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A comprehensive look at Catholic bishops’ reactions to gay ‘marriage’ ruling

Fr. Mark Hodges Fr. Mark Hodges

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 14, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – The operative word in Roman Catholic leaders' reaction to the Supreme Court ruling that homosexuals have a constitutional right to "marriage" is "disappointment."

Most Catholic bishops across the country followed the lead of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), who responded to the high court's ruling with assurances directed toward Catholic faithful. "The nature of the human person and marriage remains unchanged and unchangeable," Kurtz wrote in an effort to calm concerns about the social revolution unleashed by the highest court of our land. Though the world may resist and rebel, the eternal truth is on the side of Christianity, he added.

The representative of America's Catholic Christians called the Supreme Court's decision a "tragic error that harms the common good and the most vulnerable among us, especially children."

Kurtz's USCCB statement went farther, helping Catholics to understand that they have weathered this storm before. "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."

In the statement's strongest words, Kurtz condemned the government for allowing gay "marriage": "It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage."

"Today the Court is wrong again," the archbishop concluded.

Disappointed, but holding firm to natural marriage. The truth remains unchanged. The Court has been wrong before, and it's wrong again this time. The same message – many times word for word – was repeated by nearly all of America's Catholic bishops. Talking points were nearly identical.

"The mistakes of the court change nothing about the nature of men and women, and the truth of God's Word." — Archbishop Charles Chaput, Philadelphia, PA

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, PA posted a gentle, pastoral statement on Facebook as soon as the decision was released. "The Supreme Court's 5-4 decision on marriage is not a surprise," Chaput reassured Facebook followers. "The mistakes of the court change nothing about the nature of men and women, and the truth of God's Word."

However, Archbishop Chaput added an ominous prediction to his post. "The surprise will come as ordinary people begin to experience, firsthand and painfully, the impact of today's action on everything they thought they knew about marriage, family life, our laws and our social institutions." He referred to children and parents suffering "the debris of today's decision."

Ending on a positive note, the Philadelphian wrote that our work as Christians has just begun. "The task now for believers is to form our own families even more deeply in the love of God, and to rebuild a healthy marriage culture, one marriage at a time."

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Nearly every episcopal reaction echoed the USCCB press release by Kurtz and the Chaput Facebook post, with some quoting them verbatim. The Most Rev. Edward J. Slattery of Tulsa, OK simply explained, "I make the Archbishop's statement my own and ask everyone to pray for our nation."

Several bishops did add a personal word or two. Bishop Gregory Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee, FL said, "It's a very, very disappointing decision." Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, WI stated, "Today is a sad day for the sacrament of marriage." Boston, MA's Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley wrote, "I am saddened." Bishop Richard Malone, head of the Catholic diocese in Buffalo, wrote, "I am bitterly disappointed" because "the lifelong exclusive union of one man and one woman [is] a font of unitive life and love as well as the foundation of a stable family and society."

Some bishops shared additional perspectives. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston, SC noted that "marriage is a sacrament instituted by God, not by man or by institution, and can only be between one man and one woman." Therefore, Bishop Guglielmone argued, the Supreme Court "has no authority over Holy Matrimony." David Kagan, the bishop of Bismarck, ND, quoted St. John Paul II: "The truth is not always the same as the majority decision." Nebraska's bishops jointly pointed out that "[t]he truth about marriage is written into the complementarity of men and women."

"[The Supreme Court] has no authority over Holy Matrimony." — Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, Charleston, SC

Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee added, "Just because something is law doesn't mean that we have [to] adhere to it, if it violates our conscience, or our religious beliefs or teachings." The bishop did not elaborate on how American Catholics can "not adhere" to a Supreme Court decision binding upon all government employees, business owners, and workers.

The Montana Catholic Conference issued a joint statement, agreeing with their brother bishops and noting that natural marriage "most suitably provides for children, the family and the common good." After reiterating several points common to all the bishops' responses, the Virginia Catholic Conference noted, "Redefining marriage furthers no one's rights, least of all those of children."

The Catholic Conference of Ohio followed suit but then issued the most explanatory statement, led by the Most Reverend Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati, who first released a separate, nearly identical message. "Every nation has laws limiting who can be married and under what circumstances," Schnurr and the Ohio bishops wrote. "This is because lawmakers always have understood that marriage does not exist just for the mutual satisfaction of the two people involved, but for the betterment of society."

