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Can Catholic Bishops Find a ‘Third Way’ on Gay Marriage?

July 7, 2011, 1:45 pm | Posted by John Gehring

The National Catholic Reporter has two commentaries up online that offer thoughtful challenges to Catholic bishops engaged in high-profile fights against gay marriage. Nicholas Cafardi, a former member of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth and a former general counsel for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, makes a strong case for why Church leaders should cool down fevered public denunciations on this issue and acknowledge the substantial difference between civil and religious marriages.

We need to give it up. This is not defeatism. This is simply following Jesus in the Gospels, who besides telling us not to act on our fears, also told us to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Civil marriage is Caesar’s. If Caesar wants to say that you can only get married on Tuesdays, wearing a blue suit and a red tie, that is Caesar’s call. The sacrament of matrimony is God’s. It is valid only when invoked between a baptized man and a baptized woman, in the presence of two witnesses and the spouses’ proper ordinary or pastor or his delegate. Caesar has no say in this.

The measured tone of Cafardi, a moderate Catholic with a distinguished record of serving his Church, contrasts with the more hyperbolic reactions from a few Catholic bishops that we’ve already noted here. A separate NCR editorial also raises some frank but important points for a hierarchy at risk of losing the ability to effectively engage the culture on key moral and political issues.

If the bishops actually want laws to reflect Catholic values, they need a new, more sophisticated and potent model of legislative engagement. Second, even if the bishops had a persuasive case to make and the legislative tools at their disposal, their public conduct in recent years — wholesale excommunications, railing at politicians, denial of honorary degrees and speaking platforms at Catholic institutions, using the Eucharist as a political bludgeon, refusing to entertain any questions or dissenting opinions, and engaging in open warfare with the community’s thinkers as well as those, especially women, who have loyally served the church — has resulted in a kind of episcopal caricature, the common scolds of the religion world, the caustic party of “no.”

There is great risk for bishops in overreaching on gay marriage and alienating even faithful Catholics who disagree with the hierarchy on this issue but are proud that the Church is a shining beacon for human dignity and peace around the world. Bishops will argue that their positions don’t shift in the wind with the latest opinion poll and view a prophetic, countercultural posture as essential in an age where a “dictatorship of relativism” (Pope Benedict XVI’s phrase) has eroded timeless truths. Countercultural values have their place to be sure, but an embattled posture can also ossify organisms (church, political or civic) that need to live, breath and exist in a world where some societal norms do and should change.

What has often separated Catholicism from more reactionary strains of Christian fundamentalism is an intuitive grasp of how to engage with the culture rather than hurl jeremiads from the bunker. A Catholic priest who holds a position of national leadership in the Church recently told me that when bishops alienate lay Catholics with a cultural warrior tone on issues like gay marriage it’s parish priests who end up working to keep people in the pews. Perhaps it’s time for the Catholic Church to find a “third way” on gay marriage as Nicholas Cafardi and others have suggested.

Photo credit Jo Christian Oterhals / Flickr

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