Saturday, March 26, 2011

5 Reasons We Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Catholics Support LGBT Rights

By Paul Gorrell

Editor's Note: This article was first published at

A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows not only that more Catholics support marriage rights for same-sex couples than other Christians [43%, while 31% support civil unions] but that they do so at a higher percentage than the general population. In fact, on every LGBT rights question, including DADT and job discrimination, a high percentage of the Catholic population supports the move toward full participation of LGBT individuals and the necessary legal protections to create the environment for that participation.

Perhaps most surprising, 70% of Catholics surveyed believe that the words of their priests in sermons can contribute to the suicides of LGBT teenagers. In other words, Catholics understand that orthodoxy from the pulpit has consequences and they’re concerned with both the means and the ends when it comes to LGBT rights

While conventional wisdom says that Catholics are generally conservative, those who understand Catholic culture aren’t terribly surprised by these findings. Here are five reasons why I believe that Catholics are more open to LGBT rights:

1. Catholics have an underlying commitment to social justice built upon a prominent liberal notion that we are meant to serve each other and pay attention to those who suffer most within our society. Despite the Catholic Church’s turn to orthodox positions on so many aspects of its faith, the 20th century included an adoption of liberal perspectives when it comes to social order, caring for the poor, promoting social justice, and living Gospel values. The teaching challenged many capitalistic hegemonies and called people to pay attention to those who suffer most. Against this backdrop, Catholics get the fact that LGBT folks face social injustice in a society based on hetero-normative structures, so it should come as no shock that they’d respond with compassion and a strong sense of justice.

2) Catholics love ritual. Ritual is integral to Catholic experience. While many of us can point to moments when we experienced really bad ritual at Catholic liturgies, ritual still remains at the core of all expressions of faith within the Catholic Church, and marriage has not escaped this reality. Catholics believe that marriage is one of the seven sacraments which leads them to take the celebration of the union between a man and a woman very seriously. There’s no need for a professional wedding planner or a lot of contemporary add-ons (the lighting of a unity candle comes to mind). Like every sacrament, core symbols show the power of the transcendent experience. Here, the rings and the words shared by the couple are enough to change two lives and all that they touch forever. Denying a ritual celebrating a fundamental human experience does not pass the smell test of a people dedicated to ritual expression of divine love. The rich and yet simple rite exemplifies the right to marriage. It speaks of commitment and a life changing “yes” to togetherness.

3. Catholics believe in both individuality and community. Those who practice Catholic faith are trained to make individual choices about moral behavior based on the primacy of the conscience. The idea here is that Church teaching informs the conscience but it does not absolutely rule it. While Church teaching has a privileged place within the moral formation of the person, it’s always meant to be considered in light of a particular context and the intentions of the people involved. Catholics practice the art of translation when it comes to moral decision-making and, in this practice, are highly pragmatic. The teaching of the Church does not dictate their thinking or demand blind obedience.

4. Catholics are highly skeptical of the sexual teaching of their Church. Ever since Pope Paul VI delivered Humanae Vitae in the 60s—the papal encyclical on sexuality which seemed incongruent with the sexual revolution driven by the advances in birth control — Catholics have largely ignored the official teaching of the Church on sexual relations within marriage and outside marriage. Teaching delivered by the celibate clergy on sexuality was seen as naïve, impractical and unresponsive to the experience of sexually-active Catholics. This was true in the early stages of the post-Humanae Vitae era and in later years when the Church refused to endorse condoms to help prevent HIV/AIDS. The Church authorities seemed more connected to the consistency of their ideology than sympathetic and responsive to the lives of people who were in trauma. You might say that Catholics responded with a collective eye roll at its leaders when they failed to allow for condoms in Africa within marriages when one of the spouses had HIV. On this, the Church teaching was unrealistic, rigid, and irresponsible.

5. The pedophilia crisis undermines any teaching which denies LGBT rights. It’s hard to take a church which has been in crisis around priestly pedophilia seriously when it comes to its rigid position on the rights of a sexual minority who is trying to do the right thing. The causes that underlie pedophilia within the Catholic priesthood are worthy of a robust debate. Let’s just say that many priests have chosen a double life when it comes to sexuality. They make a public proclamation about celibacy while fully realizing that they will have future sexual experiences in which they freely choose participation. A caveat: I was a Catholic priest and had an insider’s view of this duplicitous lifestyle. LGBT folks who are striving for personal joy without losing personal integrity are an interesting juxtaposition to those who have official authority to teach about sexuality while practicing it in the shadows.

In this latest survey Catholics have simply continued to show the complexity of their thinking and confounded the general sense that they’re out of touch, reactionary, and against sexual justice. In fact, we might argue that it’s precisely because they are Catholics, they get the issues related to LGBT rights.

