriage. The question for these teachers (and for all bishops, educators, and others in positions of teaching authority) was not merely “Do I agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling or Catholic teaching on marriage?” but, more pointedly, “How do I teach Catholic doctrine in the wake of this ruling?” The source of this question was not a lack of clarity on the Church’s position. Everyone present at the workshop was crystal clear on the Church’s teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. Their question was a question about how to faithfully fulfill their duty to teach the Catholic faith while also attending to the pastoral concerns of lesbian, gay, and transgender persons in their community and of those sympathetic to them.

Although not all of us occupy a position that requires us to teach Catholic doctrine to others, all of us who call ourselves Catholic have an obligation to preach the Gospel in light of the signs of the times. In such moments when the signs of the times reflect momentous change, people look to their leaders—in this case, the US Catholic bishops—for guidance. Others have already expressed disappointment, hurt, even outrage at the responses of certain bishops to the Supreme Court ruling. I have to confess that I, too, have been deeply disappointed to read some statements that, in a moment when understanding and compassion are especially needed, evidence no understanding for why members of the LGBT community are rejoicing this week or compassion for the struggles they have endured up to this point.

Notwithstanding, dwelling upon each other’s shortcomings does nothing to resolve conflict. So in the spirit of promoting productive dialogue, mutual understanding, and genuine unity, I would like to draw attention to excerpts from the statements of several bishops that, I believe, offer hope to educators and other Catholics who seek a way of remaining faithful to their Church while supporting their lesbian, gay, and transgender brothers and sisters. (A complete collection of statements from US bishops can be accessed here.)

Statements that foster hope for dialogue:

From Wilton Gregory, Archbishop of Atlanta:

“This judgment, however, does not absolve either those who may approve or disapprove of this decision from the obligations of civility toward one another. Neither is it a license for more venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions continue to differ from our own… This moral debate must also include the way that we treat one another – especially those with whom we may disagree. In many respects, the moral question is at least as consequential and weighty as the granting of this civil entitlement. The decision has offered all of us an opportunity to continue the vitally important dialogue of human encounter, especially between those of diametrically differing opinions regarding its outcome.”

From Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston:

“At the same time, faced with a decision that embodies a quite different understanding of the meaning of marriage than held by the Church, we should as citizens and Catholics both protect our own deeply held values and participate with civility and charity in the continuing national discussion about this decision.”

From Paul Bradley, Bishop of Kalamazoo:

“As we express our disagreement with this decision, we reaffirm the Good News of God’s unconditional love for all people, and we pray that as a society, we will find the will to have respectful dialogue and tolerance for our differences, especially as we continue to build on what unites us.”

Statements that foster hope for unity:

From Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington:

“Because Jesus came to save all people, all are invited to be a part of God’s family – his Church. Faithful to her Lord and Founder, the Church welcomes everyone. It is the home for all who seek to follow Jesus as his disciple. This welcome is extended to everyone: married couples with children, unwed mothers and fathers, the single unmarried, couples who struggle with infertility, men and women with same-sex attraction, individuals facing gender issues, those whose marriages have broken down and suffered the trauma of divorce, people with special needs, immigrants, children born and unborn, the young, seniors, and the terminally ill, sinners and saints alike.”

From Robert McElroy, Bishop of San Diego:

“The Catholic community of San Diego and Imperial counties will continue to honor and embody the uniqueness of marriage between one man and one woman as a gift from God in our teaching, our sacramental life and our witness to the world. We will do so in a manner which profoundly respects at every moment the loving and familial relationships which enrich the lives of so many gay men and women who are our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, and ultimately our fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey of life. And commanded by the Gospel of Jesus Christ we will continue to reach out to families of every kind who are encountering poverty, addictions, violence, emotional stress or the threat of deportation, and to attempt to bring them faith and care, service and solidarity.”

From David Walkowiak, Bishop of Grand Rapids

“Unconditional love and acceptance for all is at the heart of the Gospel.  It is also at the heart of our Catholic faith. This is true regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation and will not change, because we are all human beings created in the image of God. Every person is of equal dignity, value and worth.”

Finally, I would like to give the last word to Fr. James Martin, who reminded his Facebook audience of what Jesus proclaimed as the first rule in life and, I would add, what should be the first rule in our ongoing dialogue around marriage: “Love first. Everything else later.”

Whatever our personal views on the matter, we should strive to argue them articulately and passionately. To do otherwise would be a disservice to ourselves and others. However, as we argue, we need to do so from a place of genuine love and concern for the person with whom we argue. There is no contradiction between truth and love. Indeed, truth can only shine forth in all its brilliance when we love each other truly.