Ohio's bishops cited their pontiff: "As Pope Francis has reminded us, every child has a right to be raised by two parents, a father and a mother. Both parents are important, and they are not interchangeable. The sad reality that so many children are deprived of this right because of the crisis in traditional marriage does not make it any less important."

"It is deeply disappointing and worrisome that our courts do not understand this."

The Ohioans concluded with renewed commitment that "the Church will continue to attend to the challenges and hardships that confront individuals and their families, and to treat all persons with the dignity and respect."

In his personal statement, Schnurr was a little more biting. "Under the false banner of 'marriage equality,' the Supreme Court today redefined marriage by judicial fiat," the Cincinnati archbishop wrote. "In so doing, it has disregarded not only the clearly expressed will of the electorate in Ohio and other states, but also an understanding of marriage that was shared by virtually all cultures – secular as well as religious."

"This causes confusion among those who are faithful to the Gospel and erodes rights of persons in each state." — Bishop Joé S. Vásquez, Austin, TX

Bishop Joé S. Vásquez of the diocese of Austin, the largest diocese in Texas, criticized the Court: "This causes confusion among those who are faithful to the Gospel and erodes rights of persons in each state." Vásquez expressed the Christian truth about natural marriage, nevertheless, "will once again prevail in our society, not only by their logic, but by their great beauty and manifest service to the common good."

Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah, GA noted that the decision "does not resolve the moral debate that preceded it and will most certainly continue in its wake."

Many bishops added that Christians are to respect all people, including those with whom we disagree. Bishop Morlino of Madison, WI, after stating that marriage is "an objective truth of the natural order" that "can only be recognized and never changed," took pains to state that an intrinsic part of Catholicism is the love of all. "We must also remind everyone to respect, love, and care for all individuals we encounter, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or how they define themselves. This will never change. It is at the core of who we are as members of Christ's Church." His reminder was echoed by many, if not most, of his American counterparts.

Bishop Michael Jarrell of Lafayette, LA began by condemning the Supreme Court decision: "No human court has the authority to change what God has written into the law of creation[.] ... There is no basis in law or in nature for altering the traditional definition of marriage, established by God from the beginning." Then Jarrell advocated disobeying the high court's judicial activism: "In some cases, civil disobedience may be a proper response." The bishop, however, did not elaborate under what circumstances, or what disobedience he would bless.

To further clarify and reassure the faithful, Jarrell wrote, "No priest or deacon of this Diocese may participate in the civil solemnization or celebration of a same-sex marriage[.] ... No Catholic facility or property ... may be used for the solemnization of same sex marriage."

"All Catholics are urged not to attend same-sex marriage ceremonies." — Bishop Michael Jarrell, Lafayette, LA

Jarrell tied the Supreme Court decision to Catholic action, using his authority to "urge" Catholics against even attendance at homosexual ceremonies: "All Catholics are urged not to attend same-sex marriage ceremonies." "Urge" is not a command, but it was one of the strongest and most practical applications made among the American bishops.

Joseph Edward Strickland, Bishop of Tyler, TX, used civility but strong words to condemn the justices' decision: "The Court has acted in contradiction to their duty to promote the common good, especially what is good for families," he wrote.

"Let me unambiguously state at the outset that this extremely unfortunate decision by our government is unjust and immoral, and it is our duty to clearly and emphatically oppose it," Strickland proclaimed. He called the high court decision an "unjust law" that is "contrary to the moral order" and "not binding in conscience."

"We must now exercise our right to conscientious objection against this interpretation of our law which is contrary to the common good and the true understanding of marriage," Strickland exhorted. Like Bishop Jarrell, Strickland did not elaborate as to how or under what circumstances such opposition by Christians should take place.

Strickland did, however, put in forceful terms that Christians are not to view homosexual "unions" as marriages. "There are absolutely no grounds for considering unions between two persons of the same sex to be in any way similar to God's plan for marriage and the family."

He noted the root reason for why the Supreme Court's decision is flawed, by pointing out that "marriage is not just ... based on emotions and feelings. Rather ... God established true marriage with its own special nature and purpose, namely the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children." The bishop of Tyler also clarified that "the living out of this orientation or the solemnizing of relationships" is intrinsically immoral.

