When America’s Catholic bishops gather next week in Baltimore for a four-day conference, they will hear an update on the Catholic Church’s ongoing fight to convince the country that marriage as an institution should never include gay couples, and they’ll get a sneak peek at how that fight will be waged in the coming year. Videos aimed at priests and deacons are being produced in English and Spanish to give the pastors better tools to reach their parishioners, especially young people, whom the church fears need reminding about its basic teachings on marriage, love and sex. Indeed, the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S. is increasingly unapologetic about engaging in the debate over the issue.
In Baltimore, the church’s continuing opposition to gay marriage will be part of a discussion by the bishops as they finish a formal letter on “married love” and reproduction, a document that will also spell out its position against abortion and in vitro fertilization. A draft of the document makes the case that marriage has been under assault for decades by secularists, feminists and others who see it as a social construction easily morphed into new shapes or ignored altogether. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who leads the U.S. church’s efforts to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage, was encouraged by the recent referendum in Maine. He told TIME over the the weekend, “In Maine, when people were asked to and I would call it not so much a vote against human rights, but a vote in defense of a definition of marriage that we see as essential to our culture and our nature they responded favorably.”
Kurtz reiterated his church stands opposing the discrimination against and ill-treatment of homosexuals. “The church truly desires to be a defender of human rights,” says the Archbishop. He also admits that many Americans do not share Catholic teachings about marriage. Nevertheless, he says the church believes that the “defense of truth,” as God, nature and human history have revealed it, cannot be separated from the pursuit of justice. You can’t have justice, he argues, if the truth of marriage between one man and one woman as a cornerstone of human society is denied.
Some critics have faulted bishops who have argued that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, for instance, should be denied Holy Communion. But Kurtz denies that the church was overreaching its bounds by taking a side in the controversy. “Our efforts in advocating for traditional marriage and our engagement in public policy debates, is entirely consistent with the law,” he says. “We’re not attempting to cross that line. But we do seek our rightful place in enunciating the principles we hold as essential as cornerstones for good society and the common good.”
The activist stance, Kurtz says, is tied to Catholic anxieties about the state of marriage as a whole. “We are aware that some of the the statistics that were presented to us shows that, I am told from the 1980s to mid-2005, there’s been a decrease of 40% to 50% of couples turning to the church for sacramental marriage,” says the Archbishop. “We had an awareness of marriage becoming an increasingly private affair, whereas of course the church believes it is anything but a private affair. Obviously it is very important to the husband and wife who are getting married, but it is also of great importance to the church and to society.”
Kurtz’s archdiocese is the state’s largest and most influential in Kentucky, itself a bulwark in the opposition to gay marriage. In 2004, voters in the state overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment forbidding gay marriage, despite the fact that it was already illegal. In part because of that vote and subsequent ones like it, Kurtz and his fellow bishops will find considerable wind in their sails when they gather next week to discuss the new pastoral letter and hear Kurtz on the bishops’ efforts to defend traditional marriage through education and through active engagement in the political process. “We will be giving an update on efforts we have been making to have our teachings on marriage presented in the widest way possible,” Kurtz told TIME. “We want to present our messages in as accurate and positive way as possible.”
The church’s renewed determination to speak out for traditional marriage comes at the end of a year in which advocates for gay marriage saw some big wins, including Iowa’s landmark decision to allow gay marriage, bookended by their two biggest defeats. When voters rejected gay marriage in California a year ago, some activists in other parts of the country warned that supporters had pushed too hard for marriage in liberal states, inflaming the opposition to a broad array of gay rights. But those concerns were mostly ignored, as many other activists insisted that time was on the side of gay marriage. They argued that steady work in showcasing how important marriage was to gays, and how nonthreatening it was to others, would prevail.
Now that strategy is under renewed scrutiny among gay activists, some of whom are calling for a more pointed and even confrontational approach. “While time may be on our side, if we leave these issues up to the voters to eventually change or overturn, there is no telling how much time it will take,” says Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, Ky. Hartman’s group has successfully pushed for a local ordinance giving gays there protection against discrimination at work and in housing, but so far has been unsuccessful in convincing lawmakers to allow gay marriage. “LGBT Americans have been waiting decades to see simple civil rights, and many of them are running out of time we cannot wait forever.”
Even as Catholic prelates are contemplating more extensive political engagement, grassroots gay activists are now debating how aggressive they should be in their pursuit of changing the laws regarding marriage. Hartman said more ordinary gay and lesbian people are going to spread their message themselves, rather than leaving it to national gay-rights-campaign officials and full-time activists. “People are getting angrier,” Hartman says. “More and more people are beginning to feel empowered to take the fight for their rights into their own hands, and I believe we will see them confront their legislators face-to-face with greater frequency and urgency. I believe that is the type of confrontation that will emerge people no longer willing to sit idly by and leave the fight for their rights in the hands of lobbyists and special-interest groups.”
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