If you listen to Catholic leadership in Maryland, the sky fell this past week as that state’s legislature passed marriage equality for gay and lesbian residents.
“Though not a surprise, today’s vote to redefine marriage in the State of Maryland by some members of the State Senate is no less troubling for it places Maryland one step closer to the dismantling of the most fundamental social institution in all of society,” said Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien, Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
But, as other recent events like the battle over contraception and “religious freedom” has shown, there seems to be a rather large disconnect between the leadership and the laity over this issue.
At least one prominent Catholic was at the ceremony to support Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as he signed the bill into law. Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of the Catholic LGBT-supportive New Ways Ministry, was in the crowd.
“I was so proud that our Catholic governor relied on our faith’s tradition of equality and justice for all people, including lesbian and gay people,” Sister Jeannine said. “It was an honor to participate in this moment, and I’m glad I was there to show the strong support that Catholics have for marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples.”
Why the disconnect between the pew and the pulpit? Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, believes it’s because the bishops are “consulting their books, but not consulting human experience.”
“What’s happening among the laity is that they are looking at their own experiences as LGBT people or with LGBT people and finding that God is active in these lives and in these relationships. The more that Catholics have these experiences, the more they’re going to become accepting of lesbian and gay people,” DeBernardo told Religion Dispatches.
Instead of seeing their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters through the lens of their sexuality, DeBernardo said the laity get to see their real lives—and that makes all the difference.
“The lay people in the church see this as a social justice issue. They see this as an issue about human beings and about how our society protects or treats families. They’ve seen that discrimination exists if families headed by lesbian and gay couples are not treated the same as other families,” said DeBernardo.
The bishops, however, intend to be out front when the marriage issue comes up for a referendum vote this fall. Polls show Marylanders are about evenly split on the issue and DeBernardo feels the key will be getting supporters to the polls. The opposition, he said, already has a strong communication system and marriage equality supporters are at a disadvantage.
“The supporters of marriage equality must build a good communications infrastructure to motivate people to get out the vote. The numbers are on our side, but who’s going to show up at the polls?” he asked.
Ultimately DeBernardo is hopeful because he has already seen hearts and minds changed within Maryland. When he appeared before Maryland lawmakers, he told them a story about a parish in the state that wanted to be welcoming to gays and lesbians. He advised them to study the issue. One man in the parish was against becoming a welcoming church, but agreed to do the study. When DeBernardo checked back a few months later, the man had experienced a change of heart.
“He told me, ‘I thought we were doing this to help other people, but now I see we had to do this to help ourselves become free of prejudice.’ I asked that the delegates support the bill not just for gays and lesbians but to help all Marylanders appreciate the dignity of all human beings,” DeBernardo said.