"We must now exercise our right to conscientious objection against this interpretation of our law which is contrary to the common good and the true understanding of marriage." — Bishop Joseph E. Strickland, Tyler, TX

After exhorting Catholic faithful at length to treat homosexuals with love and respect "based on their dignity as human persons," Strickland concluded, "Nevertheless, our continued commitment to the pastoral care of homosexual persons cannot and will not lead in any way to the condoning of homosexual behavior or our acceptance of the legal recognition of same-sex unions."

The Texan said that he would soon issue a "particular law" for his diocese that "no member of the clergy or any person acting as employee of the Church may in any way participate in the solemnization or consecration of same-sex marriages, and that no Catholic facilities or properties, including churches, chapels, meeting halls, Catholic educational, health or charitable institutions, or any places dedicated or consecrated, or use for Catholic worship, may be used for the solemnization or consecration of same-sex marriages."

Strickland ended his letter with a prayer and calling the faithful to prayer that "all of us may come to a greater understanding of the beauty, truth and goodness that is found in marriage as revealed to us by our Savior."

Michigan's Catholic bishops were more foreboding, calling the decision "a profound legal turning point in the contemporary and cultural understanding of spouses and family." While noting that "same-sex attraction is a reality that calls for attention, sensitivity and pastoral care," the Michiganders raised concerns for children, who need both "a mother and a father."

Cardinal O'Malley of Boston defended the need for government to make pro-family laws. "The protection of marriage and families is a shared responsibility for all of us," he wrote. "Enshrining same-sex marriage in our constitutional system of governance has dangers that may become fully evident only over time."

The Colorado Catholic Conference stated, "This ruling cannot change nature." Practically speaking, they said that "the coming months will likely be filled with more questions than answers, given the thousands of laws nationwide related to marriage that will be adversely impacted by the court's action."

Colorado's bishops noted that all should be concerned with the state's understanding of marriage. "Protecting the meaning of civil marriage should concern all people because stable marriages and family life are the foundation of a fair and prosperous society."

Then, in a new twist on civil rights, they expressed concern for Christians facing discrimination. "We are concerned that hateful rhetoric and discrimination against those, whose religious and moral beliefs support the true definition of marriage that has existed for millennia, will intensify. We will continue to pray that people with differing views on marriage will be able to express their beliefs and convictions without fear of intimidation or hostility, and more importantly that religious freedom and liberty will be supported and defended."

Bishop John Folda, Diocese of Fargo, ND, called the ruling "a tragic error that will have long-lasting consequences for generations to come." He warned of the eroding of religious freedom: "The Supreme Court's decision will have a significant impact on the first amendment right to religious liberty. It sets the beliefs of millions of Americans about marriage in opposition to the law and will create innumerable conflicts between the state and religious people and institutions."

Fargo's chief shepherd "urgently" called upon politicians to "implement measures that will protect the religious freedom of individuals and institutions who uphold the authentic meaning of marriage." Michigan's bishops quoted Folda's religious freedom points nearly verbatim.

Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, TX concluded his message with a call to prayer. "I pray that all persons who hold dear the civil liberties afforded by the United States Constitution will join us in working to safeguard the rights of people of faith to live and exercise that faith as they believe God requires."

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, TX characterized the Supreme Court's decision as "gravely unjust, as it attempts to change the nature of marriage." He said, "No one and no court can make what is false true."

DiNardo also raised the issue of the state safeguarding the well-being of children. "Children have a basic right, wherever possible, to know and be loved by their mother and father together. The law has a duty to support every child in this most basic right."

Then the southern Texan made a political promise: "Our Church will continue its efforts to support public policy issues, including a version of the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prohibit the government from discriminating against those who act in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is the union between a man and woman."

Most bishops were careful not to personally criticize the justices, but a few statements did take aim.

"... an egregious error in moral judgment." —Bishop Robert F. Vasa, Santa Rosa, CA

Bishop Robert F. Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, CA referred to the Dred Scott decision of the 19th century, in which the Supreme Court ruled that blacks were not persons. Vasa wrote that the justices making the current decision erred "by making an egregious error in moral judgment."

The Most Reverend John C. Wester, Archbishop of Santa Fe, TX, was gentle in his judicial rebuke: "We urge our lawmakers and judges to respect those institutions that are beyond state and federal jurisdiction, institutions such as sacramental marriage that transcend civil law and whose origins precede the existence of the state and go beyond its competence."

