Some Thoughts on Religion and Same-Sex Marriage: It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

I was raised Catholic — very, very, VERY Catholic. I had sixteen years of Catholic/Jesuit education. And while I’m very critical of the Catholic Church, I think my opinions are based on a pretty accurate view of that church.

Lately, my opinion is that it’s really sad that the Catholic Church, like almost all major religions, has chosen to fight on the wrong side of one of the great moral issues of our time: LGBT issues, specifically same-sex marriage.

There will be long-term consequences for this. They have greatly — and I mean GREATLY — impacted their moral credibility. If you’re this wrong on an issue this big, people will naturally ask, “Why should I listen to you on any other issue?”

And weirdly, very few of these religions seem to realize this.

Here’s a thought experiment. Let’s say there was a group of heterosexuals who was born with a certain disability (for lack of a better word). Let’s say they have electrical outlets instead of genitals (“male” prongs and “female” outlets). They’re drawn to mate with each other, and they’re infertile, but in every other respect, they’re just like everyone else.

The question would be: how does society treat the Outlet People? Does it allow them to fall in love and marry each other? Or does it revile and oppress them, telling them that their love is evil and forbidden and must be suppressed?

In the abstract, I think most people, even most religious people, would say: “Of course they should be allowed to be together!”

(The reality, of course, is that these folks would likely be reviled minorities just like LGBT people have traditionally been, and would have to fight like hell for their rights and their basic dignity. And, of course, I hate the element of pity embedded in this thought experiment, and the reduction of anyone to their genitals and sex acts. But let’s leave all that aside for a moment.)

The abstract “facts” of the Outlet People make the moral conclusion seem pretty clear: basic human decency requires compassion. We err on the side of love, dignity, freedom, and self-determination, especially in this modern era.

“But that’s totally different from gay people!” religious people might answer. But how? The more we learn about sexuality, the more we come to realize that sexuality is innate. (One question most religious people have never been able to satisfactorily answer about gay people is: well, how are we supposed to live? It’s ridiculous and cruel to say to a gay person, “Just spend your whole life celibate¬† and alone, and always feel really bad about who you are.”)

And I’m sure some religious people would say that the gay issue is different from the Outlet People because homosexuality is inexorably linked with promiscuity, violating gender norms, atheism, and pedophilia.

But the pedophilia issue is just misinformation, and those other things are simply part of the complicated stew of humanity. When a minority is openly oppressed and reviled for generations, it always develops self-protective behaviors — some of which are healthy, some of which are not, but all of which should be understandable.

The LGBT issue really is just as simple as the Outlet People issue.

But most major religions got the LGBT issue completely wrong, just like many religions — but definitely not all — got the racial issue wrong.

And this is a really bad thing for them, and maybe for the world. I’ve seen first-hand the good that religion can do, the stability it can provide.

On the other hand, maybe religion is simply incapable of change. Maybe this proves once and for all that its major strength — preserving tradition in the face of change — is simply overwhelmed by its weakness — its inability to change in the light of new facts and information.

In other words, their getting this “easy” issue so very, very wrong is going to cause a lot of people ask whether traditional, institutional religion simply isn’t suited to modern times. In any event, religion is going to become even more irrelevant than it already is.

It didn’t have to be this way. Or maybe it did (because of the nature of religion itself).

But no matter what you think about that, I don’t think major religions have any idea the price they have yet to pay for being so very wrong.

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20 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Religion and Same-Sex Marriage: It Didn’t Have to Be This Way”

  1. Debby Garfinkle 27 June 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    Interesting. I believe religious people SHOULD be the most loving and nondiscriminatory people in the world, but of course it hasn't worked out that way. My religion, Reform Judaism, does believe in equal rights for all. Just ask our former rabbi, a lesbian.

  2. Liz L. 27 June 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    I wouldn't say that all religions are incapable of change, but I wholeheartedly believe that the Catholic Church is incapable for change. In fact, it seems determined to let itself die out rather than evolve. Having also been raised catholic, it was hard to miss the fact that while the Church acknowledged other faiths, it clearly felt it was the only true faith. It has created its own moral high ground and refuse step down from it.

    As for the question of how the gay and lesbians are supposed to live, I believe the answer is to be straight. My impression is that being straight is the default and if you are attracted to those of the same sex, it's simply a challenge from God that you must overcome. Of course I've never heard an explanation for why 10% of the population is selected for this special challenge. It hardly seems fair. And my other, bigger question is why God would create people who are "wrong." Doesn't he love us as we are?

