Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010 added acts of violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the list of federal hate crimes.

President Barack Obama signed it into law on Oct. 28, 2009. It was the first major piece of federal legislation in support of the rights of homosexuals and, when passed, was compared with the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation that empowered countless African-Americans.

This law acknowledged the dignity of people regardless of their sexual orientation and, as such, was a development to be welcomed by anyone committed to the principles of justice and human dignity.

News of the passage of that legislation in 2009 triggered expressions of hope from gay-rights activists that same-sex marriage would, sooner rather than later, be legally permissible anywhere in the United States. That day arrived with a decision of the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015.

Legal recognition of same-sex unions, and calling those unions “marriage,” was promoted as an anti-discrimination issue, but it consistently drew opposition from the Catholic community that sees not discrimination but defense of marriage — a sacramental union between a man and a woman — as the issue.

In the Catholic understanding, bride (female) and groom (male) confer that sacrament on one another; the priest or deacon is simply the official witness. There is no room for a same-sex union in the Catholic understanding of marriage. Defending this position is now, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, an enormous challenge for the church.

Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage will be more persuasive to the extent that it is explained by spokespeople who are unambiguous in their support of protection by the state of the rights of homosexuals in the matter of hate crimes, workplace discrimination, military service and similar situations.

The Catholic commitment to justice should also support partners in a same-sex union having, as a spouse would have and as the Supreme Court has now mandated, inheritance rights and access to a partner’s hospital bedside in times of illness.

Permitting partners in a same-sex union to have adoption rights is another matter. Here, Catholic opposition should be grounded in sound theory and solid data, evidence that the arrangement would not be good for children. It should rest on discretionary, not discriminatory, grounds and in no way impugn the dignity of any homosexual person.

The church has the ongoing challenge of defending its distinction between homosexual orientation (morally neutral) and homosexual behavior (morally impermissible). Pastoral explanation of this distinction remains a challenge for the church, which is not to say that it cannot be met.

Marriage, in the eyes of the church, is a sacrament. If the separation of church and state means anything, it certainly means that the state is not free to decide what is and what is not a sacrament, even though the state and other civic jurisdictions do, without objection from the church, issue what are called marriage licenses.

Now that the state has decided to approve and protect same-sex unions, the church can insist that the state has no right to call these unions “marriage,” but it is more difficult now than ever to make that case.

The long-standing acceptance of marriage licenses issued by the state poses a difficulty for the church in making that argument.

Without yielding any moral ground, however, the church could, if necessary, accept a two-tier system, common in other countries, of having Catholics appear before a civil authority in a civil ceremony to be followed by a church ceremony where the sacrament is conferred.

Other religions may, if they wish, welcome partners in a civilly recognized same-sex union to a subsequent religious ceremony of commitment.

Some denominations will surely do that. The Catholic Church will not. Its refusal to do so must be respected as an expression of commitment to sacramental marriage, not a condemnation of those with other views.


Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.