Can Catholics Support Same-Sex Marriage?

How to Respond to the Legalization of Gay Marriage

Gay marriage celebration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
People celebrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, June 26, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015, U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down all state laws restricting marriage to a union between one man and one woman, public-opinion polls have shown significant levels of support for gay marriage among Christians of all denominations, including Catholics. Even though Catholic moral teaching has consistently taught that sexual relations (heterosexual or homosexual) outside of marriage are sinful, changes in the culture have led to a tolerance even among Catholics for such sexual behavior, including homosexual activity. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that as gay marriage has gained political ground since 2004 when Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriages, the attitude of lay Catholics toward such unions has closely tracked that of the American population as a whole.

That a large number of American Catholics support the legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples does not, however, address the question of whether Catholics can either take part in a same-sex marriage or morally support same-sex marriage. Significant numbers of self-identified Catholics in the United States hold many positions on moral issues such as divorce, remarriage, contraception, and abortion that are in opposition to the Catholic Church’s consistent teaching on those issues. Understanding what those teachings are, what they entail, and why the Church cannot change them is essential to recognize the tension between the attitudes adopted by individual Catholics and the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Can a Catholic Take Part in a Same-Sex Marriage?

The Church’s teaching on what marriage is, and what it is not, is very clear. The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of marriage (paragraphs 1601–1666) by quoting Canon 1055 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the legislation that governs the Catholic Church: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring . . . "

In these words, we see the defining characteristics of a marriage: one man and one woman, in a lifelong partnership for mutual support and for the continuation of the human race. The Catechism goes on to note that “despite the many variations [marriage] may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes . . . [t]hese differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics.”

Same-sex unions fail to meet the defining characteristics of marriage: They are contracted not between a man and a woman, but between two individuals of the same sex; for that reason, they are not procreative, even potentially (two males are incapable, by themselves, of bringing new life into the world, and so are two females); and such unions are not ordered toward the good of those within them, because these unions are based on, and further encourage, sexual activity contrary to nature and morality. At a minimum, to be “ordered toward the good” means to attempt to avoid sin; in terms of sexual morality, that means one must attempt to live chastely, and chastity is the proper use of one’s sexuality—that is, as God and nature intended it to be used. 

Can a Catholic Support Same-Sex Marriage?

Most Catholics in the United States who express public support for gay marriage, however, have no desire to engage in such a union themselves. They simply argue that others should be able to engage in such unions, and they see such unions as the functional equivalent of marriage as the Catholic Church defines it. As we have seen, however, same-sex unions do not meet the defining characteristics of marriage.

But couldn’t support for the civil recognition of same-sex unions, and even the application of the term marriage to such unions (even though they do not meet the definition of marriage), simply be seen as a form of tolerance, and not as approval of homosexual activity? Couldn’t such support, in other words, be a way to “Hate the sin, but love the sinner”?

On June 3, 2003, in a document entitled “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed at that time by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), took up this very question at the request of Pope John Paul II. While acknowledging that there are circumstances in which it is possible to tolerate the existence of homosexual unions—in other words, it is not always necessary to use the force of law to ban sinful behavior—the CDF notes that

Moral conscience requires that, in every occasion, Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons.

But tolerance of the reality of homosexual unions, and even the disapproval of discrimination against people because they engage in sinful sexual behavior, is different from the elevation of that behavior to something protected by the force of the law:

Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.

Yet haven’t we moved beyond even this point? Isn’t it one thing to say that Catholics in the United States could not morally vote to legalize gay marriage, but now that gay marriage has been imposed nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court, American Catholics should support it as “the law of the land”? The CDF’s answer is parallel to that of another situation in which sinful activity has been granted the stamp of federal approval—namely, legalized abortion:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.

In other words, Catholics have a moral duty not only not to support gay marriage but to refuse to engage in any action that suggests support for such unions. The statement that many American Catholics have commonly used to explain away support for legalized abortion (“I’m personally opposed, but . . . ") is no more legitimate when it is used to explain away support for legally sanctioned gay marriage. In both cases, the logic of this stance implies not simply a tolerance of sinful actions, but the legitimization of those actions—the rebranding of sin as a “lifestyle choice.”

What If the Couple Involved in a Same-Sex Marriage Is Not Catholic?

Some may argue that all of this is well and good for Catholics, but what if the couple in question—those who wish to contract a same-sex marriage—are not Catholic? In that case, why should the Catholic Church have anything to say about their situation? Isn’t the refusal to support them in the exercise of their newly created right tantamount to unjust discrimination? The CDF document addresses this question:

It might be asked how a law can be contrary to the common good if it does not impose any particular kind of behaviour, but simply gives legal recognition to a de facto reality which does not seem to cause injustice to anyone . . . . Civil laws are structuring principles of man’s life in society, for good or for ill. They “play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behaviour”. Lifestyles and the underlying presuppositions these express not only externally shape the life of society, but also tend to modify the younger generation’s perception and evaluation of forms of behaviour. Legal recognition of homosexual unions would obscure certain basic moral values and cause a devaluation of the institution of marriage.

