As we live through them, it is often difficult to recognize truly important, history-changing events, events that will touch future generations intimately and profoundly. Very likely, though, the U.S. Supreme Court decision of June 26, 2015, in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, which found same-sex marriage a constitutional right, is one of those events.
"The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority.
Catholic moral theologian Lisa Fullam was struck by "how strongly" the four principles and traditions the court cited as the foundation for its decision "echo Catholic doctrine on marriage."
As the church formulates a response to this new reality, she suggested, "a good first step for Church leaders would be to applaud the Court's decision in light of its overlap with Catholic values … and take note of the powerful spirit of love and commitment vivifying lesbian and gay marriages as well as straight marriages."
The divided court, though, reflects divides in the nation. The day of the decision, NCR reported that the political and religious response ran the gamut from despair and anger to jubilation.
"Today, love prevailed and our nation became a more perfect union," wrote Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the gay and lesbian anti-defamation group GLAAD. "#LoveWins," President Barack Obama tweeted.
The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., called the decision "a tragic error." Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, N.Y., declared himself "bitterly disappointed."
The court's decision did not surprise Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, he said. "The surprise will come," Chaput continued, "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."
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, on the other hand, celebrated "the increase in justice that this ruling ushers in" and noted that Catholics were at the forefront of the marriage equality movement. "Our commitment to the values of love, inclusion, family, and justice have inspired millions of Catholics -- both straight and LGBT. … It is wonderful to see the true values of our faith and our country affirmed today."
Between exuberance and bitter disappointment lies a vast middle ground, the ordinary days that succeed the history-changing event, as we truly begin to live this new reality.
The question remains whether these days will be painful as Chaput suggests or, as Arthur Fitzmaurice, resource director for the Catholic Association for Lesbian and Gay Ministry, told NCR June 26, "a chance for us to step away from the charged political debate to a pastoral dialogue on what it means to be LGBT and Catholic."
Changing the law was a one-time event. Change comes to peoples and communities slowly. As ordinary people -- and one hopes Catholic bishops -- come to know more people in same-sex marriages, hearts and minds will change. Acceptance will replace fear.
One Catholic couple who can -- and do -- tell the story of the benefits of same-sex marriage are Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon of Louisville. In a committed relationship for 33 years (and married in Canada in 2004), Bourke and DeLeon are lifelong practicing Catholics and active members of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish for 28 years. Together, they are raising two children. By all accounts, they have become vital to their community.
Interviewed by the Huffington Post last March just before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, Fr. Scott Wimsett, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, described Bourke and DeLeon as "loved and respected. … You see how they fit in."
The reporters had met Bourke and DeLeon as they were taking orders and serving meals at a parish Lenten fish fry.
"They're just good people," Wimsett said. "And that's kind of what it's all about, isn't it?"
The timing of that story is important, because Bourke and DeLeon were lead plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case.
Bourke and DeLeon had their marriage involuntarily thrust into the spotlight almost four years ago when Bourke lost his position as a Boy Scout troop leader because of his sexual orientation. Bourke had volunteered with the troop sponsored by his parish for eight years, six as a registered leader. His ouster was widely reported in the local media, which brought the couple to the attention of the Louisville legal team looking for plaintiffs to challenge Kentucky's marriage equality ban.
Bourke and DeLeon agreed, and, well, history was made. But the story doesn't end there.
In July 2015, with same-sex marriage legal nationwide, the Boy Scouts of America rescinded its ban on gay adult leaders and Bourke reapplied for leadership with his son's troop. In August, he was rejected again, this time not by the Boy Scouts but by his parish.
When the Boy Scouts lifted its ban on gay adult leaders, it included a provision to allow church-sponsored units to choose local leaders based on church teaching. Bourke learned that Louisville's Kurtz had instructed pastors to continue the ban on gay leaders in parish troops.
"My heart is broken that my church would now present the barrier to my returning to my Boy Scout unit," Bourke wrote on his Facebook page.
Bourke and DeLeon are lucky in that they are only parishioners and volunteers. Their livelihoods do not depend on the institutional church. In 2015, at least 10 church employees in the United States lost their jobs because of sexual orientation. In nearly all cases, these were long-standing employees who were deeply respected by their school and parish communities. In most cases, their orientation and even their partners were known by the community. They experienced no difficulties until they entered civil marriages.
NCR is already on record advocating for church personnel policies that ensure that employees can enter into legal, civil marriages without fear of losing their jobs.
Today, we address a more fundamental issue: How will we as a church live with our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters? We are past the time of "love the sinner" platitudes.
Some Catholic leaders have expressed a willingness to find a way through this time of change, recognizing that all change is difficult. Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of Savannah, Ga., urged calm and civility after the June 26 decision, denouncing beforehand "venomous language or vile behavior against those whose opinions differ from our own." He noted that the decision "is primarily a declaration of civil rights and not a redefinition of marriage as the Church teaches."
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich called for "mature and serene reflections as we move forward together." He noted that the wisdom of the Catholic church is "rooted in faith and a wide range of human experience." He quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church that gay persons "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." He continues:
This respect must be real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church's commitment to accompanying all people. For this reason, the Church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God.
Reflective of this time of change, Cupich has his own challenges. The Chicago archdiocese is the subject of two complaints filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging unfair dismissal based on sexual orientation.
Bourke and DeLeon are emblematic of this major challenge facing the church today, because they force us to ask not how will we live out a hypothetical situation, but how will we live with Greg and Michael. They give flesh to an abstraction.
The answers the church is giving now are confused, uneven and often cruel. Greg and Michael -- and countless gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics -- deserve better.
For their historic roles as plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges and for their faithful public witness as gay Catholics, we name Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon NCR's persons of the year for 2015.
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