Who Are Michigan Catholic Bishops to Judge?

In 2004, Michigan voters wrote inequality into the state constitution when they approved the Michigan Marriage Amendment, which prohibited same-sex couples from the rights and benefits of legal marriage in the state. Friday, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman overturned the law, effectively adding Michigan to the eighteen states with full marriage equality. “In attempting to define this case as a challenge to ‘the will of the people,’ state defendants lost sight of what this case is truly about: people,” Friedman concluded in his thirty-page ruling.

In response, seven Roman Catholic bishops in the state issued a statement condemning Friedman’s “most regrettable ruling” on the usual grounds: marriage is “naturally” between one man and one woman; and children with same-gender or single parents in the home are raised “amid challenges and difficulties” that somehow never confront those with two, opposite-sex parents. (Because we all know how families with two mixed-gender parents never experience poverty, illness, violence, or other difficulties. Naturally.)

The bishops do go a little Pope Francis in the letter, insisting that, “it is necessary to state clearly that persons with same-sex attraction should not be judged, but rather accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” Well, sure “it’s necessary” to state this when you’ve just judged and disrespected the relationships and families of lesbians and gays in Michigan. But it’s even more necessary to act as though you actually believed that.

The good news for practicing non-judgy marriage equality supporters is that Catholics across the country have apparently paid closer attention to spirit of the Holy Father’s words than have church leaders. Polling released by the Pew Research Center last week showed a dramatic increase in Catholic support for marriage equality in the United States, with a jump from 34% in 2004, when the Michigan amendment was approved, to 59% today. For pity’s sake, even most young Republicans now favor marriage equality. 

As Mary E. Hunt has made clear, Pope Francis’s more compassionate words about gay priests hardly translate into more enlightened Roman Catholic teaching with regard to LGBT equality. But they do tend to move the needle out of a groove of judgment and combativeness that has proved divisive within Christian communities and has undermined perceptions of Christian moral integrity and authority in the wider culture.

In a state with the third highest unemployment rate in the country, and where one in four children lives in poverty, it seems startling—some might say, “un-Christ-like”—that the Michigan bishops would continue to put at the top of their pastoral and political priority list issues like marriage equality, “religious freedom,” and abortion that have nothing to do with the core of teachings of Jesus about feeding the poor, tending the sick, and like that.

Indeed, in their 2014 advocacy priorities, even education is not primarily about improving access to learning for children, but rather focuses on shifting limited public funding to private schools. Advocacy for children and families centers on “upholding the constitutional definition of marriage” rather than pressing for any manner of practical support that might address the real, day-to-day effects of economic instability among far too many families in the state.

In this light, one wonders how Roman Catholic and no few other religious leaders can continue to squander spiritual, intellectual, and material resources on matters that in no way touch the lives of the 13,185 people experiencing homelessness in Michigan today.

So, while I’m certainly happy every time the United States moves forward as a nation where there is truly “justice for all,” as a more or less practicing Christian, I find relatively little satisfaction in calling out the increasingly obvious thinness of the Michigan bishops’ complaint against Judge Friedman’s ruling. Rather, I am deeply saddened by the degree to which their statement continues to undermine the moral authority of a tradition that, warts and all, at least has had a claim to meaningful engagement with those things that really do impact human dignity and thriving.

But perhaps Pope Francis himself put it best:

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.

Judge Bernard Friedman tripped yet another lock on small-minded rules this week in Michigan. Here’s hoping that Michigan’s Roman Catholic bishops and other religious leaders will use this moment as an opportunity to move on to bigger-hearted things.