In other words, same-sex unions do not occur in a vacuum. The redefinition of marriage has consequences for society as a whole, as those who support same-sex marriages implicitly acknowledge when they argue that they are a sign of “progress” or say, as President Obama did in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell, that the American constitutional union is now “a little more perfect.” One cannot argue, on the one hand, for supposed positive results coming from the legal recognition of homosexual unions while claiming, on the other hand, that any potential negative results are irrelevant. Thoughtful and honest supporters of same-sex marriage acknowledge that such unions will increase the acceptance of sexual behavior contrary to the Church’s teaching—but they embrace such cultural changes. Catholics cannot do the same without abandoning the Church’s moral teaching.

Isn’t Civil Marriage Different From Marriage as Understood by the Church?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2013 case United States v. Windsor, President Obama began to refer to “civil marriage” as something distinct from marriage as understood by the Church. But the Catholic Church, while acknowledging that marriage may have effects that are merely civil (regarding, for instance, the legal disposition of property), also acknowledges that marriage, as a natural institution, precedes the rise of the state. That point is incontrovertible, whether one regards marriage, as the Church does (in paragraph 1603 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church), as “established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws” or merely as a natural institution that has existed from time immemorial. Men and women married and formed families for millennia before the modern state, beginning in the 16th century, claimed for itself the primary authority over the regulation of marriage. Indeed, the priority of marriage over the state has long been one of the chief arguments that current proponents of same-sex marriage have used to claim that the state should redefine marriage to reflect evolving cultural attitudes. In doing so, they have not recognized the inherent illogic in their arguments: If marriage precedes the state, the state cannot legitimately redefine marriage, any more than the state can change reality by declaring that up is down, left is right, the sky is green, or grass is blue.

The Church, on the other hand, by recognizing the unchanging nature of marriage “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator,” also understands that she cannot change the defining characteristics of marriage simply because cultural attitudes toward certain sexual behavior have changed.

Didn’t Pope Francis Say, “Who Am I to Judge?”

But wait—didn’t Pope Francis himself, in discussing a priest who was rumored to have engaged in homosexual behavior, declare, “Who am I to judge?” If even the Pope cannot judge the sexual behavior of one of his priests, aren’t arguments around same-sex marriage that assume the immorality of homosexual activity clearly invalid?

While “Who am I to judge?” has been widely quoted as evidence of a shift in Church attitudes toward homosexual behavior, the phrase was ripped out of context. Pope Francis was first asked about rumors involving a specific priest whom he had appointed to a position in the Vatican, and he replied that he had investigated the case and found no reason to believe the rumors to be true:

I have acted in accordance with Canon Law and ordered an investigation. None of the accusations against him have proved to be true. We haven’t found anything! It is often the case in the Church that people try to dig up sins committed during a person’s youth and then publish them. We are not talking about crimes or offences such as child abuse which is a whole different matter, we are talking about sins. If a lay person, a priest or a nun commits a sin and then repents of it and confesses, the Lord forgives and forgets. And we have no right not to forget, because then we risk the Lord not forgetting our own sins. I often think of St. Peter who committed the biggest sin of all, he denied Jesus. And yet he was appointed Pope. But I repeat, we have found no evidence against Mgr. Ricca.

Note that Pope Francis did not suggest that, if the rumors had been true, the priest would have been blameless; rather, he specifically talks about sin, and repentance, and confession. The phrase “Who am I to judge?” was taken from his answer to a follow-up question, concerning rumors of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican:

There is so much being written about the gay lobby. I haven’t met anyone in the Vatican yet who has “gay” written on their identity cards. There is a distinction between being gay, being this way inclined and lobbying. Lobbies are not good. If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them? The Catholic Church teaches that gay people should not be discriminated against; they should be made to feel welcome. Being gay is not the problem, lobbying is the problem and this goes for any type of lobby, business lobbies, political lobbies and Masonic lobbies.

Here, Pope Francis made the distinction between being inclined toward homosexual behavior and engaging in such behavior. One’s inclinations, in themselves, are not sinful; it is acting on them that constitutes sin. When Pope Francis says, “If a gay person is in eager search of God,” he is assuming that such a person is trying to live his life chastely because that is what the “eager search of God” requires. Judging such a person for struggling against his inclinations toward sin would, in fact, be unjust. Unlike those who support same-sex marriage, Pope Francis isn’t denying that homosexual behavior is sinful.

Much more relevant to the discussion of same-sex marriage are remarks that Pope Francis made as archbishop of Buenos Aires and the president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference when Argentina was considering legalizing both same-sex marriage and adoption by homosexual couples:

In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family . . . At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.
Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a “move” of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.

Who Cares What the Catholic Church Says? #LoveWins!

In the end, because of cultural shifts in recent years, many Catholics will continue to dissent from the Church’s teaching on marriage and express support for same-sex marriage, just as many Catholics continue to ignore the Church’s teaching on divorce, contraception, and abortion. The hashtag #LoveWins, popular on social media in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, is easier to understand and accept that the Church’s unchanging teaching on what marriage is and what it is not.

Those of us who do understand and support the Church’s teaching can learn something from that hashtag as well. In the end, love will win—the love that Saint Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:4–6:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.

Love and truth go hand-in-hand: We must speak the truth in love to our fellow men and women, and there can be no love that denies the truth. That is why it is so important to understand the Church’s teaching on marriage, and why a Catholic cannot deny that truth without also abandoning his Christian duty to love God, and to love his neighbor as himself.