    As expected, the SCOTUS decisions from yesterday brought out the usual crew of nasties, decrying that marriage equality means the end of morality, and pray for the children. But really, if any of these religious "leaders" actually cared for humanity as much as they claim, they'd put their time, money and efforts into helping the poor, the uneducated, and the sick. These bigoted hypocrites are the true blight on humanity.

    • Nick Almand 28 June 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      On your comment about how gays and lesbians are supposed to live:

      The way I conceptualized it as I started to drift away from Catholicism was that either God created imperfect beings on purpose, then blamed and eternally punished them for the imperfections He Himself created (asshole), OR he was incapable of creating perfect beings, is therefore not omnipotent, and therefore not God (you know, the omnipotent being that needs REST after only 6 days of work and demands constant praise or his self-esteem will run low or something).

      I don't get it theologically, which is probably why I'm not Catholic anymore.

      • bhartinger 28 June 2013 at 6:13 pm #


        But honestly, I think a lot of these people are simply incapable of empathy. They don't realize the logical implications of what they're saying, either on God or on LGBT folks.

        • Nick Almand 28 June 2013 at 7:58 pm #

          Oh, there's a LOT of that all over. Religious people who are more concerned with pleasing Extra-Big-Santa than loving their own children are sociopaths as far as I'm concerned.

    • bhartinger 28 June 2013 at 6:15 pm #

      Well said.

  3. Liz L. 27 June 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    I wouldn't say that all religions are incapable of change, but I wholeheartedly believe that the Catholic Church is incapable for change. In fact, it seems determined to let itself die out rather than evolve. Having also been raised catholic, it was hard to miss the fact that while the Church acknowledged other faiths, it clearly felt it was the only true faith. It has created its own moral high ground and refuse step down from it.

  4. Nick Almand 28 June 2013 at 3:17 pm #

    I personally think it might not have been this way if most religions were capable of self-editing, but it's in their nature to be the opposite (the only exceptions I can think of within specific denominations are Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism).

    Aaaaand I think the Catholic Church's systematic covering up of child rape is a LITTLE more of a problem than their stance on marriage equality.

    Just a LITTLE.

  5. Mike b. 28 June 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Brent you picked a big one. I was raised Catholic also with the obligatory church every Sunday but not a Catholic school education. It's just not going to change, period. That's the nature of the beast.

    • bhartinger 28 June 2013 at 6:14 pm #

      I don't think they're capable of change either. At this point, it's really too late — like the Mormon Church accepting black folks in 1978. The damage is done.

  6. Bo Attwood 29 June 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    I'd like to take this discussion in a slightly different direction. You bring up the debate with the religious community about whether being gay is a choice or an innate characteristic. But why should that matter? Don't we ultimately "choose" our religion? Isn't this "choice" of religion firmly embedded in our constitution as a right for all citizens? So why has our "choice" of who we love become such an issue in this country?

    • bhartinger 4 July 2013 at 8:58 pm #

      It's a good point. That said, I do think people respond more favorably when it's pointed out — accurately — that one doesn't choose one's sexuality, whether it's gay, straight, bi, etc. From a legal stand-point, it puts us on firmer group. Religion is obviously a choice, but religious freedom was one of the central principles our country was founded on: it's specifically spelled out in our Constitution. Sexuality, not so much.

      Morally and philosophically, I totally agree with you. But to win LEGAL rights, you need to use legal arguments.

      But I still think you're right to remind people that this is basically about liberty and freedom and self-determination! (That's part of our constitution too, even if people never think of sexuality that way)

