Catholics and marriage equality in New York

by Maureen Fiedler

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On June 23, the New York State Senate voted for marriage equality. They did this in spite of opposition from the Catholic Bishops and other religious groups. Even though New York State is relatively liberal political territory, it is large and influential nationally.

That vote, I believe, signals a definitive shift in the political winds on this issue nationally. It's been coming for a while, and New York looks like the turning point. Tens of thousands of gays and lesbians will soon marry -- and the world won't come to an end.

Most interesting, the New York Senate is Republican controlled, and although only four Republican senators voted for the bill, the leadership could have prevented a vote, but did not. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Roman Catholic, signed the bill into law almost immediately.

The same legislation almost passed in the Maryland legislature earlier this year. And the Catholic governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, pushed for the bill and was ready to sign it had it passed.

Interestingly, both of these men are being talked about as "presidential possibilities" for 2016. And no one seems to think that their support of marriage equality will be a liability. Indeed, it is starting to look like a "profile in courage."

Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops were -- according to detailed reporting in The New York Times -- out-maneuvered in the lobbying leading up to the vote. In Maryland, their opposition was not key to the defeat of the measure. According to political insiders, that distinction belongs to black ministers in Prince George's County.

What's going on? The culture is changing rapidly, with a strong generational shift. Most young people that I know who are in their 20s, and most of them are Catholic, have a hard time understanding why marriage equality is even an issue – for the state or the church.

A case in point is Kelly Stewart, 23, who converted to Catholicism on Easter last year. She was attracted by the church’s teaching on social justice and the work of Dorothy Day. The Catholics she knew personally were "positive and affirming" toward her and other gay people.

But church teachings on homosexuality complicated her decision to convert. She did not want to give implicit support to anti-gay policies. Lucky for Kelly, she knew many Catholics in the church reform movement, and came to believe that this was a good place from which to engage the struggle. She is currently working at New Ways Ministry in Maryland.

She is not alone. Young people, gay and straight, want change on this issue. It is their civil rights struggle, their time to say, "We shall overcome." Many older people are changing as well. That's why governors like Cuomo and O'Malley feel free to follow their best instincts.

The bishops could learn a lot from Kelly and her generation -- and they might have a talk with these governors to top it off.

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