The Roman Catholic hierarchy is showing how it doesn’t quite have its finger on the pulse of much of the Roman Catholic world population when it comes to the issue of marriage equality. This divide was highlighted in The Pope’s recent, highly criticized visit to Germany and in Bishop Timothy Dolan’s decision to criticize President Obama directly about shifts within the United States toward marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
In a letter dated September 20, Bishop Dolan of New York wrote to President Obama criticizing him for his decision to stop defending the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) against legal challenges. The Obama administration has said that it believes that preventing the federal government from recognizing legal marriages between gay or lesbian couples will likely not pass the test of constitutionality. Bishop Dolan and the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops claim the issue is one of religious freedom, charging that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry would infringe upon the rights of religious groups to freely practice the dictates of their religion. Bishop Dolan’s position, however, is without merit; no religious group would be forced to perform marriage ceremonies under any marriage equality legislation currently in place in any state – although many churches and religious organizations in those states are delighted to do so. Furthermore, his position is out of step with how most Americans and how most Roman Catholics feel about marriage equality. Furthermore, the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” actively harms the religious freedom of the many religious groups that happily perform and recognize marriages between gay and lesbian couples.
Pope Benedict XVI also took a stand against marriage equality during his recent visit to Germany. Despite at least 9,000 protesters, the Pope returned to his home country to ask that Catholics unite behind him despite recent criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church over its positions on LGBT equality, among other issues. Although Germans were initially pleased when one of their own was elected to the Papacy in 2005, recent polls show that they now see him as “obstinate and out of step” with Germany’s more progressive values:
[O]ne [person] in Sunday's crowd told Reuters: "The Church needs to be more progressive in its attitude toward homosexuality and women" [and] several lay Catholic leaders and even some bishops have urged the pope in recent weeks to allow some reforms, a request he appeared to reject on Saturday when he said that without a renewed faith, "all structural reform will remain ineffective."
It appears that the Pope’s insistence on preventing any social progress within the Roman Catholic Church has already alienated many people. In the United States there are several Catholic denominations that do not affiliate themselves with Rome. The United Catholic Church is a relatively small, United States-based denomination that affirms the dignity of all people, including LGBT people, and recognizes that there is no clear scriptural prohibition on the full inclusion of LGBT people. Similarly, the National Catholic Church is welcoming denomination; the Holy Trinity National Catholic Church in Albany, NY was one of the first religious organizations that offered to perform marriages for gay and lesbian couples after marriage equality passed in New York State.
The Roman Catholic Church continues to demonstrate how out of sync it is with lay Catholics, but there are other Catholic denominations ready to step up and demonstrate that there are welcoming, accepting Catholic Churches. Pope Benedict XVI’s refusal to move the church into the present and Bishop Dolan’s insistence that basic human rights will harm religion are clear signs that the Roman Catholic Church needs to pay closer attention to the beliefs of its members.