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, NY accused the justices of "choos[ing] to accept a culture-driven redefinition of marriage." Murphy also called on his faithful to protest the decision and publicly proclaim the truth about marriage. "We have the God-given and constitutional right to proclaim religious truths in the public square, as well as [in] our churches, just as we have been doing for almost 50 years in the ever vigilant battle against another wrongly decided decision, Roe v. Wade."

Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh, PA was both terse and unequivocal: "This decision is a wrong decision for our country. When we deliberately alter the design of marriage, we weaken the very foundation of society."

After echoing his brother bishops' concern that Catholics treat those who disagree with dignity and respect, Zubik expressed the hope that the same respect will be reciprocated. "It is my hope that the rights of Christians and other believers who hold marriage as a sacred, lifelong commitment between a woman and a man will be respected and recognized. The First Amendment ... is intended to secure our right to teach and live the truth according to our beliefs."

"I join many voices in denouncing this decision," Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, IL wrote, characterizing the decision as a "misfortune." "The government certainly has the legal power in civil law to coerce its definition, but that does not make it morally valid in the higher realm of supernatural realities."

"This way of thinking is misguided and incongruous with the will of God." — Bishop Glen John Provost, Lake Charles, LA

"This decision completely ignores the accumulated wisdom of centuries of inherited human experience regarding marriage," Bishop Glen John Provost of Lake Charles, LA wrote. "All of this heritage the Catholic Church has maintained, promoted, and sustained for the benefit of civilization and the continuation of the human race. This the U. S. Supreme Court has ignored and discarded."

Provost continued, "Some may view this decision as logically proceeding from some sort of enlightened development of contemporary consciousness. This way of thinking is misguided and incongruous with the will of God."

He predicted that the high court's decision "will have detrimental consequences for our civilization, and thus to the family, and in the future to the free exercise of religion."

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, NY called the justices' decision "misguided" and stated that it "cannot change what marriage is, any more than decreeing the world flat can make it so." He explained, "Fortunately, the beauty and holiness of what marriage is will continue to shine in the intimate, life-long partnership of love and sacrificial self-giving between one man and one woman, fundamentally open toward the procreation and education of human persons."

"Sadly," the Albany prelate said, "five members of the Court follow a popular, but very narrow and deconstructive view of this rich, God-given gift."

Bishop Scharfenberger then waxed didactic: "There is much more to conjugal love than two people ... focused on each other, however passionately[.] ... [Marriage's] full meaning lies outside itself."

The Most Rev. Michael J. Sis, Bishop of San Angelo, TX agreed, noting, "Only a man can be a father, and only a woman can be a mother. A child should not be deliberately or intentionally deprived of either one."

Sis argued that "[t]oday's Supreme Court decision will lead to many conflicts between the state and religious institutions and individuals[.] ... There is always a price to pay in being true to one's conscience[.] ... Those of us who disagree with this Supreme Court decision will sometimes have to pay a heavy price."

San Angelo's leader of Catholics declared that his church's teaching will not change, but peaceful coexistence is possible. "We must speak the truth as we understand it in our conscience, and we must always speak the truth in love. While these fundamental differences of worldview can be deeply painful in families, communities, and nations, I believe it is possible to dwell together peacefully in a society alongside those with whom we agree to disagree."

The bishops of the Iowa Catholic Conference commented, "To make something legal does not mean that it is true or good." They defended Catholic teaching, saying, "This understanding of marriage does no harm;  on the contrary, it serves the common good of society, as well as the good of family life, and of children." They concluded with concern for the preservation of religious liberty: "We still expect that true religious liberty, enshrined in our Constitution, and won at such a dear price, will be honored."

Most Reverend Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, CA said the decision was "troubling" because it "reflects a deep confusion about the meaning of marriage, the family and the human person; about individual liberty; and about the role of the courts and legislatures in our democratic system of self-government."

"It is hard to understand how the Court can feel so assured that it has the power to discard and rewrite the definition of marriage that has existed since the beginning of history as the lifelong union of one man and one woman," Gomez mused.

The bishop of Los Angeles exhorted his faithful to "work for the good of our society and create a culture of life and love."

His concluding statement was profound: "Remember that holy lives, good marriages, and strong families can change the world."

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, TX said that what the high court's decision does is "deeply wound the fabric of human society." He stated, "It is alarming and arrogant that any government institution can claim the power to change the definition of such a basic human reality."

