Catholic reaction was swift Friday to the Supreme Court’s decision striking down same-sex marriage bans in all 50 states, ranging from condemnation from bishops who called the decision “profoundly immoral and unjust” and a “tragic error” to jubilation from Catholic same-sex marriage proponents.
The head of CatholicVote, a lay-run political advocacy organization based in Chicago, said the fight over marriage hasn’t ended with today’s decision.
“The Church will continue to be at the heart of this debate, and continue to be one of the principal advocates regarding the truth about marriage,” Brian Burch said. “Nine justices on an American court don’t decide how a 2000-year-old institution will proceed.”
He called the decision a “judicial fiat” and “symbolic” of “a cultural assault on any institution or any person that proposes there are limits to human behavior, sexual behavior.” He said he expects “the Church to be enemy No. 1 in the months and years ahead. I do not expect the LGBT army to stop at the gates of the Catholic Church.”
“Will the other side respect Americans who believe in male-female marriage? I suspect not,” he said. “The Church will have to reflect on how to defend these truths in light of a movement that has shown an utter lack of respect or willingness to compromise.”
But Arthur Fitzmaurice, a gay Catholic who speaks about the need for parishes to accept LGBT people, said he worries the ruling could bring backlash.
“I fear the level of hostile rhetoric that is surely to come from the Church hierarchy,” he said. “I hope there will be courageous pastors and bishops who will speak the truth that there are same-sex couples living faithfully. I hope some clergy will show support for same-sex couples trying to reconcile their faith and their sexuality.”
Kaya Oakes, who studies how young adults interact with faith and author of “The Nones Are Alright,” said the Church risks alienating at least two generations of believers if its leaders issue a “defensive, strident” reaction.
“Catholics under 50 were brought up in a time when same-sex relationships were more and more accepted and presented to them in media, so they’re acclimated to that as a fairly normal thing,” she said. “When they hear the opposite message coming from faith leaders, it’s alienating.”
She said that at the parish level, some priests are good at engaging young adults on this issue, but that institutionally, the Church’s message has been perceived as “rejection, intolerance, and bigotry.”
“Even just a change of tone would be a step in the right direction,” she said.
Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of Pope Francis’ top advisors, said in a statement he is “saddened” by the Court’s decision.
“Certainly every citizen of this land, regardless of their sexual orientation, deserves to be respected in their personal and civic life,” he said. “But enshrining same sex marriage in our constitutional system of governance has dangers that may become fully evident only over time.”
The Rev. Michael Duffy, associate pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Farmingdale, NY, said he doesn’t expect his day-to-day ministry to change.
“As a Church we are faced with the reality that there are those members of the body of Christ that disagree with the Church on her teachings of human sexuality and on the sanctity of marriage,” he said. “We need to find a way to minister and be in communion in the midst of disagreement.”
Still, he wonders if the relationship between Catholic priests, who can grant civil marriage licenses, and the state might change.
“The reality is that now, there is a fundamental disagreement between the government and the Church as to what marriage is. Should priests be signing marriage licenses, or should there be a distinction between civil and sacramental marriage? That’s a question for the bishops and the moral theologians,” he said.
Catholic bishops in the 14 states where same-sex marriage was banned before Friday’s ruling weighed in quickly.
Dennis Schnurr, the archbishop of Cincinnati, lamented the decision, saying in a statement, “Every nation has laws limiting who and under what circumstances people can be married. This is because lawmakers have always understood that marriage does not exist just for the mutual satisfaction of the two people involved, but for the betterment of society.”
At least one county in that state has begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Bishops in Michigan, another state that didn’t allow same-sex marriage, said in a statement that the decision “sets the Church’s teaching about marriage in opposition to the law and will create inestimable conflicts between the state and religious persons and institutions.”
At the national level, the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, linked abortion and same sex marriage, saying in a statement, “Just as Roe v. Wade did not settle the question of abortion over forty years ago, Obergefell v. Hodges does not settle the question of marriage today. Neither decision is rooted in the truth, and as a result, both will eventually fail.”
Polls show that a majority of US Catholics support same-sex marriage, putting them at odds with their bishops. Ish Ruiz, a teacher at a Catholic school in San Francisco, highlighted that gap and said negative reactions from bishops Friday raised questions.
“The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit speaks through the people, not just the hierarchy, so these comments make me wonder if the hierarchy is in touch with the people, the sense of the faithful,” he told Crux.
He wondered if Church leaders might “challenge themselves” to listen to those with different opinions about marriage and relationships, asking themselves, “Hey maybe we don’t have all the answers, maybe there’s more to this issue than we’ve been teaching so far.”
In his decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic, dismissed the notion that those pushing for same-sex marriage “disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”
He also wrote, however, “that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”