  7. Giselle 30 June 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    I find the support for marriage equality very interesting: it is not just the majority of catholics but higher numbers than of other faiths. That's kind of wow, isn't it?
    That makes me think of most catholics rejecting the church's stance on birth control. But this issue doesn't come up much because catholics quietly make their own decisions and the church doesn't get much pushback. I don't know about numbers re abortion, but again this is something that people make up their own minds, and again this is an issue that doesn't come up: people keep it to themselves.
    The child abuse stance by the catholic church is shameful. A great many voices are speaking out, but again it doesn't change anything about the stance by those in power who seem to think of this as a 'just some bad apples and people forget' kind of problem. Perhaps they think that communities see this as something that happened in the past outside their own community and will never touch them. Again a sign of failure by the church towards its members.
    But the church's disgraceful stance on gay people is where they truly and spectacularly fail: no-one can sweep a whole group of people under the carpet, no-one can keep saying: 'no, they don't get equal rights because we disapprove' and still receive long-term support.
    The church most definitely cannot presume a 'a few bad apples' approach because everyone, us straight folk included, find that incredibly offensive: we know and we love people who happen not to be straight but LGBT. People who are LGBT are our friends, our family, our colleagues, our flatmates, our neighbours, people we encounter everywhere we go. It is not acceptable to try to demonise, stigmatise and disenfrenchise people we love. We won't stand for it. And increasingly there are more and more straight allies, and even more straight people who might not be very engaged but just don't understand the fuss. This development only goes one way. People may become more conservative as they age, but you don't lose empathy, compassion and understanding once you attain it. You can't un-know knowledge of facts.
    The catholic church can't see that them trying to treat gay people as 'other', as outside of the community is an approach that leaves their credibility in tatters. Throwing stones has never struck me as very christian.
    I cannot even begin to express how outraged I feel at the catholic church withdrawing funding from organisations that support LGBT groups or individuals. That's an outright abuse of power. Shameful.
    The problem of the catholic church is that it's become an fossilised institution: it is propped up by those in power who feel entitled to remain in power. The church has divorced itself from its function: faith.
    When an organisation calcifies it is no longer flexible but can only wither and die. Unless something happens that changes the whole power structure the catholic church won't survive. I can't see how a change like that could come about: not even a nun for pope could provide enough impetus for a whole system to be changed, power to be withdrawn from those who have a very strong grip on their privilege.
    The anti-gay position might be about scapegoating 'others' in order to distract from the church's failings.
    The child abuse scandal exposed a very black mark at the core of the church, its anti-gay stance shows up crumbling foundations: the church no longer supports catholics but only its functionaries.
    (Sorry to go on so long)

    • bhartinger 4 July 2013 at 9:07 pm #

      I was raised Catholic, so I know that it's a whole "culture" as well as a religion. But having long left the church, I do get frustrated that most Catholics don't understand that, as lay people, they have NO power in the church. It is a monarchy/hierarchy. As a result, it never has to change. This is no instrument for change at all.

      The ONLY way people can influence their leaders is (1) to leave (2) openly defy them and support others who are openly deny them. My dad, who remains a Catholic, refuses to give money to any Catholic organization led by men. Meanwhile, he gives lots of money to the organizations led by women, most of whom are openly speaking out against the right-wing insanity of the male hierarchy.

      My dad is spot-on: this is how change will happen. The ONLY way it will happen, IMHO.

  8. Mike b. 1 July 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    Unlike the republican party who deliberately choose to be wrongheaded. I guess that is another topic for another day.

    • bhartinger 4 July 2013 at 9:04 pm #

      Ouch! But true. Either they're openly bigoted, or they openly pander and support bigots, never criticizing them.

      Even Rob Portman, the senator who recently came out as marriage-supportive because of his gay son, has refused to lend his name or support to the marriage cause in his own state. His "support" is both meaningless and worthless.

  9. bjkatcher 9 July 2013 at 1:55 am #

    In thirty years, they're going to look like the people who opposed civil rights on religious grounds. We're on the right side of history.

    • Brenthartinger 11 July 2013 at 2:54 am #


  10. Gwen 14 July 2013 at 11:48 pm #

    Speaking as a practicing Catholic, we shouldn't be judging anybody after that the sex-abuse scandal. That was (and is) incredibly painful, and to attack and condemn the LGBT community would be hypocrisy. Besides, if Jesus has a problem with anyone then He will take care of it.

    But the Catholic Church isn't unanimous in its condemnation. The Vatican created a lot of ill-feeling when it went after American nuns because they spent too much feeding the hungry, teaching kids, and doing whatever it is nuns do, instead of protesting abortions, the LGBT community, and condoms. That really didn't go over well.

    And Pope Francis is a little more open to having a discussion on this (and other issues) than his predecessor. He's got his thoughts on the matter, but he's willing to listen to others. That's not saying much and I kinda feel like we're only just now entering the twentieth century, but it is a step in the right direction.

    • bhartinger 15 July 2013 at 6:30 am #

      I appreciate your optimism, Gwen. :-)

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