"Today is a moment of historic consequence for our nation. The Supreme Court has made a tragic error." — Archbishop Paul Coakley, Oklahoma City, OK

Recalling the words of President Abraham Lincoln, Flores said that the Catholic Church, "with malice towards none, and in fidelity to the truth about human life, must remain faithful to, and teach the truth about marriage." He then stated something that was only half-true: "We will continue to operate our teaching and charitable institutions in fidelity to the teaching of Sacred Scripture and the Church's faith." In actual fact, some of the Catholic Church's charitable institutions have discontinued operation, being forced out by government, precisely because of state decrees like the Supreme Court's decision. This is what happened to Massachusetts's and Illinois's Catholic adoption agencies.

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, OK stated, "Today is a moment of historic consequence for our nation. The Supreme Court has made a tragic error. This decision will have devastating consequences, especially for children today and for generations to come."

Coakley wrote, "Society needs an institution that connects children to their mothers and fathers[.] ... Marriage is about far more than love shared between adults." He also expressed deep concerns for the future of religious freedom: "Now more than ever we have to be vigilant in our defense of religious liberty due to the threats that are sure to ramp up as a result of this decision and its consequences in law and in public opinion."

Most episcopal statements called upon Catholics to defend, by example, the traditional understanding of wedlock. Raleigh, NC's bishop, Michael F. Burbidge, reminded his fellow Catholics that "we are called to never compromise the beliefs that we treasure and celebrate." New Orleans, LA's Archbishop Gregory Aymond shared a positive view of the decision as an opportunity: "This is an historical moment in the United States. It gives us as Catholic Christians an opportunity to uphold the Sacrament of Marriage and the importance of family life."

Bishop Guglielmone of Charleston noted that the Catholic teaching on marriage "is not a judgment about persons who experience same-sex attraction, but a statement about how the Church has always understood the nature of marriage itself."

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. wrote an entire blog post. "The revealed Word of God is still what it was before the Supreme Court decision," he reasoned; "[o]ur faith is not based on human preferences but the revealed Word of God." He quoted Jesus' words about marriage from the beginning, when God created "male and female" and "the two become one flesh," concluding, "We cannot reinterpret Jesus' words."

"Married love is unique because it requires the sexual difference that a man and woman bring to their union, each complementing the other and making them capable of and open to new life in the gift of children," Wuerl blogged. "In summary, the loving communion of persons that is marriage is meant to be faithful, fruitful and life-long."

The cardinal went deeper in his blog post, responding to the question, "How then do we respond to those who say, 'If you want to accept me, you must accept what I do?'" Wuerl's advice: "Church teaching and common sense make a distinction between who a person is and what that person does... The ancient Maxim 'love the sinner but hate the sin' is central to our behavior. The Church has and always will meet people where they are, to bring them closer to Christ."

Wuerl noted that "to condemn any sin is not discrimination against the person who commits the sin" and that "disagreement is not discrimination." He summarized, "We do not force people to agree with us, we ask to be granted the same freedom to hold our beliefs."

"The Church has better things to do than spend millions of dollars on lawsuits. The Church will abide by the law." — Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Washington, D.C.

In his official statement, Cardinal Wuerl disagreed with Catholic civil disobedience or fighting the Supreme Court decision. "The Church has better things to do than spend millions of dollars on lawsuits," he wrote. "The Church will abide by the law."

Cardinal Wuerl spent the much of his official statement admonishing Catholics to love and welcome homosexuals. "Catholic teaching exhorts every believer to treat all people with respect, compassion, sensitivity, and love," he wrote, amid statements echoing his brother bishops. "All are called to walk with Jesus and so all who try to do so have a place in the Church."

Perhaps going farther than his peers, from welcoming same-sex-attracted individuals to implying approval of homosexuality, was Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, CA, who wrote that his Catholic community's witness to marriage "profoundly respects at every moment the loving and familial relationships which enrich the lives of so many gay men and women who are our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, and ultimately our fellow pilgrims on this earthly journey of life." McElroy did not clarify if he meant that families headed by two men or two women were "enriching" for children, but perhaps he meant to acknowledge homosexual relatives and the good qualities they offer.

In stark contrast to the united episcopate, liberal lay Catholics reacted to the Supreme Court decision with joy. One example, Christopher J. Hale, the executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, called the decision "a moment of great joy for many Catholics."

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