— Paul Gorrell
March 25, 2011

Recommended Off-site Links:
A Catholic Statement of Support for Same-Sex Marriage
Catholic Theologian: "Heterosexism, Not Homosexuality, is the ProblemThe Wild Reed (November 11, 2010).
At UST, a Rousing and Very Catholic Show of Support for Marriage Equality – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, April 19, 2010).
A Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage – Erma M. Durkin (The Baltimore Sun, March 6, 2011).
A Hopeful and Encouraging Trend – Michael Bayly (The Wild Reed, September 26, 2010).
A Catholic Defense of Same-Sex Marriage – Daniel Maguire (The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, April 20, 2006).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Catholics More Supportive of Gay and Lesbian Rights Than General Public, Other Christians
More Than a Monologue: Sexual Diversity and the Catholic Church
Dialoguing with the Archbishop: Amendment Campaign Contrary to Church Moral Teaching
A Catholic Presence at Gay Pride
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!

Image: Michael J. Bayly


  1. Reason No. 6: Polling and analysis companies pay attention to who writes the check for the poll.

    The funders of this dPRRI "study", the Arcus Foundation and the Haas Fund finance, primarily support projects that promote homosexuality.

    Had they not come up with wanted results, no more work for PRRI!

  2. It's not only the PRRI poll, however, that's showing strong Catholic support for gay rights. A 2009 Pew Research Center study also shows it, as does a 2010 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, and a poll just last week by the Washington Post/ABC News.

    I think your comment is an insult to Catholics, Ray, and the Spirit that's inspiring them in the ancient and holy work of "making something new" in the world, i.e., an understanding and acceptance of God's gift of human sexual diversity after centuries of ignorance, fear and intolerance.

  3. Michael:

    I'll agree with you that those polls might be correct if you agree that the vast majority of the 70% who claim that they are Catholics and in favor of homosexual marriage don't attend Mass on a regular basis, aren't regularly seen in the confessional and probably don't contribute much to the Church, financially, or personally.

    But they still like to say that they are Catholic because they know in their heart that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ and is the One, True, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church.

    In fact I would venture to say that few of that 70% that support homosexual marriage subscribe to these basic tenets of the Church:

    We believe that Mary is the Mother, who remained ever a Virgin, of the Incarnate Word, our God and Savior Jesus Christ, and that by reason of this singular election, she was, in consideration of the merits of her Son, redeemed in a more eminent manner, preserved from all stain of original sin and filled with the gift of grace more than all other creatures.

    Joined by a close and indissoluble bond to the Mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption, the Blessed Virgin was at the end of her earthly life raised body and soul to heavenly glory and likened to her risen Son in anticipation of the future lot of all the just; and we believe that the Blessed Mother of God, the New Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven her maternal role with regard to Christ's members, cooperating with the birth and growth of divine life in the souls of the redeemed.

    We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church built by Jesus Christ on that rock which is Peter. She is the Mystical Body of Christ; at the same time a visible society instituted with hierarchical organs, and a spiritual community; the Church on earth, through which the work and the sufferings of Redemption are continued throughout human history, and which looks for its perfect accomplishment beyond time in glory.

    We believe all that is contained in the word of God written or handed down, and that the Church proposes for belief as divinely revealed, whether by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal magisterium. We believe in the infallibility enjoyed by the successor of Peter when he teaches ex cathedra as pastor and teacher of all the faithful, and which is assured also to the episcopal body when it exercises with him the supreme magisterium.

    We believe that the Church founded by Jesus Christ is indefectibly one in faith, worship and the bond of hierarchical communion.

    We believe that the Church is necessary for salvation. But the divine design of salvation embraces all men, and those who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God sincerely, and under the influence of grace endeavor to do His will as recognized through the promptings of their conscience, they, in a number known only to God, can obtain salvation.

    We believe that the Mass, celebrated by the priest representing the person of Christ by virtue of the power received through the Sacrament of Orders is the sacrifice of Calvary rendered sacramentally present on our altars. We believe that as the bread and wine consecrated by the Lord at the Last Supper were changed into His body and His blood which were to be offered for us on the cross, likewise the bread and wine consecrated by the priest are changed into the body and blood of Christ and we believe that the mysterious presence of the Lord is a true, real and substantial presence.

    We believe that the souls of all those who die in the grace of Christ—whether they must still be purified in purgatory, or whether from the moment they leave their bodies Jesus takes them to paradise are the People of God in the eternity beyond death, which will be finally conquered on the day of the Resurrection when these souls will be reunited with their bodies.